To anyone familiar with the media landscape surrounding Syria, Russia’s presence in the war has always been prevalent. This has been especially true since their military intervention in 2015, and this has had an increasing impact on the media.
In many ways, Russian media is more well-connected in Syria than any Western news outlet could ever hope to be. US news crews from ABC and NBC can sometimes score a coveted interview with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. More generally, they have mostly been able to report from refugee camps or secure areas on the border. Meanwhile, news outlets allied to the Baathist government operate freely within its territory.
Yet these connections have not translated into truthful reporting. Rather, reporting from the Russian media on Syria showcases a bizarre methodology. It is one of trying to push an ever-implausible narrative with ever-shifting circumstances, even as the digital apparatus of the internet allows such narratives to be torn down with ease. Despite these circumstances, this age-old practice still seems to be working as another symptom of the post-truth era.1.“The Post-Truth World – Why Have We Had Enough of Experts?” : Forbes
There are countless examples of misinformation about Syria being disseminated. Even so, the focus of this piece will be on two major attempts to reframe events through a Russian-approved lens, and the piece will be divided into two parts. The first highlights Russia’s continued attempts to denominate rebels in Syria as ISIS. The second analyses the media offensive to change the story on the chemical attack on Khan Shaykhun.
The Real Expulsion of ISIS from Latakia and Idlib
In early 2014, principle rebel factions in Syria began a period of infighting that would eventually prove to be their critical downfall. This came about following numerous incidents ranging from torture and imprisonment of rebels by ISIS to executions of arrested fighters. This occurred alongside the increasing secularization of civilian councils that ISIS refused to partake in.2.“Inside the battle for Assad’s heartland” : al-Jazeera ISIS is not known to acknowledge defeat when it befalls the so-called Caliphate. The withdrawal to the east of Syria was met with no acknowledgment or recognition by the group. Quickly, ISIS was able to expand its holdings in ar-Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor, sweeping across rebel lines with ease.3.“Jihadists Trying to Establish Islamic State on Border of Syria and Iraq” : Haaretz By November of 2013, ISIS had taken control of the first provincial capital ever taken by the rebels, ar-Raqqah City. They would later make this city into their administrative capital in Syria, with Mosul being its Iraqi counterpart. By mid-July of 2014, ISIS had captured nearly the entirety of Deir ez-Zor province, placing government troops in a suffocating siege.4.“Islamic State expels rivals from Syria city” : al-Jazeera While ISIS had successfully maneuvered into a massive power grab in the east, they never expanded in major form into Idlib and Latakia again.5.“Islamic State expels rivals from Syria city” : al-Jazeera
The First Claims
All factions in the war up until that point had acknowledged that ISIS was no longer present in those provinces. Despite this, Russia ran a different story. When the Russian intervention began, the Ministry of Defence ran a story on October 4 that surprised many familiar with the war. It was claimed by RT that Russian Air Force fighter jets had struck ISIS targets in Idlib and Latakia.6.“Russian Air Force hit 10 ISIS targets in Syria in last 24 hours” : RT
Claims that the targets were secret ISIS cells operating in rebel-held territory may have been plausible, but the RuAF was striking large fortifications and so-called “training camps” for ISIS fighters. The implication of designating these exposed targets as ISIS was clear: Russia was trying to intertwine the fight against ISIS and the Syrian rebels with one another in order to shake up the narrative, despite the reality on the ground of open war with one another.
Another round of airstrikes occurred two days later in Idlib and Latakia, the former claiming to be on an ISIS ammunition depot near Idlib City. A week later, more airstrikes hit targets in rebel-held territory designated as belonging to the Nusra Front as well as ISIS positions.7.“Combat report: Russian jets strike 60 terrorist targets in Syria in 55 sorties” : RT After this instance, the Russian Mod stopped claiming to be hitting ISIS positions. There was no mention from either the Mod, nor RT or Sputnik, about ISIS presence in Idlib or Latakia until December. This was when the Latakia Offensive by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) reached Jabal an-Nuba.
The Fight Against ISIS in Latakia That Never Was
RT’s Ruptly agency, while embedded within a Syrian army unit fighting in the mountain range of Jabal an-Nuba, claimed that the army had expelled and secured the mountain from ISIS forces (seen above). In reality, the Islamic Front and Free Syrian Army had controlled the area, and shortly thereafter retook the mountain for about a week until captured once more by the regime.8.“Hezbollah and the regime forces advance in the northern countryside of Latakia” : SOHR
After the capture of Rabia in January of 2016, there was a strange break. While both the Russian Ministry of Defence and RT had claimed that the Syrian Army had captured Rabia from al-Qa’idah and aligned rebels, Sputnik, specifically Sputnik Deutschland, claimed that the Syrian army had captured Rabia from ISIS.
