How an Email Sting Operation Unearthed a pro-Assad Conspiracy—and Russia’s Role In It

Attempts to undermine the OPCW’s investigation of the 2018 Douma chemical weapon attack involved Russian diplomats, Russian state media, WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange’s personal lawyer

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How an Email Sting Operation Unearthed a pro-Assad Conspiracy—and Russia’s Role In It
A car with poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad/Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

During a three-month correspondence with someone he believed to be a Russian intelligence officer, a British academic has unmasked a global network of Russian diplomats and conspiracy theorists seeking to undermine the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Hague-based intergovernmental watchdog that has been investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Paul McKeigue, a professor of genetic epidemiology and statistical genetics at the University of Edinburgh’s College of Medicine, sent over 300 emails to a contact known only as “Ivan,” who approached McKeigue with an offer to help him “get to (the) truth” about Syria.

In his in-depth communication with “Ivan,” McKeigue revealed the scale and zeal of the operation against the OPCW, its tangled web of connections, and its ruthless determination to suppress views critical of the Assad regime.

Among other things, McKeigue solicited “Ivan” to spy on over a dozen journalists and academics and revealed details of a plan to collect and publicly distribute the personal information of eyewitnesses to a major atrocity in Syria, according to emails reviewed by Newlines.

There was a snag, however.

“Ivan,” the putative Russian intelligence officer McKeigue spent months communicating with, didn’t exist. The account the epidemiologist had been corresponding with was operated by the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA), an NGO that has compiled documentary evidence of war crimes in Syria carried out not just by the Assad regime but also by the Islamic State group. Some of the evidence has been introduced in U.S. and European court cases.

Yet McKeigue and his colleagues at the so-called Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a letterhead organization consisting of other British academics (although none with any expertise on Syria or the Middle East), have spent years suggesting that those officials, and the Assad regime at large, have been framed in an elaborate conspiracy consisting of Syrian rebels, rescue workers, and the U.S. and British intelligence services. Moreover, the Working Group alleges that journalists, academics, and human rights workers, whom they often insinuate or accuse of being CIA or MI6 agents, have participated in the conspiracy.

CIJA may have initially undertaken an epistolary deception in the interest of operational security, but in talking to McKeigue it got far more than it bargained for. Among the disclosures the professor made to “Ivan” over the course of three months were the following:

  • WikiLeaks introduced the Working Group to Melinda Taylor, an International Criminal Court lawyer as well as one of Julian Assange’s lawyers, who drafted a legal opinion for the group to use as “lawfare,” as McKeigue put it, against the OPCW;
  • Brendan Whelan, a former staff member of the OPCW whom the Working Group has relied on to advance its claims, is legally represented by Geoff Roberts, Taylor’s husband. Whelan has been corresponding with the Working Group since before going public with his claims. According to McKeigue, he has also regularly liaised with Alexander Shulgin, Russia’s ambassador to the Netherlands who is also Russia’s permanent representative to the OPCW, in a so-far vain attempt to discredit its investigation;
  • Several members of the Working Group have also been in contact with Russian Embassy officials in London, Geneva, The Hague, and New York to coordinate their information campaign, according to the emails;
  • Stephen Mangan, a reporter for Ruptly, a Russian state media organ, shared with McKeigue personal details about Syrian eyewitnesses who attested, contra the Working Group’s conspiracy theory, that a chemical attack did indeed take place in the city of Douma in April 2018. Despite Mangan’s fulsome cooperation in providing McKeigue with what would otherwise be privileged aspects of a field reporter’s findings, McKeigue was so suspicious of the countervailing evidence that he instructed “Ivan” to spy on Mangan, too;
  • The Working Group became increasingly concerned about what it thought were “coordinated media attacks” against its members and eventually established a new front organization — “Berlin Group 21” — in order to retail its counterfactual claims through German media and the Bundestag.

