Hundreds of people died — many of them in their sleep — when rockets laden with the nerve agent sarin struck Ghouta, a rebel-held area on the outskirts of the Syrian capital early one morning in August 2013. It was the deadliest chemical attack anywhere in the world since the 1980s.
Considering that Ghouta was under fire from the Assad regime’s forces at the time, that the casualties were on the rebels’ side and that the regime had previously admitted possessing chemical weapons, there was one obvious suspect. The regime, however, insisted it was not responsible.
Russia, as its chief ally, weighed in with vigorous support and so too did a number of small groups and individuals in the West — apparently sincere people who convinced themselves that one of the Middle East’s most oppressive regimes was the innocent victim of a plot to discredit it. Among them were an assortment of university professors, retired spies, “independent” journalists, “anti-imperialists” and more than a few habitual conspiracy theorists.
Under international pressure following the Ghouta attack, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, but that did not put an end to chemical attacks. During the next few years dozens more were reported, mostly involving chlorine but sometimes sarin. The deniers, eager to blame someone other than the Assad regime, claimed rebels were faking the attacks in an effort to falsely incriminate the regime and thus create a pretext for full-scale military intervention by Western powers.
The claims were not supported by credible evidence, but the deniers pointed to confirmed examples from the past where deception had been used in warfare. One that resonated particularly with the public was the way false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had been used to build public support for the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Constantly citing the deception over Iraq, the deniers suggested the reports of chemical attacks in Syria were a similar deception, for similar purposes. It was an argument that could be made to sound plausible, and the deniers exploited it relentlessly. Paradoxically, the people most likely to be fooled by it were those most anxious not to be fooled. Their resentment at the known deception over Iraq made them less willing to doubt claims of deception in Syria.
While insisting that the chemical attacks were faked, the regime and its defenders offered no credible explanation as to how the fakery might have been organized or how rebel fighters might have acquired the necessary sarin. In an interview with Fox News, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made the absurd claim that “anyone can make sarin in his house” while also suggesting rebels could have obtained it from a foreign government.
The reality, though, was that laboratory tests on samples from the scene of attacks linked them to the regime’s own stockpile. There is more than one way to make sarin, and clues to the production process can be found by testing it for impurities. These impurities are residues from the chemical reactions that take place when making it, and different formulas result in different sets of impurities.
The first distinctive marker chemical to be identified was hexamine. Mainly for safety reasons Syria’s sarin was stored as two separate components — methylphosphonyl difluoride (known as DF) and isopropanol — which were mixed in the presence of hexamine shortly before use. Hexamine was added to make the sarin less corrosive and reduce the risk of damage to munitions. It wasn’t the only chemical that could be used for this purpose, but as far as could be discovered, Syria’s choice of hexamine was unique.
Investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the global chemical weapons watchdog, had also obtained samples of the DF component from the regime’s stockpile, and this led to the discovery of three more marker chemicals: phosphorus hexafluoride, isopropyl phosphate and isopropyl phosphorofluoridate. The investigators described these as “a strong indicator” that the sarin used in the 2017 attack on Khan Sheikhoun, as well as in other incidents, contained DF produced by the Syrian government.
There was thus no realistic possibility that Syrian rebels could have obtained sarin with the requisite chemical profile from abroad, and in the unlikely event that they were capable of making it in large quantities themselves, they would still have had to know the government’s formula in order to replicate its impurities. According to the investigators it was also unlikely that rebels could have followed the government’s formula without using “a chemical-plant-type production method” because it included hydrogen fluoride (HF). “HF is a very aggressive and dangerous gas and therefore is difficult to handle,” the investigators noted. “The use of HF indicates a high degree of competence and sophistication.”