From there on, the Russian government and their media outlets did not reference anything about an ISIS presence in Latakia, until February 19, 2016, their final mention to date. A video on Sputnik’s English-language YouTube Channel claims that the “last stronghold of ISIS” in Latakia had been cleared.9.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0crndaEkFM After this video however, there were no more accusations of ISIS presence in Latakia, from any Russian news outlet or official source. From this lack of coverage, if one had been following Russian media and Russian media alone, one could assume that after Kinsabba was recaptured by the Syrian army ISIS had been ousted from Latakia and Idlib.
The Curious Case of the New IS Strongholds
In a one-off attempt in 2017, Ruptly again claimed ISIS presence where there hadn’t been. In mid-June, while the season’s Dara’a Offensive wound down to an indecisive stalemate, Russian news crews arrived in the province and embedded with the Syrian army.10.“US, Russia ‘agree Syria ceasefire’ amid Trump-Putin G20 deal” : Alaraby On June 12, Ruptly released a video entitled, “Syria: Fighting between SAA and rebels in Daraa intensifies.” Neither the title nor the accompanying description mentioned ISIS or even the Nusra Front, and instead simply referenced the fight against the rebels.
Nevertheless, four days later, the same Russian news network changed the story about who the Syrian army was fighting in Dara’a City. A new video of combat released from the province was titled, “SAA resumes offensive on Daraa killing dozens of IS militants.”11.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSBBiwqCpuk The description below the video added onto the new narrative, saying “Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces resumed an offensive targeting self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS; formerly ISIS/ISIL) fighters in the city of Daraa, Thursday.”12.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSBBiwqCpuk The implication of “self-proclaimed” was that the city was being held in part by the newly declared IS fighters who had appeared near the border with Israel in Quneitra and rural Dara’a province.
This was false. ISIS has never had any presence in Dara’a City at any point in the war. The self-proclaimed ISIS fighters in Dara’a had never expanded past the southwest of the province, as they had mostly occupied a series of villages and farms, far from the city itself.13.“US and Arab-backed rebels open new front against ISIL in Southern Syria” : The National The Syrian rebels and ISIS in Dara’a had also been in open conflict with one another, since March of 2016, leaving them little room to expand further. But, there was still a logic behind claiming continued rebel-ISIS cooperation. Russia could pin future incidents on something resulting from that alleged covert cooperation.
The Changing Timeline
Act I — Initial Reporting
In the early morning of April 4, 2017, multiple airstrikes hit the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib.14.“Syria conflict: ‘Chemical attack’ in Idlib kills 58” : BBC The chemical itself, dropped by Syrian Air Force (SyAAF) warplanes, was said to be primarily Sarin with other harmful substances mixed in.15.“Syria conflict: ‘Chemical attack’ in Idlib kills 58” : BBC The airstrike itself occurred at approximately 6:37 a.m. local time, and videos began rolling in quickly afterward. The first video of the airstrike itself came at about 8 a.m., showing two high-reaching gray columns and a small one, presumed to be the gas, hugging the ground in a white cloud formation.16.“The View From the Site of the Chemical Attack” : NPR
Images of dead Syrians began to pour in from local activists, with White Helmets actively working to help the survivors. Bodies remained intact, as the gas primarily affected internal organs and the skin.17.“Worst Chemical Attack in Years in Syria; U.S. Blames Assad” : The New York Times It was at this point that two narratives about the incident, divergent in nature, began to emerge.
Reporters from the Aleppo Media Centre and the Qasioun News Agency were on the ground in Khan Shaykhun quickly after the attack, and took photographs of the impact site, a road just east of the other airstrike blast zones within the city limits.18.https://www.facebook.com/AleppoAMCen/videos/941452025991505/
The Russian Ministry of Defence then issued a statement saying that they had hit a chemical weapons depot in Khan Shaykhun at around midday (11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.), spurring a catastrophic explosion that resulted in the release of harmful chemicals.19.“Rebel warehouse with chem weapons hit by airstrike in Idlib” : RT The chemical weapons within the depot were reportedly meant to be shipped to Iraq for use by ISIS. However, this narrative was problematic: reporters on the ground had already found the impact site, and it had occurred before 11:30 a.m. It certainly wasn’t on anything that could be considered a depot.