Pro-Assad disinformation has been a growth industry of late, particularly following Russia’s direct intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, whereupon Kremlin-backed propaganda organs went into overdrive in an attempt to exonerate Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, of atrocities and war crimes, sometimes in advance of their commission and typically by blaming them on his enemies or third parties.

Indeed, CIJA says it undertook the sting operation with McKeigue because it feared the Working Group would obtain sensitive information about it, including its location and the names of people associated with it, making the organization vulnerable to harassment or worse.

CIJA came into public controversy when the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) accused it in 2020 of improper accounting methods related to a 2013 grant to the NGO. CIJA denied the allegations, and the European Commission has since accepted that the worst of OLAF’s charges of forgery and fraud were wrong; the dispute now hinges on a lesser administrative issue. Regardless, the European Commission has maintained throughout this affair that no amount of bad bookkeeping or financial impropriety has any bearing on CIJA’s forensic work of collecting evidence from Syria. So far, the organization has nearly 1.3 million documents stored away in a hidden archive — hidden because of the manifold hostile state and nonstate actors who might seek to steal, tamper with, or destroy such crucial evidence.

Of special interest to the Working Group is the April 7, 2018, chemical attack in Douma, Damascus, which killed up to 85 people when a modified cylinder containing chlorine dropped through the roof of an apartment block. Open-source analysis by Bellingcat, Forensic Architecture, and The New York Times Visual Investigations unit quickly established that the attack was airborne and that the lethal substance used was likely chlorine. At the time of the attack, two Mi-8 helicopters, which had earlier left the Dumayr air base armed with barrel bombs, were seen hovering above Douma.

An extensive investigation by the OPCW later confirmed the use of chlorine in Douma, and, although its remit prevented it from assigning culpability for the attack, revealed that the trajectory of the cylinder was consistent with it having been dropped from the sky, thereby strongly implying that the regime was the perpetrator since it alone controlled the airspace over Douma.

For his part, McKeigue maintains the April 7 gas attack — one of two gas attacks that led President Donald Trump to conduct U.S. retaliatory strikes on the regime’s chemical weapons production infrastructure — was a “false flag” operation perpetrated by the Syrian opposition. According to this theory, the victims in Douma were killed in a makeshift “gas chamber,” and the weapons of mass destruction atrocity was staged. There is no evidence for this allegation, but McKeigue admits to borrowing it from a late American pharmacologist named Denis O’Brien.

In a self-published book titled “Murder in the SunMorgue,” O’Brien acknowledged that this idea came to him in a dream after eating an anchovy pizza, a common gustatory trigger for him, apparently, that led to “these epiphanies all the time.” This unconscious vision pertained to an earlier and more infamous sarin gas attack in 2013 targeting an opposition-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which violated then-President Barack Obama’s “red line” for U.S. intervention in the conflict. (The Obama administration mulled airstrikes on the regime before accepting a Russian proposal to remove al-Assad’s chemical stockpiles.)

O’Brien recounted in “SunMorgue,” which is available online:

I was dreaming that I was being chased through downtown Kafr Batna by a herd of goats with rigor mortis. They had pink cheeks and lips, and smelled of almonds, and they were gaining on me even though they were dead and stiff. Upon waking, I was flat on my back, staring up into the darkness trying to catch my breath, and it came to me: ‘Cyanide!!’ And then it hit me again: ‘Carbon monoxide!! Yes!!!’

McKeigue later described this literal fever dream as a “careful and elaborate reconstruction” at a talk at the University of Edinburgh’s Ethics Forum in January 2019.

In a series of emails, McKeigue described coordinating with Taylor, the Australian-born, Hague-based human rights lawyer who currently works with the International Criminal Court, to conduct what McKeigue unabashedly calls “lawfare” in order to undermine the OPCW’s investigation.