Given this, the only credible explanation was that the sarin used in attacks had come from the government’s stockpile and had been used by government forces. The possibility that rebels might have seized some of it was emphatically ruled out by Syrian government officials, who insisted stockpiles had remained under their control at all times — none of their sarin had been lost or stolen. That wasn’t the only problem with the “stolen sarin” theory. Since the Syrian government’s sarin was not kept in ready-made form, rebels would have needed to steal its separate components for subsequent mixing. They also would have needed suitable munitions along with specialized equipment for filling them — plus a lot of expertise in handling the dangerous chemicals.
During the United Nations’ Ghouta investigation, Åke Sellström, the chief inspector, had pressed Syrian officials to elaborate on their claims of sarin in rebel hands but was struck by their failure to come up with any coherent explanation. Interviewed in 2014, he said: “Several times I asked the government: Can you explain — if this was the opposition — how did they get hold of the chemical weapons? They have quite poor theories. … To me it is strange. If they really want to blame the opposition, they should have a good story as to how they got hold of the munitions, and they didn’t take the chance to deliver that story.”
Use of sarin is relatively easy to prove by analysis of environmental and biological samples, but most of the chemical attacks reported in Syria were believed to involve chlorine — which is much more difficult to confirm after the event through laboratory testing. Chlorine is a very common element, so the problem was how to distinguish between chlorine released in a chemical attack and chlorine that is present in the environment. Other evidence, such as witness statements, the symptoms of victims and the remains of munitions, could point to chlorine use, but laboratory tests couldn’t confirm it with the same degree of certainty as sarin use — and this left plenty of scope for deniers to challenge the findings of OPCW investigators. In particular, the deniers focused on an incident in Douma in 2018 where dozens of people were said to have died in a chlorine attack.
Even without the scientific evidence compiled by U.N. and OPCW investigators, there were reasons for not taking the denials from Assad’s defenders seriously. One was that the deniers themselves lacked credibility. Many of the individuals involved had a history of promoting conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs relating to other issues. Russia’s use of its own propaganda organs to provide a platform for their claims didn’t help their credibility either. Furthermore, the idea that rebels were faking chemical attacks to give Western powers a long-desired pretext for full-scale intervention in Syria simply didn’t ring true: Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump were both visibly reluctant to become deeply involved.
Although Western mainstream media reported the denials by Syrian and Russian officials as part of their news coverage (usually without comment), they generally paid no attention to the claims of activist groups in the West — thus prompting talk on social media about a conspiracy of silence. In response to the lack of mainstream interest, the activists turned to a loose network of “alternative” websites — sites that promoted fringe views on a variety of issues, with distrust of Western governments as the unifying theme. Though working independently, they often collaborated by reposting each other’s articles and tended to draw on the same pool of writers.
This was sometimes referred to as a media ecosystem, though “echo system” was probably a better description. Using multiple channels to disseminate false or unverified claims also helped to make them seem more believable: It not only broadened the potential audience but also created an impression that the claims had a substantial body of support. Research has shown that the more often information is repeated the more likely people are to believe it — even if it is demonstrably false. According to one study, “as false claims are repeated, they become more familiar and thus may come to seem more true to people.” Twitter was an essential tool to keep the echo system alive and echoing, and repetition was key there too. Claims that had been long since debunked were constantly revived on Twitter and recycled regardless.
The echo system’s most celebrated figure was Vanessa Beeley, a British woman who, according to biographical notes on her website, had worked “predominantly in the engineering and plastics recycling sector” before transforming into a “writer, photographer, peace activist and investigative journalist.” Her initial interest in the Middle East was Palestine, but in 2016 she made her first trip to Syria with a delegation from the U.S. Peace Council. During their visit the group met with al-Assad for two hours and posed for a photograph with him. Beeley, who was seen standing next to the Syrian president, later described it as her proudest moment.
She had clearly made a favorable impression in Damascus because the following month she was granted a visa for a second visit, this time lasting three weeks. Its main purpose, she wrote, was for research “into the multi million NATO and Gulf State funded, terrorist-linked White Helmets” (the civil defense organization that operated in rebel-held areas).
