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Chemical Weapons and Absurdity: The Disinformation Campaign Against the White Helmets

December 18, 2018

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Translations: Русский


A joint report in collaboration with Newsy

The Syrian Civil Defence (SCD), also known as the White Helmets, is a search-and-rescue organisation based in opposition-held areas. They have recorded some of the worst atrocities carried out in Syria and provided vital evidence of gross human rights abuses by the Syrian government and the Russian military. This has made them the target of a significant disinformation campaign attempting to smear them as “terrorists,” with some pro-government supporters claiming they are “legitimate targets.”

During mid-2018 this disinformation campaign appears to have focused on attempting to associate the SCD with chemical attacks in Idlib. From August to November of this year, the Russian and Syrian governments and state-controlled media continually repeated narratives involving the SCD and movement, or use of, chemical weapons around rebel-held areas of north-western Syria, primarily Idlib. This article will examine the accusations made against the SCD in Idlib and assess the evidence provided. The information we collected can be found here.

It should be noted that no reputable body has ever found that SCD was involved in any chemical incidents in Syria in any capacity other than as first responders to attacks. However, the Syrian government has been identified as the perpetrator in 23 Chlorine and Sarin attacks and has likely been involved in many more.  Both Russia and Syria have a dubious reputation for factual reporting on the issue of chemical weapons due to their accusations of vast international conspiracies, use of doctored satellite images and tendency to present videos and images from computer games as evidence.

Image 1: Chemical Attacks in Syria, along with perpetrators, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic

Accusations

Bellingcat has identified 22 separate accusations relating to the use or transportation of chemical weapons in Idlib and the surrounding area in 2018. Where the same accusation has been repeated in multiple articles, we have only included the earliest example. We chose to stop the chart on the 23rd of November due to the alleged chemical attack in Aleppo, which resulted in a large number of speculatory accusations not based on a specific source.

After two isolated accusations in February and June, there appears to have been a surge of accusations during and after the negotiations for the Sochi agreement, which established a truce and buffer zone in Idlib from the 17th September. The rate of these accusations dropped dramatically over the month of November leading up to the Aleppo chemical attack.

Image 2: Claims associating SCD with chemical weapons in Idib during 2018

Accusations associating the SCD with chemical weapons cover a wide geographic area, including Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. The largest cluster of accusations relates to the north Hama towns of al Lataminah and Kafr Zita, areas which have been repeatedly targeted by chemical weapons deployed by the Syrian government.

Image 3: Map showing locations allegedly connected to use or movement of chemical weapons by the SCD

Despite continual claims that chemical attacks were imminent or had already taken place, no chemical attacks were accurately predicted. Considering the Syrian government’s continual use of chemical weapons throughout the conflict, as well as the obfuscation of this issue by the Syrian and Russian governments, this is unsurprising. It is similar to the manner in which the Russian government attempted to obscure its role in the chemical attack in Salisbury, or provided false evidence to the Dutch Safety Board investigating MH17.

A significant proportion, eight out of 22, of these accusations came from the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria (RCROSS). As the name suggests, this is a body set up by the Russian MoD, theoretically in order to track violence in Syria and attempt the reconciliation of opposing sides. This investigation indicates that it plays an important role in disseminating what is likely disinformation against civilian first responders, calling into question its stated purpose. 11 of the remaining accusations originate from Russian government controlled sources, such as Sputnik, the Russian Ministry of Defence, or representatives of the Russian government.

Of the 22 claims, all except four explicitly state that future chemical attacks will be some form of “false flag” designed to provoke the West into attacking the Syrian government, targeting civilians in rebel held areas. None of the other four state that the SCD would use chemical weapons to attack civilians in government-held territory. Despite attempting to imply that the SCD was associated with the apparent chemical attack in Aleppo on 24th November, that implication does not match the narrative that is built by the accusations we examined. It should also be noted that we believe the open source evidence from the Aleppo attack is inconclusive, while the British and American governments claim it was carried out by the Syrian government using some form of tear gas.

The accusations occasionally veer into the bizarre. On September 11 and 12 of this year, RCROSS stated that SCD had worked with HTS to create a fake chemical attack. RCROSS claimed this was filmed by “Middle Eastern TV channels” and the “regional branch of the American news channel.” This footage was supposedly to be submitted to the UN and OPCW. Leaving aside the absurdity of the accusation itself, the RCROSS never produced a single piece of evidence to support this claim, and no such footage has been released.   

