The recent leak of a sensitive email, written by an investigative team member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW), has shed new light on disinformation surrounding the Syrian civil war.
In the email, obtained and published by Wikileaks in November, the investigator expressed his “gravest concern at the redacted version of the FFM (Fact Finding Mission) report.” The OPCW-led fact-finding mission was tasked with investigating allegations of a Syrian government sanctioned chemical gas attacks in Douma on April 7, 2018 which resulted in the deaths of between 40 and 50 people.
According to the OPCW whistleblower, the findings detailed in the final report, released in March 2019, “have morphed into something quite different to what was originally drafted.” This manipulation is the result of several omissions which add up to a misrepresentation of the facts. Crucially, the doctored report confirms the use of chemical weapons, whereas the original version, drafted by the OPCW investigators, does not. More documents, published by Wikileaks in December, presented a further condemnation of the public mission report. The latest leaks have exposed the extent of the discrepancies between the investigation’s actual conclusions and the published version of the report.
The issues highlighted by these recent revelations corroborate the first leak of information from the OPCW’s fact-finding mission. Back in May 2019, a leak of the engineering assessment conducted as part of the FFM (which examined the physical evidence around the Douma gas attack) exposed the falsifications orchestrated in the public version of the report. Again, the published version of the report omitted essential facts such as the conclusion that the examined gas cylinders had not been dropped from the sky as alleged, but deliberately placed. The recently leaked memos now highlight the absence of links between the use of chlorine and symptoms presented by the locals. This lends further credence to the suspicions that the attacks were staged to bolster humanitarian claims and support for foreign intervention in the conflict.
These significant revelations show the extent to which the public is being manipulated into supporting interventions for regime change in Syria, thanks in part to disinformation circulated by governments and the often uncritical mainstream press.
The simplified narrative of the Syrian civil war as a Manichean conflict between good (the opposition forces) and evil (Assad) has been recited by most politicians and journalists, irrespective of their political leanings. This account depicts the civil war as a consequence of the Arab Spring uprisings that shook North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. Fed up with the the dictatorial regime of Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad, citizens took it upon themselves to overthrow him in the hopes of installing a democracy. Assad, supported by Russia, fought back, precpitating the violent civil conflict that endures today.
Though no one could reasonably argue that Assad is a democratic or benevolent leader, the narrative surrounding his regime has been carefully cultivated by those who would benefit from his ouster. Thanks to Wikileaks and the publication of hundreds of thousands of confidential US government cables, those interests are laid bare.
According to an analysis of the cables provided by Robert Naiman “[…] as far back as 2006—five years before the ‘Arab Spring’ protests in Syria—destabilizing the Syrian government was a central motivation of the US government.” This desire to topple the Assad therefore predates President Obama’s rhetoric on human rights, used as justification for US funding of the Syrian political opposition. In fact, US support is described by the New York Times as “one of the most expensive efforts to arm and train rebels since the [CIA’s] program arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s.”
Exchanges between American diplomatic officials reveal that Syria’s relationship with Iran was viewed as the main problem by both US leadership and their Saudi allies. Though not consolidated allies, the possibility that Assad could choose a rapprochement with Iran was sufficient for Saudi officials to denounce the regime and call for its elimination. The Wikileaks cables reveal that American support for Syrian opposition elements stems from this consideration and not, as we are led to believe, from a sudden humanitarian concern for the plight of civilians. On the contrary, the cables also reveal that the US was more than happy to fuel sectarian tensions in Syria as a means to undermine Assad’s regime.
Assad’s close relationship with Iran, however, may not be the sole reason still pushing the US to intervene in Syria. His refusal of a major pipeline project, which would have transported natural gas from Qatar through Syria and onto Europe by way of Turkey, added to the tensions. The proposed plan was scrapped in 2009, much to the frustration of Qatar and Saudi Arabia; both close US allies. Instead, Assad favoured a project that would transport gas from Iran through Syria and onto European markets, effectively bypassing the Middle East states allied with the West. As a result of this feud, talk of a Western intervention in Syria was already making the rounds in diplomatic circles as early as 2009.
In addition to issues relating to natural resources and geopolitics, it should be noted that more than 5,000 private military contractors were employed directly or indirectly by the US government in the context of the Syrian conflict. This added up to lucrative deals for military contractors. In January, Erik Prince, CEO of Academi—better known by its former name Blackwater—recommended that Trump replace the US troops left in Syria with his mercenaries. There have also been a few unconfirmed reports of military contractors progressively replacing the remaining US troops in the region.
The war in Syria, like all others, is big business.
Regrettably, most of these concerning revelations have been consistently overlooked by the mainstream press. When Trump announced last month that he wished to withdraw troops from the region, he was firmly denounced by both Republican and Democratic commentators alike. Pundits from both sides argued that a US presence was essential, if only to maintain control of the country’s oil reserves. After the news of the alleged gas attack in Douma, no mainstream outlet questioned the need to maintain a US military presence in Syria.
Those who have denounced calls for a US intervention, such as congresswoman and Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard have been met with harsh criticism. Gabbard, who met with Assad in 2017, has been arguing for a withdrawal of US troops and an end to regime change wars. The congresswoman, who is also an active military service member, defended her decision to meet with Assad by stating that she deemed it preferable to engage diplomatically with the Syrian leader in hopes of attaining a peaceful resolution to the conflict. As a result of this position, she has been labelled an Assad apologist and called a “Russian asset” by Hillary Clinton.
Gabbard is not alone, Max Blumenthal and Anya Parampil, reporters for The Grayzone, recently travelled to Syria to better understand the conflict and its impact on local residents. Though their trip was sponsored by a local left wing trade union, they were quickly accused of engaging in “junket journalism” for the regime and of being ‘Assadists’ despite their clear condemnations of the Syrian leader. In fact, their trip confirmed that US backed insurgent groups had been responsible for the death and suffering of thousands of civilians. Not surprisingly, their observations have not been covered by mainstream outlets.
Further manipulations have occurred around the support for the White Helmets, the supposedly impartial group (founded by an ex-British military officer) that helps find and evacuate wounded civilians. The group has received widespread praise, including a Nobel Prize nomination, for its humanitarian interventions (a Netflix documentary on the White Helmets even won an Academy Award in 2016). Nonetheless, disturbing videos published by The Grayzone show members of the organization participating in public executions on at least two occasions. Members of the group have been linked to both Al-Qaeda and Isis. In one video, White Helmets can be seen chanting and celebrating with Islamist insurgents. Despite this, the group received $4.5 million from the American government.
According to the UN, nearly half a million Syrians have been killed since the beginning of the conflict and millions have been forcibly displaced. The costs of this war are undeniable and the stakes going forward are immense. Critical investigative reporting on the conflict and the forces driving it are therefore essential. As it stands, the disinformation around the war appears to have been lifted from the Iraq/Afghanistan playbook. It is all the more disgraceful that the media that participated in selling those wars (now recognized as catastrophic failures) is engaging in the same manipulative tactics to encourage ongoing suffering and destabalization in Syria. Exposing the truth of the conflict demonstrates how this war lines up, yet again, with a long pattern of regime change interventionism in the Middle East.
Elizabeth Leier is a freelance journalist and graduate student at Concordia University in Montreal. Her interests include international politics, foreign policy and climate justice. Follow her on Twitter.