Before long, Beeley’s writing had turned her into a social media celebrity. To her admirers on Twitter, she was almost a goddess and criticizing her work was nothing less than blasphemy. She was on the ground in Syria “putting the truth out there,” they said. She was a brilliant reporter and a “real journalist.” She deserved a Pulitzer and possibly a Nobel Peace Prize too.
The truth, though, was that her reports from Syria were misleading and often demonstrably wrong. While refusing to believe evidence that the regime was using chemical weapons, she readily accepted claims that rebels were doing so.
In 2018 she described visiting a rebel “chemical weapons facility” in the company of government forces who had captured it. Her article included photos of what she claimed were “chemical weapon ingredients” — though it was clear that she had no idea what most of them were. “Some of the bags containing the chemical ingredients were still booby trapped and therefore it was not possible to pick them up to show the labels more clearly,” she wrote. “It was also very dark, but I did my best to photograph everything I saw there. … One of the bags contained the chemical compound RDX.” Based on what Beeley saw, it was hard to imagine how this could be justifiably described as a “chemical weapons facility.” The only “chemical” she seemed sure of was RDX, which had nothing to do with chemical weapons: It was a common type of explosive.
A closer look at Beeley’s journalistic activities gives a snapshot of the echo system in operation. For a time, she was associate editor at 21st Century Wire, a website that promoted familiar conspiracy theories about George Soros, 9/11 and chemtrails (among other things) and published 47 items under her name. Her most often used outlet, though, was Global Research — a Canadian website that published 90 of her items. Founded in 2001, Global Research had first attracted attention by claiming the CIA was behind the events of 9/11, and information warfare specialists at NATO’s StratCom later identified the website as “a key accelerant” in circulating false stories that happened to fit narratives being pushed by Russia and Syria. In the view of StratCom’s researchers, it was part of a network that sought to improve the Google ranking of these stories through reposting and thus “create the illusion of multisource verification.”
Other outlets for Beeley’s work included The Alt World, Arrêt sur Info (Switzerland), Australian National Review, BS News, The Corbett Report, Crescent International, Dissident Voice, Nexus Newsfeed, Ron Paul Institute, UK Column, Unlimited Hangout, Veterans Today and Zero Hedge.
Beeley was also listed as having contributed 44 items (on her own or jointly with others) for the American Herald Tribune, a website that sounded like a mainstream news organization but wasn’t. Items with Beeley’s name on them included “White Helmets Use Covid-19 Crisis to Further US Coalition Regime Change Agenda in Syria,” “Did Paedophile Jeffrey Epstein Work for Mossad?” and “Macron Adopts Totalitarian State Practices to Suppress Dissent.” The actual articles can no longer be read, however. The American Herald Tribune was shut down in November 2020 when the U.S. Department of Justice seized its internet domain name, along with 26 others, on the grounds that it was a front for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Some of the American Herald Tribune’s articles did survive in other parts of the echo system. Seventeen of them had been cross-posted on the website of Mint Press News, which had similar sharing arrangements with several other “partner” websites including Project Censored, Free Speech TV, Media Roots, Shadow Proof, The Grayzone, Truthout, Common Dreams and Antiwar.com.
Based in Minnesota, Mint Press was established in 2012, ostensibly as a commercial venture employing six full-time staff. According to its editor, Mnar Muhawesh, the initial investment had come from “retired businesspeople,” though she declined to name them. The only time Mint Press made much impact (though for the wrong reasons) was in 2013, a few days after the sarin attack on Ghouta, when it reported claims from anonymous sources in Syria suggesting that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Saudi intelligence chief, had provided rebel fighters with chemical weapons but neglected to tell the rebels what they were or how to use them. As a result, according to the sources, the rebels had handled the weapons “improperly,” accidentally causing mass deaths.