“False Flag Groups” Alleged To Be Involved

If one were to take the word of the Russian or Syrian governments, there is a vast network of different groups, many of whom are currently fighting against each other, working together to carry out these attacks which didn’t actually happen. Bellingcat has already explored the absurdity of what a “false flag” chemical attack at Khan Sheikhoun would mean. The Russian and Syrian claims would add several layers of complexity to this scenario, as they have variously accused the following groups of being involved:

  1. The Syrian Civil Defence
  2. British Intelligence
  3. British Special Forces
  4. A British Security Company named Olive Group
  5. British foreign experts
  6. United States Intelligence
  7. United States Special Forces
  8. The French Government
  9. “Middle Eastern TV channels”
  10. “The regional branch of the American news channel”
  11. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its previous iterations
  12. “Foreign specialists”
  13. “Foreign friends”
  14. Turkish foreign experts
  15. Chechen foreign experts
  16. Ahrar al-Sham
  17. The Islamic Party of Turkmenistan
  18. Jaish al Izza
  19. Unnamed “militants”

For those familiar with the Syrian conflict, the idea that these groups are working together is incredibly unlikely. The idea that a huge campaign to create “false flag” attacks would go unchallenged by other groups, local civilians, civil society or foreign press pushes the boundary of absurdity.

Evidence Provided

Due to the low level of evidence provided with the accusations, it is difficult to debunk each one individually, as there is no real material to disprove. Of the 22 allegations that we identified, the sum of all verifiable evidence provided was a single 9-second video clip and a single image. Both were presented in support of the claim that IS had attacked HTS, taking two chlorine cylinders and killing two employees of SCD. The video depicted plant machinery operating next to a series of caves which can be geolocated to the center of al Lataminah, while the image showed a truck with a possibly cylindrical container on the back. No exact location data was provided, while the picture and video appear to have been cropped or zoomed in, making geolocation difficult.

The video from al Lataminah does show a location associated with the SCD, and it does seem the figure in the video is wearing a white hat or helmet. However, nothing within the image or video supports the claim that there was an IS attack in this area during this time, or that any movement of chemical weapons took place. In both the video and image there appear to be possibly cylindrical objects, but without better quality imagery it is impossible to say with any certainty if they are cylindrical, let alone what they are.

Image 4: Truck labelled with “Бочки” (barrels)

 

Video released by Russian MoD showing SCD location in al Lataminah

Despite this dearth of verifiable evidence, sources such as the Russian MoD and its monitoring organisation, RCROSS, have continually stated accusations as if they were established facts. The language they use leaves no room for doubt or uncertainty. Indeed, for a cluster of claims in mid-September which appear to be linked, RCROSS stated they had “irrefutable information.” about an imminent attack. This information has not been published. Previous Russian MoD claims of having “irrefutable” evidence turned out to be footage from a computer game.

Time and again the Russian government has provided evidence which has either been faked, doctored or plagiarized from bloggers. To have any credibility when making these accusations the Russian MoD must be transparent and release its “irrefutable” evidence. Until then, based on previous experience, its claims cannot be taken seriously.

Conclusion

The Syrian Civil Defence is an organisation working under extraordinary circumstances, willingly risking their own lives to save others. As with any organisation operating in such a complex conflict, they sometimes make decisions which others would disagree with. However, one only has to watch a fraction of the hundreds of videos of them pulling victims from under the rubble of bombed buildings to understand that they are genuine first responders who have helped to save many thousands of lives across opposition-held Syria.

The disinformation campaign waged against the SCD has been brutal and unrelenting. It has attempted to cast doubt on their ability to provide evidence, painted them as “terrorists” and ultimately tried to transform them into “legitimate targets.” It is clear that Russia and Syria believe that associating the SCD with chemical weapons is a key part of this narrative. Despite claiming to have “irrefutable information” neither the Russian nor Syrian governments appear to have produced any verifiable evidence that actually supports their accusations.

The extraordinarily low level of evidence supporting these accusations, the absurdity of some of the claims and the continual failure to predict a chemical attack exposes these accusations for what they are: a continuation of a deliberate and planned disinformation campaign against a humanitarian organisation operating in the most difficult of circumstances.

Bellingcat’s research for this publication was supported by PAX for Peace.

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27 Comments

  1. francesca

    “Extenuating circumstances”??Do you know what this even
    means?
    So are we to forgive the White Helmets their sins because of “extenuating circumstances”?

    Reply
    • Richard

      What sins, other than being the target of defamation and calumny on the part of the blood-soaked Russian and Syrien governments? The subject here, not addressed by you, is how such propaganda is used as a screen to lessen condemnation of turning these brave souls into “legitimate” targets. Address that if you will.

      Reply
      • Louis Shawcross

        Members of the White Helmets have been pictured holding weapons and standing on the dead bodies of Syrian soldiers. Search and rescue organisation? Syria has its own search and rescue organisation formed back in the 1950s. The head of the White Helmets, Raed Saleh, is a proven terrorist. Of course, the problem with all these claims and counter claims is evidence and what is evidence for you or me may not be evidence for someone else. A lot of meaning comes from circumstantial evidence and there is a lot to show the White Helmets are anything what they say they are. Robert Fisk visited one of the sites of a supposed chemical attack and found no evidence for such an attack having taken place. But then people will claim Robert Fisk is impartial. Yawn! Who isn’t impartial? Is Richard impartial?