McKeigue wrote to “Ivan” that he first came into contact with Taylor via a referral from WikiLeaks, an organization that, according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, was the main publisher of internal Democratic Party correspondence hacked and leaked by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. A subsequent U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Intelligence report into Russia’s election interference further found that WikiLeaks “very likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort.”

Taylor’s connection to WikiLeaks appears to be through her legal representation of its controversial founder, Assange, now incarcerated in British prison as the U.S. Department of Justice appeals a court verdict denying his extradition to the United States on a raft of charges including conspiracy to obtain national defense information through hacking of government computer systems.

On her LinkedIn page, Taylor describes herself as a “member of the legal team of Mr. Julian Assange,” having been one since 2014.

She has also worked as a human rights lawyer for over two decades and briefly assisted in the legal defense of Slobodan Milošević, the former president of Serbia who, in 2001, was indicted at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on charges of aiding genocide in the Balkans. (Milošević died before the trial’s conclusion and was never convicted.)

McKeigue’s emails with “Ivan” show that Taylor communicated with the British epidemiologist since at least September 2019, when she sent him a lengthy “legal advice memorandum” detailing certain litigious means available to chivy the OPCW. McKeigue refers to the memorandum as one way of conducting “lawfare” against the chemical watchdog — a term typically invoked by the targets of frivolous or harassing litigation. McKeigue said Taylor provided him with the memorandum, pro bono, as part of the Working Group’s efforts to advance claims of impropriety among the OPCW by two of its former staffers, including former OPCW employee Whelan.

At one point, Taylor even noted the location of CIJA’s headquarters and archive to McKeigue, alleging that it had been established in this location for tax and not security reasons. McKeigue had already been told the location by a disgruntled former CIJA employee also in touch via email with the Working Group. He passed both emails along to “Ivan.”

As a result of these disclosures, CIJA told Newlines, it was forced to relocate some 1.3 million pieces of evidence detailing war crimes and human rights abuses.

Taylor did not respond to requests for comment.

Whelan, an OPCW employee until 2018, came to public notice in October the following year during a presentation held by the Courage Foundation, a group founded by WikiLeaks in 2013 to provide funding for the legal defenses of Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning. Whelan initially went by the pseudonym “Alex,” portraying himself as a whistleblower concerned with the OPCW’s handling of the Douma investigation.

In October and November 2019, Whelan coordinated with WikiLeaks to leak a set of internal OPCW documents related to that investigation, which he alleged demonstrated “irregular behavior” by the watchdog in its forensic conduct. Specifically, he alleged that the OPCW was moving to reach a “preordained” conclusion about the Douma investigation and that countervailing evidence was being elided and dissenting views of OPCW staff were being silenced. The OPCW later released its final report showing “reasonable grounds that use of a toxic chemical (chlorine) as a weapon took place” in Douma on April 7, though per its remit, the report did not assign blame.

The Working Group was previously thought to have been uninvolved in the effort to advance Whelan’s accusations against his former employer. However, Taylor’s legal memorandum to McKeigue, which he dates “September 2019” and describes as having been “provided for us to show to OPCW whistleblowers,” predates Whelan’s first public appearance via the Courage Foundation on October 15, 2019.

Although Whelan was portrayed by Taylor, Roberts, and the Working Group as a whistleblower working on the OPCW’s Douma investigation, a report released by the OPCW director-general in February 2020 determined that Whelan, referred to as “Inspector B,” “never left the command post in Damascus because he had not completed the necessary training required to deploy on-site to Douma.” Whelan left the OPCW at the end of August 2018, before the Fact-Finding Mission undertook “the bulk of its analytical work, examined a large number of witness interviews, and received the results of sampling and analysis,” the report stated.

Whelan, the OPCW wrote, citing him along with another internal critic of the watchdog, identified as “Inspector A,” “are not whistleblowers. They are individuals who could not accept that their views were not backed by evidence. When their view could not gain traction, they took matters into their own hands and committed a breach of their obligations to the Organisation.”

