STATE PROPAGANDA IN SYRIA: FROM WAR CRIMES TO PIPELINES [ISCI Report]
An INSURGE intelligence investigation by Nafeez Ahmed
Published with the support of Forum for Change by International State Crime Initiative
This report investigates key conflict narratives around Syria based on an applied intelligence process developed by INSURGE intelligence. This approach is premised on examining multiple contradictory perspectives together using an interdisciplinary methodology across a range of subject-matter ‘beats’ or ‘specialisms’, with a view to determine the coherence or incoherence of narratives. The objective of the report is not to critique all media reporting in general on Syria, but specifically to interrogate the validity or invalidity of polarised narratives around key incidents and events, to determine the state of the available evidence, and on that basis to attempt to ascertain what can be reasonably determined as factual about those incidents and events. In this context, specific pro-rebel and anti-rebel narratives around these particular incidents and events are investigated.
Responses to Douma attack
The US, British and French decision to launch limited airstrikes in response to reports of a Syrian chemical weapons attack in Douma appears to have been made in haste, and without a full and independent assessment of the facts. The attacks were launched before the OPCW was able to carry out its inspection of the site, and on the basis of their own intelligence assessments whose veracity cannot be publicly verified. Public record sources suggest that while Western intelligence agencies were convinced that the evidence pointed to the complicity of Syrian military forces, complete confidence in this conclusion was not available. The apparent politicisation of the response is particularly evident from the fact that strikes were launched against the Syrian government’s Barzah facility, described by the alliance as harbouring an active chemical weapons programme despite the fact that OPCW inspectors had visited the facility just months ago and determined that there was no evidence of the facility being used for such purposes. To date, no specific evidence to justify these descriptions of the Barzah facility have been published by any of these governments.
The Syrian and Russian governments had simultaneously moved to secure the sites of the alleged Douma chemical weapons attack. Despite having requested OPCW inspectors to visit the sites, these governments repeatedly blocked OPCW inspectors from visiting the sites on the basis of security reasons. The plausibility of security being a real concern is in question given that Syrian and Russian military forces had control of the site, and no further information has been forthcoming as to what the cause of these alleged security concerns was, and what was done to resolve them. By the time OPCW inspectors were permitted to visit the Douma sites, Western governments raised concerns that Syrian and Russian forces would have had the opportunity to tamper with evidence at the sites.
Contradictory narratives around the Douma attack
This report critically assesses all the major reporting narratives around the Douma attack, including Western accounts implying the plausibility of a chemical weapons attack perpetrated by the Syrian military, as well as alternative accounts (and Syrian and Russian accounts) denying the same.
We find that these narratives essentially trace back to different eyewitness sources who have provided conflicting claims to different media sources about what happened in Douma. Close examination of all these accounts, however, unearths significant discrepancies in accounts denying Syrian military culpability. In fact, those narratives come in mutually exclusive form – some saying that there was no chemical weapons attack at all; and others saying that a chemical weapons attack did happen but was staged by the rebels.
In particular, we inspect the accounts of eyewitnesses put forward by the Russian government, including medical doctors and the well-known account of Hassan Diab and his father. Independent journalists that have taken these accounts at face value have failed to acknowledge compelling evidence of Syrian and Russian state coercion on the ground in Douma through the activities of the Russian ‘Center for Reconciliation’, which despite its name is a Russian military police agency operating as part of the Russian Ministry of Defence, which among other things vets the political affiliations of Syrian communities before authorising airstrikes. The compelling evidence of this coercion, which derives from Russian sources, throws into doubt the legitimacy of the witness accounts put forward by Russia and the complete unaccountability in the methods potentially used to obtain them.
The White Helmets
Conflicting narratives of the Douma attack, along with previous chemical weapons incidents, have consistently revolved around the role of the White Helmets in Syria. However, the role of the White Helmets in Douma has been widely misunderstood partly as a result of false claims made by various Russian state-backed media outlets such as RT, and others, to the effect that the initial videos and images of the Douma incident were filmed and propagated by the White Helmets. This is incorrect. The White Helmets were not responsible for those videos, and they arrived at the scene of the attacks hours later.
