Journalists and area experts are calling into question widely-shared articles that cast doubt on reports of a chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma.
Many of the stories have been published by the Russian state-controlled propaganda network RT and conspiratorial sites such as ZeroHedge, regurgitating a report by storied war correspondent Robert Fisk writing for the Independent. The stories focus on a claim that first appeared in another Kremlin-controlled outlet, Sputnik, which featured two Syrian medical responders telling the Russian military that scores of people who convulsed and died on 7 April 2018 outside Damascus did so as a result of dust or smoke inhalation, not from a chemical attack, as is widely suspected.
At the center of criticism is an interview conducted by The Independent's Fisk, who traveled as part of a convoy of foreign journalists escorted into Douma by agents of the Assad government. The contents of the story and the quote he published have been widely repeated by both Russian propaganda outlets and Assad regime supporters. In the newly-conquered, government-held city, Fisk spoke on the record with a doctor who experts say likely gave -- in order to avoid arrest, torture, or death -- a regime-friendly account of events. The doctor's account rang eerily similar to comments made to Sputnik by the medical responders days earlier:
It was a short walk to Dr Rahaibani. From the door of his subterranean clinic – “Point 200,” it is called, in the weird geology of this partly-underground city – is a corridor leading downhill where he showed me his lowly hospital and the few beds where a small girl was crying as nurses treated a cut above her eye.
“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night -- but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a ‘White Helmet’, shouted ‘Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Israeli Forum for Regional Thinking focusing on Syria, and a graduate student at the University of Chicago who has numerous contacts in Douma (both among those who are still there and those who have fled), said it's highly unlikely the doctor, whose name and clinic were made public, would provide an accurate account and likely spoke under duress:
Any person who lives under a dictatorship is not free to speak their mind. This is a state that has put thousands of people in regime detention where they have been tortured to death. People know what happens to people who speak out against the regime. They have seen it happen to their neighbors, their relatives — they know what line they are supposed to present in adherence to the regime’s line.
Tsurkov said people who have fled the region to areas that are not controlled by the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and their Russian allies tell a different story because they feel secure enough to speak freely: "They’re certain they went through a chemical attack."
Although Fisk said he interviewed more than 20 people but didn't quote anyone who witnessed evidence of a chemical attack, crews from both CBS News and Sweden's TV4 were on the same convoy as Fisk. Both teams found locals who said they had inhaled toxic gas, and one resident led CBS to a canister believed to be used for dispersing gas. Another local led TV4 to the site where many of the victims died.
Scott Lucas, a U.K.-based journalist and professor of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham, told us the timeline of events leading up to the journalists' visit should have raised red flags. In the days following the attack, witnesses on the ground began reporting that medical workers were being detained by government forces and coerced into making statements denying a chemical attack occurred, while The Guardian reported that:
Dr Ghanem Tayara, the director of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) said doctors responsible for treating patients in the hours after the 7 April attack have been told that their families will be at risk if they offer public testimonies about what took place.
A number of doctors who spoke to the Guardian this week say the intimidation from the regime has increased in the past five days, a timeframe that coincides with the arrival in Damascus of a team from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which aims to determine whether chemical weapons were used. All the medics insisted on anonymity, citing the fear for their lives and those of their families.
The Washington Post corroborated the Guardian's story with their own reporting, which stated that Syrian medical personnel were coerced into giving government-favorable interviews:
Two activists, one of whom joined the evacuation to the north and another who remained in Douma, said government officials went into the area’s hospitals and clinics, identified workers who were present on the night of the attack, and took them to Damascus to make what they said were forced statements.
They included some of the medical staff seen in the TV interview denying the attacks had taken place, according to two of the activists. “They had no option,” said one, who is still living in Douma.
The Russian government has not even attempted to deny this journalistic interference, with RT reporting that the two medical responders seen in a 13 April 2018 Sputnik video had been interviewed by the Russian military, not by journalists:
All of these stories published by different outlets corroborate testimony from two men who appeared in the “gas attack” footage spread far and wide by western media and governments. Interviewed by the Russian military, the two men said they were unknowing accomplices in the gas attack ruse. “We were working and did not pay attention to who was filming us,” the first eyewitness said. “They were filming us, and then a man came in and started screaming that this was a chemical attack ... People got scared and started spraying each other with water and using inhalers. Doctors told us that there was no chemical poisoning.”