        Reply
        • Brian Riches

          Do you intend to provide links to these pictures of “White Helmets holding weapons and standing on the bodies of Syrian soldiers”? Do you have separate evidence that they are actually White Helmets and not Syrian troops dressed up?

          Who, exactly, proved that the leader of the White Helmets is a terrorist? And when? As I recall, a number of heads of government from various countries have been called ‘warmongers’, ‘war criminals’ and other epithets, depending on the circumstances and the agenda of the accuser(s). Whilst members of Da’esh have actually been referred to as ‘freedom fighters’. Perhaps you could clarify your reaction to individuals insisting on assuming the ‘freedom’ to deliberately decapitate, drench others in aviation fuel before setting it alight and push people from the top of tall buildings as methods of execution. That would enable those reading your comments to see them in context.

          Reply
          • Louis Shawcross

            It’s difficult to determine the context in which you write. Where are your links to what you believe? I think I made it clear in my initial comment that evidence is what anybody wants to make of it. What is evidence in your opinion? Your comment about “Syrian troops being dressed up” – well then, could the assassination footage of JFK have been really Little Red Ridinghood dressed up to look like JFK, and JFK is really working in my local chip-shop? State a “fact” Brian Riches, and I’ll show you how difficult it is to prove your fact. In fact, you didn’t claim very much in your comment above but put the onus on me to prove the points I had made. That’s very convenient for you or anyone taking that stance. What the hell do you believe anyway? It’s very hard to tell from what you said. Oh, and have you got any proof for what you didn’t say?

        • Nate

          Raed Saleh doesn’t head the White Helmets you nitwit. The White Helmets have kicked actual jihadists out.

          All your “evidence” was pulled out from your butt. Please take your medicine

          Reply
    • Feodor Mikhailovitch

      Who will forgive Russia its sins ( continuing crimes ) against Humanity ? Russia has sold its soul to a bunch of thieves and murderers otherwise known as the KGB/FSB….

      Reply
      • oui oui

        brexit is not the will of the people , it has been
        and it has been done accordingly , allowing to fully realize the consequences
        if there has been a way to have a referendum from a consultation to a decision because democracy there is surely a way to ask for a confirmation because democracy , and because the consequences

        Reply
      • Neuron

        In Russia it’s KGB/GRU in other it is CIA/DIA. Same people. Only serious countries have serious intelligence.

        Reply
    • Eric Von Zipper

      For some one who claims everything on this site is fake, you sure like to troll it! I think it would be very beneficial for you to take a course on logic and how to present your case. In the case above you did not even present a logical argument. All you did is present two questions, and committed a fallacy by attempting to link the two together – Causal Fallacy.

      Reply
  2. Stuart

    I do not understand what ‘extenuating circumstances’ could mean in this context. I do not think that there were any misdemeanours on the part of the White Helmets which needed to be mitigated. If it was just a typing lapsus, it was an unfortunate hostage to fortune.

    Reply
    • francesca

      A little more than a “lapsus” , a total ignorance of the meaning of words, not a good look when you’re submitting a piece for publication.Are there no editors?

      Reply
      • Jeroen

        Not a good look when you try do divert from the subject, that deliberate disinformaton campaigns exist to smear these SDC search and rescuers,
        if not propagandise targetting them,
        if not targetting them with air dropped ordnance.

        A little more than a “innocent remark”
        A total ignorance of what really matters,
        if not a total lack of morality.

        Reply
  3. Chaney Moon

    A good article,however I do feel the need to correct you on one important point.The group in question ie “the white helmets”,are NOT the Syrian/Syria Civil Defence.The actual Syrian/Syria Civil Defence organisation is a legitimate branch of the UN recognized government of syria[The Syrian Arab Republic] and is also recognized by and is a member of the ICDO [International Civil Defence Organisation],which the “white helmets” are not.
    I think in the interests of accuracy and to avoid any accusations,whether justified or not, of bias or lack of impartiality,that it would be advisable to correct the article by either removing the references to Syrian Civil Defence/SCD or to add a caveat at the end of the article stating that this is not the official Syrian/Syria Civil Defence,nor is it a member of,or recognized by,the ICDO.
    I think that for a site like this accuracy = credibility,regardless of what one may think of either the syrian government or the “white helmets”,however lack of accuracy can open the door not only to legitimate criticisms but also to claims of bias or worse,and once credibility has been damaged it is very hard to restore it.

    Reply
    • Black Star

      Oh yes, because in order to save lives you first need an official certificate from the government that is killing its own people.