McKeigue eventually told “Ivan” that both Taylor and Roberts could be reached via Whelan and that Whelan could be reached via Alexander Shulgin, Russia’s ambassador to the Netherlands and its permanent representative to the OPCW.

In a series of emails to “Ivan,” McKeigue provided additional information on what the OPCW described as Whelan’s “effort to have continued access to … the Douma investigation.” McKeigue told “Ivan” that Whelan maintains working contact with Shulgin and explained how the Working Group and Whelan have liaised directly with the Russian Embassy in The Hague to propose resolutions at the OPCW.

“Brendan (Whelan) keeps in contact with your embassy in Den Haag,” McKeigue wrote, referring to the Russian government. “So if you wanted someone to make an introduction (for one of your diplomats, not in a covert role) to Melinda (Taylor) and Geoff (Roberts), this would be a possible route. Brendan knows them better than I do.”

Newlines reached out to Roberts for clarification as to his professional relationship with Whelan and to seek comment on these disclosures. We received no reply.

McKeigue outlined to his presumed Russian intelligence pen pal “complicated lines of communication” between the Working Group and a network of Russian Foreign Ministry officials in four separate diplomatic missions around the world: The Hague, New York, London, and Geneva. Russian diplomats, he noted, had been corresponding with members of the Working Group for a presentation at a January 2020 Arria-formula meeting of the U.N. Security Council, convened by Russia in order to sow skepticism about the OPCW’s still-pending investigation.

McKeigue wrote that he worked personally with Stepan Ankeev, an official at the Russian Embassy in London, to put the plan in motion, while his Working Group associates kept in touch with other Russian diplomats in other countries. “But in the end it all worked out okay,” McKeigue wrote. “The only other diplomatic communication we have had is with Sergey Krutskikh in Geneva, who is Vanessa’s contact but has occasionally passed information to the Working Group via Piers.”

“Piers” refers to Piers Robinson, the founder of the Working Group and an outspoken commentator on Syria on Twitter, in contrast with McKeigue who has no known account on the social media platform.

“Vanessa” refers to Vanessa Beeley, perhaps the most prominent and controversial member of the Working Group, although she, unlike her colleagues, has no academic background. A former waste management consultant turned blogger, Beeley became a fixture on RT, the Russian government’s English-language media network that promotes Kremlin-friendly narratives, for her willingness to add all manner of unsubstantiated and imaginative allegations against those targeted by the Assad regime.

She has repeatedly accused the White Helmets, an internationally funded rescue organization, of staging chemical attacks in Syria otherwise attributed to the Assad regime, going so far as to advocate that the volunteers pulling people out from under the rubble of Syrian and Russian airstrikes themselves be targeted by such sorties. Beeley further accuses the White Helmets of being involved in organ trafficking — a claim that received condemnation from Western governments after she propounded it at another Arria-formula meeting of the Security Council in a publicity stunt organized by the Russian mission to the U.N.

Beeley now lives in Damascus and drives around in a pink Volkswagen Beetle adorned with pictures of Bashar and Hafez al-Assad, as per a BBC report.

Even McKeigue seems to recognize that such antics have put the Working Group in a difficult spot. In an email to “Ivan,” he acknowledged that Beeley is “not always careful with words.”

“We, when writing as the (Working Group) are very careful — we know that our adversaries will use anything they can quote against us,” McKeigue told “Ivan.” McKeigue went on to explain, “I would have said that White Helmets are not legitimate targets, even if they are co-located with terrorists, unless they are carrying weapons.”

Beeley and Robinson’s purported contact in Switzerland, Sergey Krutskikh, is secretary to Russia’s mission at the U.N. He is also the son of a more well-known Russian diplomat, Andrey Krutskikh, who was appointed early last year as the first director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s newly minted Department of International Information Security, which coordinates with European countries on cybersecurity.

The Working Group’s efforts didn’t just involve Russian diplomats; they also involved other journalists.