The story appeared to be based on rumors circulating in Damascus at the time, and there was no real evidence to support it. Saudi Arabia was not known to have chemical weapons, and the idea that it would supply them to rebels without instructions for use was highly implausible. Nevertheless, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cited the story as evidence that the U.N.’s investigators in Ghouta had not done a thorough job.
Mint Press’s initially generous funding appears to have shrunk considerably shortly afterward. Its office closed in 2014 and from then on, the only way of contacting it was through a mailbox address or email. It encouraged regular donations from the public via Patreon and had occasional crowdfunding appeals. One of them, in 2018, had a target of $26,000 and was oversubscribed by $15,000.
Despite the fiasco of its Ghouta story, Mint Press won the “Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism” — the echo system’s own version of the Pulitzers. Vanessa Beeley was another of its laureates. Named in memory of a Lebanese American journalist who died in a car crash while working for Iran’s Press TV, the award, according to its stated purpose, was to honor non-mainstream journalists who “tell challenging truths in difficult times” and provide them with financial support to “continue their work in an environment that penalises them for their clarity of vision and willingness to expose the powerful.”
The award’s website gave no details of the nomination process, who the judges were or how “uncompromised integrity” was assessed. The selection criteria became more apparent, however, from a look at the list of previous winners, of whom there were more than 40. Some were advocates for conspiracy theories, while numerous others were prominent defenders of the Assad regime.
Besides Mint Press, websites listed among the award winners included Consortium News, which disputed the claim that the Assad regime used chemical weapons, and The Grayzone, which accused OPCW investigators of a cover-up. Individual recipients included Caitlin Johnstone, an Australian blogger who supported “false flag” theories about the chemical attacks, historian/journalist Gareth Porter, who was a board member of Consortium News, plus three of The Grayzone’s staff — Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton and Aaron Maté. One odd inclusion in the list of winners was Peter Ford, a former British ambassador to Syria who wasn’t really a journalist but had written a few articles and given interviews. More notably, he was a director of the British Syrian Society — headed by Fawaz Akhras, al-Assad’s father-in-law.
The Serena Shim awards came with a cash prize. The amount was not normally disclosed, though one winner revealed she had been given $5,000. If that were repeated for all recipients, it would mean the organizers had handed out $200,000 by the end of 2020.
The ultimate source of the prize money was a mystery, and no one admitted to organizing the awards but there were clear links to an obscure organization based in California: the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees (AIPAC). Its name was designed to taunt Israel’s supporters by having the same initials as a much more prominent organization — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The president of this less-known “AIPAC” was Kamal Obeid, a structural engineer and an active supporter of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, which claims the World Trade Center collapsed in a “controlled explosion.” The secretary and treasurer of “AIPAC” was Paul Larudee, proprietor of a piano-tuning business in California and a long-standing campaigner on Palestine. Larudee had also appeared numerous times on Iran’s PressTV, and in 2014 he traveled to Syria with a delegation of “independent” observers for the presidential election. They described it as “the legitimate, democratic expression of the Syrian people” — even though it was generally seen as a sham.
“AIPAC” is registered in the U.S. as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization and provides “fiscal sponsorship” for at least six activist groups. It has an Employer Identification Number issued by the U.S. tax authorities that is used for fundraising by all the groups under its tax umbrella, and each year “AIPAC” submits a combined return to the Internal Revenue Service on their behalf. Four of the sponsored groups are connected with Palestine. The other two are the Serena Shim awards and the Syria Solidarity Movement, a pro-Assad group. In 2017, on behalf of the Syria Solidarity Movement, “AIPAC” paid Ohio politician Dennis Kucinich $20,000 to attend a pro-Assad conference in Britain and give a speech there.