This investigation does find that the conventional narrative that the White Helmets are a completely neutral force in Syria is questionable. It is a matter of record that the group does receive prominent funding from the US and British governments; that the group is broadly supportive of the Syrian opposition and opposed to Assad; and that its leadership are supportive of a ‘no fly zone’ over Syria (which could entail limited military involvement in danger of escalation). The White Helmets have also been found to have engaged in activities for which they lack training, leading to some cases of severe incompetence in responding to complex emergencies such as building collapses and chemical weapons attacks.
However, alternative narratives claiming that the White Helmets are therefore little more than a Western propaganda construct fronting for terrorist groups and, at worst, actively engaged in the ‘staging’ of chemical weapons incidents, air strikes and other military violence, cannot be substantiated. Even critical observers concede that the White Helmets have saved tens of thousands of lives from Syrian military violence and airstrikes. While there is evidence that some White Helmets members have been found to be complicit in violence and involved with Islamist terrorist groups, these members have consistently been expelled from the group when such information comes to light. The coordination between White Helmets volunteers and armed rebel groups is not unexpected given that armed groups are ubiquitous in the areas under their control, and does not amount to evidence that the White Helmets are a mere extension of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS). An interview with independent boots on the ground reporter Patrick Hilsman, who has visited Syria eight times and witnessed the White Helmets firsthand,
confirms that they are a genuine civilian volunteer group.
Alternative narratives which describe the White Helmets as Islamist terrorists controlled by Western intelligence largely trace back to two journalists who admit to being partisan in their support for both the Syrian and Russian governments, Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, who often work together. Apart from openly admitting that they support Bashar al-Assad and his military actions in Syria, a stance which in itself undermines their claims to be undertaking serious journalism (in much the same way that the impartiality of Western reporters who rely uncritically on rebel sources can be questioned), compelling evidence shows that when they report from Syria they do so in a context that is entirely embedded in Syrian government and military forces. A leaked private conversation between Beeley and a fellow activist illustrates that she is willing to actively conceal and deny Syrian government war crimes including torture in order to support a Syrian military victory.
A close examination of several major examples of both Beeley’s and Bartlett’s Syria reporting reveals fundamental inconsistencies and falsehoods in their claims. We focus on their reports on the White Helmets, their denial of the bombing of the al-Quds hospital, and their denial of Syrian military violence in Aleppo more broadly. Further, neither of them have ever interviewed the White Helmets themselves or investigated them on the ground, preferring to simply cite pro-Assad sources to portray them as terrorists. Beeley in particular has gone a step further in justifying Syrian and Russian state extrajudicial assassinations of White Helmets members, describing them as “legitimate targets” unworthy of any due process because they are “terrorists,” which in short amounts to justifying war crimes. Bartlett has never disassociated herself from such statements by Beeley, despite continuing to work with her.
The White Helmets and ‘chain of custody’
A frequent claim promulgated by a number of independent journalists, commentators and experts is that the White Helmets were the sole source of sarin samples obtained by the OPCW in relation to the Khan Shaykhoun attack of April 2017. The claim is that the OPCW violated its ‘chain of custody’ procedures, and that this potentially provided the rebels, through the White Helmets, the opportunity to manipulate samples provided to the OPCW. It is presumed then that those samples can therefore not be trusted or taken seriously, and neither can the conclusion
that sarin was actually confirmed to have been used.
These claims are based on selective misrepresentation and obfuscation of the OPCW’s reports on this matter. While the reports do acknowledge that for the most part the White Helmets played a major role in obtaining and supplying samples, the OPCW reports also point out that another source of the sarin samples from Khan Shaykhoun was the Syrian government itself. The reports also state that in some cases “full chain of custody” was secured by the OPCW in obtaining biomedical samples from a few bodies of victims of the attack a day after the incident.
The insistence therefore that the OPCW’s conclusion regarding the determination of sarin being used in the attack is simply false, is without foundation.
Western state and media propaganda in Syria
Compelling evidence shows that the British government’s Conflict Stability and Security Fund, which funds the White Helmets, has also provided millions of dollars in funding to opposition and rebel groups to produce audiovisual propaganda materials in support of military actions against both Assad and ISIS. These materials have no markers of British government involvement, but carry the logos of various rebel groups. This sort of covert propaganda activity demonstrates how blurred the lines might be between some British state narratives and rebel narratives, and makes it difficult for observers, including journalists, to distinguish between them.
Due to the arc of the conflict, Western journalists for the most part rely largely on sources in rebel and opposition held territory in a way which has systematically weakened the capacity of news and media organisations to critically scrutinise reports coming from these areas.