In a series of emails in March, McKeigue revealed to “Ivan” details of a plan to collect sensitive personal details about Syrian opposition activists and survivors of the Douma chemical attack, then launder that information through alternative media outlets.

McKeigue explained how his team worked in conjunction with the Irish journalist Mangan, formerly with Reuters and now the senior verification editor at Ruptly, a streaming video platform based in Germany that is funded by the Russian government. Mangan, the correspondence shows, had been communicating with the Working Group since at least December 2020.

McKeigue forwarded his exchanges with Mangan to “Ivan,” in which Mangan explained that his team of local “stringers” in Damascus worked to track down a number of high-profile anti-Assad activists as well as freelance photojournalists, including at least one eyewitness to the Douma chemical attack. Mangan sent McKeigue screen captures from a database the former said he “collated over the years” featuring sensitive personal details on activists and war crimes witnesses, often drawn from interviews conducted on the ground in Syria by Mangan’s Ruptly colleagues.

“Can any of the relatives provide family photos showing themselves with the deceased victims?” McKeigue asked the journalist. He evidently wanted Mangan to help him prop up his own pet theory about the victims dying in an improvised gas chamber — as per the dead pharmacologist’s dream — rather than hit with chlorine, as the OPCW concluded.

Mangan sent McKeigue two photographs, including a close-up of a cell phone belonging to a man whose wife and four children were killed in the Douma attack. The man had pulled out his phone to show a picture of his children to one of Mangan’s stringers, who promptly recorded the screen’s images with his video camera. Mangan went through Ruptly’s footage and sent McKeigue an embedded still showing this interaction.

Ironically, McKeigue grew suspicious of Mangan, whose forwarded evidence hinting at a bona fide chemical weapon incident undercut the professor’s own version of what had happened in Douma. McKeigue told Mangan he thought these interviews were suspicious, and he couldn’t believe anyone in the town would confirm that such an attack had taken place.

McKeigue took his doubts a step further, telling “Ivan” that he now believed Mangan had himself been co-opted by a Western government. The Irishman was “not what he appears to be,” McKeigue wrote, asking the fake Russian spy to carry out covert surveillance on Mangan and his Ruptly team — themselves employees of a Russian state-funded media organization — “without letting him know that anyone has raised concerns.”

In an email to Newlines, Mangan said he “can’t and wouldn’t” comment on sources, even though he had enthusiastically shared those sources with McKeigue and the Working Group. “To verify the quality and validity of any information, it’s important to put the findings to various parties, especially if they’ve got very different opinions on the subject. This ensures an accurate and complete picture,” Mangan said, although he declined to address McKeigue’s solicitation to have him monitored by Russian intelligence.

Scattered throughout the three months of back-and-forth messages between McKeigue and “Ivan” are notes of anxiety and concern, namely that the Working Group’s reputation (such as it is) was being tarnished in the press and online discussions. News outlets around the world have now extensively covered Beeley’s dangerous accusations against the White Helmets, in which she goes so far as to declare them “legitimate targets” for elimination. Another member of the group, Robinson, left his job at the University of Sheffield in early 2019 amid claims that he trafficked in conspiracy theories.

Earlier this year, when Working Group member and University of Bristol professor David Miller came into similar scandal and was later placed under investigation after alleging during a lecture that “Jewish student groups” in the U.K. were actually “political lobby groups overseen by the Union of Jewish Students, which is constitutionally bound to supporting Israel,” McKeigue described the resulting outcry as a coordinated attack on the Working Group by activists, think tanks, and journalists “run by the Israeli embassy under the direction of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.”

One of the journalists McKeigue named as part of this alleged Israeli-run defamation campaign is Oliver Kamm, a leader writer for The Times of London. At one point, McKeigue had sent “Ivan” a document titled “Network of UK narrative enforcers for coverage of the Syrian conflict,” also naming Kamm in that constellation of actors in a Word document titled “shills.docx.”