Public records show that funding from donors channeled through “AIPAC” averaged $165,000 a year from 2012 to the end of 2018. The sources of funding are not identified by name, and since the published accounts give combined figures for all groups under the “AIPAC” umbrella, it is not possible to see how much income or expenditure relates to any particular one. However, in 2018, according to the most recent annual return available, “AIPAC” disbursed just under $72,000 in the form of grants — more than half of which went to three recipients listed among winners of the Serena Shim award: $10,000 to Mint Press, $10,000 to Gareth Porter and $20,000 to Max Blumenthal.
The effects of all the award-winning misinformation circulated through the echo system are difficult to measure. Despite the noise generated online, it made little or no impact on mainstream debate about Syria. Defending the Assad regime in this way had far-reaching implications, however, because to believe the claims of deception, it’s also necessary to believe that international investigators from the U.N. and the OPCW, along with Western governments’ intelligence agencies and almost all of the mainstream media, had not only got it wrong but were also deliberately concealing the truth.
One result of that was a secondary conspiracy theory about the OPCW and a concerted effort by the deniers, supported by Russia at an international level, to discredit it as a reliable institution.
In 2018, Western powers accused Syrian forces of a chemical attack in Douma and responded by bombing several sites that they said were linked to chemical weapons activity. The OPCW’s Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) later found “reasonable grounds” for believing a toxic chemical had been used as a weapon in Douma and the chemical in question was likely to have been molecular chlorine.
The deniers, as usual, maintained it was a faked attack by rebels. Their campaign was given a boost by the emergence of two former OPCW staff — both of whom had been involved in the Douma investigation — complaining about the way it had been conducted. One of them was said to be in possession of internal emails, text messages and “suppressed draft reports” showing the FFM’s findings about Douma had been manipulated to reach a “pre-ordained” conclusion — thus providing retrospective justification for the Western airstrikes. When eventually released by WikiLeaks, the documents failed to match up to their advance publicity. By that stage, however, the online echo system was already treating the OPCW “scandal” as established fact.
For Syria and Russia, these attempts to undermine the organization’s credibility served a useful purpose in hampering efforts to hold Syria accountable. Russia had its own interests in that area too, since it was widely believed to have used a Novichok nerve agent against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018 and, later, to attack the Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny.
Without some form of accountability, the international norm against chemical weapons, painstakingly established over more than 20 years, would be placed in jeopardy. However, the FFM had a limited brief: Its role was to investigate reported attacks and ascertain whether toxic chemicals had been used as a weapon, but its remit did not extend to attributing blame. For a while, that task had been assigned to the Joint Investigative Mechanism, a body set up by the U.N. Security Council, but Russia put a stop to its activities after it issued a report blaming the Assad regime for a sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun in 2017.
In response to that, and in the face of opposition from Russia and Syria, the OPCW’s governing body, the Conference of the States Parties, had voted to establish the Investigation and Identification Team, an alternative attribution body that was just starting work when the rumpus of Douma broke out — with deniers citing the alleged scandal over Douma as evidence that the OPCW was unfit to be entrusted with assigning blame.
The political battles unleashed at the OPCW look set to continue, but the most damaging effects of the denial campaign are likely to be felt closer to home. Its claims of fakery and mass deception provide a gateway for the unwary into a world of “post-truth” politics.
The real issue here is not so much the denial of chemical attacks as the way it serves as a vehicle for normalizing conspiracy theories under the guise of critical thinking. Admirable though it is to view news reports and government statements with caution and scrutinize the evidence, the denial campaign was something else, encouraging people to reject information at will simply because it didn’t fit their view of how the world works. The online echo system played a central role in this, purportedly compensating for the deficiencies of mainstream media while applying editorial standards that were generally lower or nonexistent.
Denying chemical attacks thus became one building block in the construction of a counterfactual community where beliefs and assumptions took precedence over evidence and facts. This attitude to information is fundamental to all conspiracy theories, and it was no coincidence that among believers in the Syrian rebels’ fakery there were plenty who disputed the “official” version of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington and later, when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, could be found on social media denouncing lockdowns, face masks and vaccines as a plot to impose control over people’s behavior.