The dangers of this are exemplified in evidence that some Islamist militant rebel groups have been identified in UK government contractor documents relating to the CSSF funding programme, groups which have been found to have been complicit in war crimes and to have gone on to support more militant activity.
This suggests that the West’s role in the conflict has often ended up supporting Islamist militant groups. To some extent, this has been acknowledged in internal documents. A Pentagon memorandum and a confidential communication from the leaked Hilary Clinton emails illustrate that Western intelligence agencies are aware that the bulk of support to armed rebel groups from the Gulf states and Turkey has gone to support Islamist militant groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The nature of this support, however, undermined the Free Syrian Army specifically, and the moderate and secular forces among the Syrian opposition more generally. Notwithstanding significant problems and limitations, these were the forces with the greatest democratic potential in Syria, and yet they were essentially marginalised by the focus of the West’s covert intervention.
Seymour Hersh’s reporting on the Ghouta and Khan Shaykhoun attacks A series of articles by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh is examined with respect to the plausibility of evidence that chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta in 2013 and in Khan Shaykhoun in 2017 were not perpetrated by the Syrian military.
Unmistakable and specific narrative parallels are traced between Hersh’s reporting on both these cases, and memoranda published by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a group of former US military and intelligence officials, as well as separate articles and statements published by VIPS members. Through interviews and analysis, VIPS’ narratives are dissected and traced back to a number of public record sources which rely uncritically on claims that, in turn, originate from Russian intelligence sources. One of the sources relied on by VIPS is F. Michael Maloof, a former Bush administration official involved in fabricating intelligence of WMD who is now a regular RT pundit, who also has ties to the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Hersh’s reporting is closely interrogated as to whether its detailed claims stack up against contemporaneous and relevant facts that ought to corroborate his claims, in particular the case of 11 al-Nusra suspects who had been arrested in Turkey and charged with attempting to obtain precursor chemicals to manufacture sarin. Hersh essentially claimed that the US Defense Intelligence Agency had acquired intelligence on this matter leading the government to conclude that al-Nusra rebels in Syria had an active sarin capability. However, a copy of the Turkish prosecution documents seen in the course of this investigation completely disproves Hersh’s reporting.
In preparing his Khan Shaykhoun story, Hersh was guided by former UN weapons inspector and VIPS member Scott Ritter. Hersh’s narrative, which he attributes to an anonymous highlevel former CIA and DIA official, echoes in detail claims first made by VIPS co-founder Philip Giraldi, a former CIA and DIA official, in an interview on the Scott Horton radio show. While Ritter could not be reached for comment, Giraldi refused to respond to multiple queries about this. Subsequently, the online links to that interview were inexplicably deleted. The VIPS-Hersh narrative, which claimed that the Khan Shaykhoun attack was essentially an accident due to a Syrian or Russian strike on a rebel compound which dispersed chemicals causing the deaths at Khan Shaykhoun, completely collapsed when it was rescinded by the Syrian and Russsian governments (due to evidence confirmed by international investigators). In email interviews with Hersh, he confirmed that his story was sourced to Russian intelligence which claimed to have infiltrated the Syrian opposition, and shared its alleged intelligence with the US military. The actions of the Syrian and Russian governments in moving away from this narrative demonstrated that it was little more than disinformation.
The collapse of Hersh’s Syria reporting illustrates the lack of coherent evidence that any Syrian rebel groups have ever acquired the capability to use sarin. Official narratives of these chemical weapons attacks are not without problems and irregularities, but alternative narratives attributing chemical weapons attacks to the Syrian rebels are almost entirely incoherent and unsubstantiated.
Competing geopolitical interests Chemical weapons have nevertheless been instrumentalised by both the West and Russia as a way to legitimise their overt and covert military policies in Syria. Yet the historical record shows that neither the West nor Russia are operating as benevolent or neutral forces in the conflict, but on the contrary are pursuing their geopolitical interests at the expense of the interests of the Syrian people.
In the years prior to the 2011 uprising, a wide range of documentary evidence including public statements by US officials and leaked State Department cables prove that the West actively sought a greater alignment with Assad in Syria. Covert action at this time to “destabilise” Assad’s regime was explicitly aimed at inducing not regime change but “behaviour reform”. The West had two core interests: pulling Syria away from the geopolitical orbit of Iran and Russia; and pushing forward Syria’s potential as an energy transshipment route to supply regional oil and gas to Europe. In particular, State Department and European policy-planners were keen to see the materialisation of a pipeline that would enable Syria to transport oil from Iraq’s Akkas field through to Turkey and eventually to European markets, with the explicit goal of weaning Europe away from dependence on Russian oil and gas.
