The Kremlin has weaponised doubt in Syria – and Labour is helping

Labour is parroting Putin and Assad’s propaganda over war crimes in Syria.

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This week the United Nations’ human rights investigators confirmed what Syrian activists have known for months, forces loyal to the Assad regime fired chlorine on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta and on Idlib province this year, in attacks that constitute war crimes.

The largest attack in Douma earlier this year killed at least 48 civilians and is still being investigated by the UN’s independent chemical weapons monitor, the OPCW. In yesterday’s report, the UN corroborated the view that a regime helicopter was responsible for the attack, saying: "A vast body of evidence... suggests that... a gas cylinder containing a chlorine payload delivered by helicopter struck a... residential apartment building."

It triggered a punitive military response from Britain, France and the United States, but the damage was already done; shortly after the attack, the population of Douma was forcibly displaced to Idlib.

The Assad regime has been using chemical weapons to target Syrian civilians for years, finding it an effective way to demoralise Syrians living in rebel-held towns in order to speed up the forced displacement from those areas. While UN investigators have attributed at least 33 gas attacks to Assad since 2013, including the Sarin attack in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, the Assad regime and the Russian government have denied every single one, each time responding by blaming the victims, either for gassing themselves or for fabricating the attacks entirely in “false flag” attacks. There is no doubt that certain rebel groups have been guilty of war crimes, but to date, the UN OPCW has found no evidence that any rebel group has ever used or even had access to chemical nerve agents. 

Again and again, the Assad regime’s helicopters have bombed a rebel-held region until civilians there are dead or forced to flee to the shrinking territory outside regime control, while its propaganda machine has simultaneously sought command of the airwaves. As the eyes of the world turn towards the potential humanitarian catastrophe of an Assad regime offensive targeting the more than three million civilians living in Idlib, the international community has been justifiably warning of the regime committing yet another major chemical weapons atrocity. So it is no surprise that the Russian state disinformation machine is working overtime to create the pretexts for a new chemical weapons attack in Syria. For weeks now, social media accounts belonging to Russian embassies around the world have been disseminating increasingly hysterical lies about Syrians, baselessly claiming that humanitarian NGOs are working in partnership with the Western media to film faked chemical weapons attacks.

#HappeningNow: Russia's @mod_russia warns that filming of staged #chemicalattack in #Idlib's Jisr ash-Shugur is underway by #WhiteHelmets activists, crews from several Middle East TV channels and a regional branch of a leading US news TV channel https://t.co/GcqALuyjkU pic.twitter.com/waeIOEBqfA

— Russia in Canada (@RussianEmbassyC) September 11, 2018

While these claims are laughable, they are also dangerous and indicative of the murderous intention of the Russian government and the Assad regime. The UN has conclusively proved Assad has used chemical weapons time and time again. These ridiculous claims can only be taken seriously as a statement of intent by the Russian government on behalf of the Assad regime to commit new war crimes in Idlib.

In parliament on Monday, things took an even more insidious turn. An urgent question about Idlib was followed by many impassioned pleas from across the party political spectrum warning of an impending humanitarian catastrophe in northern Syria. Yet shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry instead decided she would take her comments straight out of the Russian propaganda book.

Thornberry made no mention of the regime’s hospital bombings, and only briefly alluded to the threat of “bloodshed”, rather than spell out the imminent threat to life for over three million civilians living in Idlib. Her main concern was the government’s future response to the Assad regime’s chemical attacks. As she put it:

“If there are any reports of chemical weapons attacks, particularly in the areas of Idlib controlled by HTS [an extremist group resisted by many locals], [we want assurances] that the government will not take part in any military action in response, until the OPCW have visited those sites, under the protection of the Turkish government, independently verifying those reports, and attributed responsibility for any chemical weapons used.” 

The OPCW, which has already found the Assad regime directly responsible for using nerve agents against civilians, still has not concluded its assessment from the last chlorine gas attack on Douma. Aside from the fact that the OPCW’s investigative mandate is routinely vetoed by the Russian government at the UN Security Council, Thornberry is assisting the Putin and Assad narrative by assuring that accountability for their war crimes is always pushed towards a rapidly rising threshold of evidence that would never be asked of any other regime committing any other atrocity, especially not one with a proven history of violent chemical attacks.

Thornberry then took her next line almost directly from the Russian ministry of defence, launching an outrageous and completely bogus attack on the open source investigators that have been exposing the Kremlin’s crimes for years.

“Relying on so-called open-source intelligence provided by proscribed terrorist groups is not an acceptable alternative,” she said. In one sweeping statement, she ignored the constant stream of information provided by Syrian journalists, human rights activists and humanitarian organisations about the atrocities. Such a statement can only be seen as an attempt to discredit the evidence gathered of past war crimes by the Assad regime, evidence that has been used by the OPCW itself. Thornberry’s office did not respond to a request to comment on her statement and it implications. 