Act II — The Chemical Attack Was Done by ‘the Rebels’
In the following days, while RT stuck with the original consistent story, Sputnik released a plethora of articles within a day of the attack, calling into question the Western media narrative that the chemical attack was indeed an attack by Assad.20.“Why Accusations of Chemical Weapons Used by Syrian Army ‘Not Supported by Facts'” : Sputnik News The narrative of a false-flag attack began to take shape late on April 5, when a Sputnik exclusive story released. It emerged in the form of a statement from a Syrian MP from Damascus, Halid Abud, who said:
Yesterday’s chemical attack was carried out to blame it on the Syrian government. It is a way for Western countries to put pressure on Syria.21.“Idlib Chemical Attack Staged to Blame Damascus – Syrian Lawmaker” : Sputnik News
This was the first instance from Russian-owned media where the false-flag story was stated without any ambiguity. With a member of the Syrian government now standing behind this narrative, the Russian media began running wild with it.
Act III — The Chemical Attack Was Completely Faked
A little over a week following the chemical attack, President Assad sat down for an interview with the conservative Croatian newspaper Vecernji List, his first since the retaliatory strike by the US on Shayrat Airbase. Over the course of the talk, Assad doubled down on the original narrative of the false-flag. The Syrian president claimed that since the country had officially given up all its chemical weapons in 2013, the entire attack was staged. Assad even went so far as to state:
We don’t know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Shaykhun. Were they dead at all?
While this new narrative sparked an uproar among the international community, it also sparked a new fury in how news outlets aligned with the Syrian government approached the story. Bolstered in credibility by a report by famed investigative journalist Theodore Postol, the piece was later found to be riddled with errors in chronology and retracted,22.The French Intelligence Report of April 26, 2017 Contradicts the Allegations in the White House Intelligence Report of April 11, 2017 Sputnik News became the main driver of stories in support of the new narrative of complete fabrication. RT, while still continuing to push out news reports disputing the official narrative of the chemical attack and the credibility of the White Helmets, refrained from any outright chemical attack denials.
The flurry of denialism pushed by Sputnik centered around two central pieces which received much traction. The first was published on April 21, a supplementary article to an interview with Robert David Steele, a former CIA officer who claims to have personally worked on false-flag operations. In the interview, Steele cited Postol’s now discredited report, claiming that the alleged airstrike had actually just been a typical IED explosion. Steele also claimed, without attribution, that Israel and Saudi Arabia paid the White Helmets $300,000 to help carry out the attack in service of a future pipeline.23.“False Flag Attack: Ex-CIA Officer Unravels Idlib Chemical Incident” : Sputnik News
About two weeks later, Sputnik put out a piece that proved much more popular than the other. In an article titled, “Source Confirms Info on Al-Jazeera Filming Staged Chemical Attack in Syria,” Sputnik News utilized information from a fellow news organization also owned by the Russian government, RIA Novosti, stating that an unnamed anonymous source had provided damning information. Supposedly, an unknown European country ordered Al Jazeera to bus in Syrians to different towns in rural Latakia and Idlib in order to film and fake a future chemical attack.24.“Source Confirms Info on Al-Jazeera Filming Staged Chemical Attack in Syria” : Sputnik News
While Sputnik was not directly placing blame on outside countries on the Idlib attack in particular, the message was clear. The publishing of this piece meant to establish a sort of precedence, a precedence against western countries faking chemical attacks to encourage imperialist wars. The article published by Sputnik was quickly met with a direct statement by Al Jazeera denying the unfounded accusations. 25.“Al Jazeera responds to Sputnik chemical attack report” : al-Jazeera Despite this, InfoWars picked up the story, spreading it to an even wider audience.26.“AL-JAZEERA FILMS FALSE FLAG FAKE CHEMICAL ATTACK AGAINST CIVILIANS IN SYRIA” : Infowars
While Russia and its allies in the Resistance Axis are by far the most seen and well-known pushers of misinformation about the Syrian conflict, they are by no means the only. Turkey, through its many state-sponsored media outlets, government ministries, and allied newspapers, are also mass pushers of propaganda and disinformation. This is a campaign that ramped into overdrive when the Turkish state invaded Afrin Canton, a campaign we will cover in the next piece of this series.