      Reply
      • Chaney Moon

        These groups can of course call themselves whatever they want,however in this case the white helmets are no more the syrian civil defence than they are the international red cross,and they are falsely using the name of a preexisting syrian government organisaton to which they have no legitimate connection whatsoever,furthermore the legitimate syrian civil defence is recognized by the international civil defence organisation [ICDO] whereas the white helmets are not.
        The failure of bellingcat to correct this article is an unfortunate oversight on their part,as at best it is inaccurate and potentially misleading and at worst deliberately dishonest,and either one of these is potentially damaging to ones credibility,and in this sort of work one is judged by ones credibility.

        Reply
  4. Rooster

    I wish, that everybody responsible for any kind of war crime will get what he deserves. YOU, who reads this: remember, that people involved in war crimes in WW2 are taken to court, even today. Your regime protects you now. But think 10 years further. Or 20 years. Justice will get you.

    Reply
  5. raffik

    hi
    I may agree that there was lack of evidence, but many times lack of evidence is necessary to protect sources.
    I noticed this bombarding against white helmets in Russian narrative and I considered it a form of prevention for other chemical attacks. I think Sirian gov. was very afraid of more Usa intervention in Siria. All the conflict has been played to kick Usa out of Siria, and chemical weapons is an old pretext for Usa to invade and spread “democracy”.
    I am rather new of this blog, but I would appreciate also some critics of Usa, its misbehaviour and lies. If Bellingcat does not keep in the middle, I should assume that Sputnik’s critics are true.
    regards

    Reply
  6. NomenEstOmen

    There are a number of reports that deny what you are saying about the White Helmets and they claim that the information you have provided is either not accurate or completely fabricated conspiracy theories. Those reports have been published to fact-check the lies about White Helmets. What is your answer to these claims?
    https://ahtribune.com/interview/2798-carla-ortiz.html

    Reply
  7. Rob Heusdens

    The “White Helmets” themselves are a disinformation campaign, used as a tool in the propaganda warfare. They are part of the terrorist networks/groups that were claimed to be “moderate rebels”, and using modern propaganda tools to ‘blame Assad’. They filmed “rescue operations” filmed in settings of collapsed/damaged building, whic they claim were bombed and the filmed the rescue of civilians. It does not need an expert vision to show that it was fakery, the “victims” (often young children) were placed beneath the rubble shortly before filming. They came out totally unharmed, not a scratch or even dirty clothes. While some buildings were so damaged it would be quit amazing to come out alive or unharmed.
    Also they have been accused of withholding humanitarian supplies, organ traficking, assisting with executions, and were seen holding rifles and calling for extermination of Shia villages, and so on.

    Humanitarian rescue organisation?
    My ass.

    Reply
  8. Shawn

    There is no doubt about it. It’s a known fact that the white helmets have links with radical militant groups including Al Qaeda.

    Recently a white helmets member has had his British citizenship revoked with Britain citing “Al Qaeda links” His name is Tauqir Sharif

    France24 conducted their own open source investigation & have come to the conclusion that the white helmets have indeed helped terrorist groups carry out executions & that the white helmets have links with radical militant groups. Here is the link

    https://observers.france24.com/en/20180510-syria-white-helmets-terrorists-fact-fiction-islamic-state

    Reply
  9. Stuart Blair

    How do you respond to the revelations that a leaked OPCW report by engineers (and engineering subcontractors) concluded that ‘In summary, observations at the scene of the two locations, together with subsequent analysis, suggests that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at these two locations rather than being delivered by aircraft.’

    Furthermore ‘The results predicted by the simulation were more consistent with images of deformed cylinders from earlier incidents of cylinders allegedly delivered from helicopters in the syrian Arab Republic.’

    This adds substantial weight to the argument that ‘somebody’ PLACED those cannisters. At the very least this indicates a false flag operation given that the Syrians would undoubtedly have used aircraft and this IS the US/UK position. A false flag operation is consistent with the UK/US needing a pretext for air strikes. Assad had NOTHING strategic to gain by killing a few unarmed resident (you of all people should know that) and lots to lose, as he subsequently did.

    Your analysis is woeful, transparent and now clearly disproven as a credible narrative. The UK/US likely committed a war crime in their despearte attempt to gain the upper hand in this shameful conflict and the White Helmets remain the best suspects as the prox that committed the act.

    As they say, the facts will out in the end. History will uncover further facts as documents become declassified and people speak out. History will not be kind to those that suppressed the facts and attempted to subvert and skew what facts were available.

    I would leave to hear your thoughts on this OPCW report and what it means regarding UK/US meddling in this conflict.

    ‎syriapropagandamedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Engineering-assessment-of-two-cylinders-observed-at-the-Douma-incident-27-February-2019-1.pdf

    Reply

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