After the 2011 uprising, US officials – in particular Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – were so enamoured by Assad that they continued to describe him as a “reformer” while Syrian forces shot unarmed protestors in the streets. Eventually, the escalation of the violence, along with Assad’s shift toward Iranian and Russian political and military support, caused the West to disassociate from him.
It has been wrongly suspected that the Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline route subsequently agreed to in principle by Assad that year, as an alternative to the Western-backed route, has been supported by Russia. However, a study by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) – a Moscow based foreign affairs think-tank close to Putin which operates as a mouthpiece for the Russian foreign policy and corporate establishment – confirms that Russia has always seen Assad’s favoured Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline as a threat to Gazprom. The route is described as potentially undermining Russia’s oil and gas hegemony over Europe, thus confirming that among Russia’s motives for intervening in Syria is to suppress Assad’s energy transshipment ambitions. Syria’s pivotal role in relation to Mediterranean energy sources means that the orientation of its government will have a major impact on the future energy map of the Middle East.
Despite this, a US Marine Corps (USMC) draft strategy document from 2011 confirms that while the West was committed to supporting the Syrian opposition to counter Iranian expansion, a direct military intervention for regime change had been ruled out as potentially catastrophic. The document not only warned presciently that the enrollment of Gulf and Turkish allies in support for armed rebels would likely augment Islamist militants; it also demonstrated that US military strategists had little faith in an opposition victory; and believed that the most desirable outcome (with still potentially dangerous consequences) would be for the Alawite regime to remain in
power but remove Assad.
This document goes some way to explain why US-led coordination of aid to rebel groups dripfed support to the FSA while permitting the bulk of support to go Islamist groups. The overriding objective was to simply use these groups to undermine Assad’s capacity to cement a deeper and more permanent Iranian encroachment on Syria. The policy played a key role in neutralising the viability of the democratic aspirations behind the original Syrian uprising.
The USMC document has been corroborated by a 2016 Joint Special Operations University study which similarly notes that Western policymakers have preferred the Alawite-dominated power structure in Syria to remain intact. Once again largely dismissing the probability or viability of regime change, the study urged policymakers to accept that Assad will remain in power, while calling for recognition of the permanent dismemberment of Syria into territories dominated by different powers.
Lessons for critical journalism
This report vindicates the importance of critical and sceptical investigative journalism on conflicts such as Syria being carried out with integrity, due concern for facts, and self-reflective awareness of the risk of biased and embedded reporting. The dissection of certain alternative journalistic narratives does not imply that critical and sceptical reporting should stop, but that it should continue in a way that is as free from the undue influence of vested interests as possible. Vested interests include not just conflict actors such as the West and rebel groups, but also conflict actors such as the Syrian and Russian governments. The lack of discernment on all sides of how these interests can disfigure reporting on the conflict has meant that many of its core dynamics are misunderstood and consequently badly communicated in both traditional and alternative reporting and commentary.
Much critical and leftwing reporting on Syria has been badly distracted by narrative artifacts which provide a false and misleading picture of the Syrian conflict. Instead of disabling the operations of rapacious power, this has completely missed the self-serving reality of Western geopolitical strategy in Syria, while also giving succour to Russian and Syrian state-backed disinformation, fueling the violence of both.
Thus, of particular concern for those who recognise the importance of independent journalism is the fact that there are unmistakable connections between key alternative narrative-makers, and the Syrian and Russian states. This is despite the fact that the latter play a direct role in the conflict itself. These connections, and the litany of narrative incoherencies they are complicit in as exposed in this investigation, underscore the danger that without sufficient selfscrutiny, independent journalism ceases to be truly independent, and instead becomes coopted by specific geopolitical and imperial interests which simply happen to be opposed to Western policies. Adopting such a self-conscious and self-scrutinising approach does not weaken the power of critical investigative journalism, but can only enhance its capacity to shine a light on the operations of rapacious power, whatever geopolitical configuration it represents.
DOWNLOAD FULL REPORT HERE: Nafeez Ahmed – State Propaganda in Syria – ISCI Report July 2018