Doctors and medical workers questioned by the Russian Center for Reconciliation confirmed that there had been no reports of patients suffering from chemical poisoning in Douma during the timeframe of the alleged gas attack.
Lucas told us Fisk's reporting provided particularly valuable cover for the regime and their Russian allies because Fisk is a Westerner with a reputation behind him, writing for a legacy British newspaper:
Almost no one picks up the Sputnik pieces, but because Fisk is a Western journalist working for the Independent, people will pick him up and run with it. Then the Russians of course will have an organized strategy to promote Fisk's piece, and the network of [pro-Assad] activists will know this and will give it the amplification they need. The Fisk piece is just racing trough Twitter and Facebook.
We contacted the Independent for comment, and executive editor Will Gore directed us to a BBC Radio 4 program, "The Media Show," in which host Amol Rajan asked Fisk about the ethics of his reporting and whether he was concerned his story had been heavily promoted by the Assad regime's defenders on social media. Fisk responded by asserting "No, not at all, it isn't my job to write for friends of Assad or Russians or Jeremy Corbyn or anyone else. I try to find out what happened. I did. I wrote my report and what people make of it is up to them."
Although the Syrian civil war is now in its seventh bloody year, the attack on Douma that killed scores and injured hundreds of persons, including many children, caught international attention. The U.S., U.K. and France placed blame squarely on the Assad regime and their Russian allies, launching a missile strike targeting chemical weapons facilities in response. A team of international inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had meanwhile been blocked from entering the attack zone, and the United Nations security detail accompanying them had come under attack. The team was finally able to reach one of the sites on 21 April 2018 to collect samples.
Desperate to cling to its advantage in Syria, the Russian disinformation machine has shifted into overdrive in an effort to shield its ally, president Bashar al-Assad, churning out a muddled and contradictory message. The official story has careened from claiming nothing happened, to saying something did but it was staged, to claiming that dust or smoke caused scores of deaths, and even outlandishly insinuating that the British were the culprits in Douma.
Pat Hilsman, a freelance journalist who has covered the Syrian war from the ground from 2012 to 2015 for publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Vice, Middle East Eye, and the Daily Beast, has been compiling and tweeting the various narratives being employed in defense of the Assad regime and Russia. He told us part of the reason Russia lost control of the story is because they've allowed any "weirdo or lunatic" willing to cast doubt on the regime's use of chemical weapons in Douma to be part of the official conversation. But any interviews taken in regime-controlled areas should be judged for their credibility as such, Hilsman said: "Civilians and rescuers who have been identified from footage of the aftermath have appeared in regime propaganda making statements which by any standard are coerced, and in many cases contradictory. What makes a reliable account in a war zone is when you get a chance to speak to people away from the presence of armed men."
Hilsman pointed to an interview produced by Sputnik with a terrified-looking child who was seen in video taken from a nearby hospital being treated for what appeared to be breathing problems shortly after the attack. The Sputnik interview took place at what appeared to be a security or military building, where the boy and his father denied any chemical attack occurred -- of which Hilsman said that:
There are previous examples of rescue workers being forced to make statements clearly under coercive circumstances. There are many examples of Russian media relying on testimony, which according to them, was collected by the Russian military. This is clearly an example of coercive circumstances because civilians are subject to arbitrary detention. Humanitarian workers who have been captured by the regime are still unaccounted for.
By any standard interviews conducted in regime-controlled areas should be judged for their credibility and many outlets have done incredible work gathering eye witness accounts despite these restrictions.
Hilsman gave the example of Abdulhadi Kamel, volunteer with Syria Civil Defense (a rescue organization known more broadly as the White Helmets), who was shot and arrested after reportedly trying to protect civilians on a bus in December 2016 in Aleppo. He was last seen in a video "confessing" to the persistent but false propaganda line that the White Helmets stage rescues. He is widely believed to have given that statement under torture and has not been seen since.