Thornberry’s wider point was also disingenuous. If the British government relied on the OPCW to set foreign policy, we would still be waiting for the last investigation to conclude, months after the Assad regime succeeded in its crime against humanity by forcibly displacing the population of Douma. Even as the UN report yesterday left us with yet more damning evidence of the regime's culpability, we are still awaiting answers from the OPCW, a full five months after Douma was levelled to the ground. Syrian activists responded with predictable fury to the shadow foreign secretary's statement.

Regime atrocities have been documented by Syrian rescue workers, medics, human rights activists, and journalists. Today Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary @EmilyThornberry smeared them all as terrorists: “so-called open source intelligence provided by proscribed terrorist groups” pic.twitter.com/mOcSjEtlaO

— Protect Civilians SyriaUK (@SyriaUK) September 10, 2018

Eliot Higgins is the founder of the open-source investigation group Bellingcat, which recently worked with the New York Times to forensically expose Assad’s culpability for the Douma chlorine attack. He was equally as scathing, telling the New Statesman that “in the fraction of chemical weapon attacks that the OPCW-UN Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) have assigned blame for, the final conclusions of the JIM have been consistent with open source material”. In other words, open-source reports are generally upheld. 

“The vast majority of material comes from organisations such as The White Helmets, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), Hala Systems, and various human rights NGOs operating both with in Syria and globally” Higgins continued. “No one has ever relied on ‘so-called open source intelligence provided by proscribed terrorist groups’, and it totally misrepresents the situation to claim terrorist groups are providing anything more than a small fraction of information on chemical weapon attacks in Syria.

“If Emily Thornberry wishes to allege any of the organisations described above are allied with terrorist groups in Syria I would hope she would at least provide some evidence.”

Thornberry’s statement is a triumph of Putin and Assad’s propaganda campaign in Syria. The predictable defence will again be that the Labour front bench are “just asking for evidence”. But the dog-whistle accusation that the inhumane and terrifying attacks documented by brave humanitarian first responders on the ground in Syria, many funded directly by the British government and British charities, are the work of members of “proscribed terrorist organisations” was heard loud and clearly by the Kremlin.

Shortly after Thornberry’s statement, the pro-Assad Russia Today capitalised on Thornberry’s endorsement of its narrative, taking it a step further by directly linking it to the Russian defence ministry’s “false flag” propaganda campaign. “The Russian government claims that chlorine gas canisters have already been put in place in Idlib for use in the attack,” the article on Thornberry concluded. 

The message this falsification and distortion of the truth sends to the electorate is very clear, as was the message sent by Chris Williamson’s shameful endorsement of a pro-Assad activist that described the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox as an “al-Qaeda supporter” for defending the White Helmets. Indeed, if more proof was required, the same pro-Assad chorus that slandered Jo Cox were jubilantly sharing Thornberry’s statement. Undermining the credibility of open-source journalism and slandering Syrians on the ground as terrorists has long been the primary Kremlin tactic in the information war.

Thornberry’s statement sends the message that our eyes and our ears are not to be trusted. That witnesses are not to be trusted. Putin’s propaganda has succeeded beyond expectations, to the extent that the shadow foreign secretary is putting out an official statement stating that the NGOs, medics, journalists, and human rights activists responsible for documenting the vast majority of open-source evidence are terrorists and are not to be trusted. And while it is true that Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate HTS is responsible for heinous war crimes, there is no evidence that they have access to chemical weapons. The accusation that they are responsible for the video footage of these atrocities is part of a state-financed campaign to discredit humanitarian NGOs on the ground.

The Kremlin has weaponised doubt, and by doing so it dehumanises the victims by treating them with contempt and suspicion, and it leads to the paralyses of any political, diplomatic or military response to the crisis.

Labour’s foreign policy has a deep and troubling Russian propaganda problem. The issue has gone far beyond Labour supporters merely sharing Kremlin propaganda surrounding Assad’s chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Senior Labour politicians are now using these talking points to inform foreign policy. Policy that could easily give the Assad regime a green light to use chemical weapons to slaughter of thousands of Syrian civilians in Idlib, while the international community is paralysed by bitter arguments over the veracity of the Kremlin’s disinformation.

In this world of Brexit, Trump and the normalisation of chemical weapons use, Labour needs to admit it has a Russian propaganda problem. Those who have contributed to discrediting the victims of these crimes need to acknowledge the responsibility they have had in assisting the disinformation campaigns of the criminal regimes behind these atrocities. 

Oz Katerji is a writer, filmmaker and journalist with a focus on the Middle East, and former Lesvos coordinator for British charity Help Refugees.​