On Feb. 1, when asked which individuals in particular he wanted “Ivan” to “attack fast and tough,” McKeigue sent the man he believed to be a Russian intelligence operative two names along with their private email addresses. The first was Kamm’s.

There were over a dozen people named in the “shills.docx” file, including Newlines editor Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, who is also a Lecturer in Digital Journalism in the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland.

“Prof McKeigue asked a man whom he believed to be an agent of a foreign autocracy to hack my private email account and steal its contents,” Kamm has written to the principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, McKeigue’s employer, in a letter seen by Newlines. Kamm added that he is pursuing a formal complaint with the school given what he has called McKeigue’s “gross professional misconduct.”

In a statement to Newlines, a spokesperson at the University of Edinburgh wrote: “The actions referred to in media reports were undertaken in Paul McKeigue’s capacity as a private citizen, not as an employee of the University. We respect the rights of staff to have interests unrelated to their roles within the institution. However, if we receive serious complaints about anyone’s conduct, we consider whether an investigation is required and take appropriate action.”

To address what McKeigue described as an “operation that has coordinated media attacks” on the Working Group, he and his colleagues decided to rebrand themselves and refocus their attention on another European country.

Early last month, the Working Group released a statement under the name of “Berlin Group 21.” The statement expresses “deep concern over the ongoing (OPCW) controversy” and boasts a number of famous signatories including the former OPCW director Jose Bustani, the former U.N. Special Rapporteur for Palestine Richard Falk, and Pentagon Papers journalist Daniel Ellsberg.

“Piers (Robinson) does not know that I am communicating with your office,” McKeigue wrote to “Ivan” on March 13. “He has worked over the last few months to coordinate this initiative.”

McKeigue added that Robinson “thinks it’s best for him to stay behind the scenes as our (Working Group) is somewhat controversial and we have been smeared in the media.”

(In an email to Newlines after the publication of this article, McKeigue wrote that neither he nor the Working Group had anything to do with the “Berlin Group 21,” despite his suggestion to “Ivan” that Robinson was indeed behind it but operating “behind the scenes” owing to “our” Working Group’s controversial status.)

In addition to his work compiling the “Berlin Group 21” statement, McKeigue said, Robinson had also been working as a researcher for two members of the left-wing Die Linke party in Germany’s Bundestag.

The motive to relocate the Working Group’s focus and manpower to Germany may also be linked to a series of ongoing criminal cases there against officials of the Assad regime.

In late February, the German federal prosecutor handed down a landmark conviction of Eyad al-Gharib, a Syrian intelligence officer charged with “aiding and abetting a crime against humanity in the form of torture and deprivation of liberty.” CIJA’s evidence was provided to the prosecutor’s office and ultimately used in the service of obtaining al-Gharib’s conviction.

Al-Gharib’s boss, Anwar Raslan, now awaits trial in Germany, as does a former military doctor, Dr. Alaa Mousa, separately accused of torturing patients at a hospital in the Syrian city of Homs. (Full disclosure: Jett Goldsmith served as one of two lead forensic investigators in a televised documentary that ultimately led to Mousa’s arrest in Germany.)

In all three of these cases, CIJA-amassed evidence has been used by German prosecutors.

“Truth, Reparation, and Justice.”

Out of over 300 confirmed chemical attacks by Assad regime forces in Syria, the Working Group has focused on just a few cases — specifically, ones that have elicited a military response from Western countries. The goal here appears to be to undermine multilateral institutions that may credibly identify the perpetrator. An atrocity in Syria, by the Working Group’s lights, is important only insofar as its potential to trigger a military response from the U.S. and its allies. McKeigue told the BBC that he views himself as “neutral” with respect to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the 21st century and that his objective is to expose “covert information operations” that have “subverted (the) system of parliamentary government” in the U.K. But under the guise of speaking truth to power and ferreting out mainstream falsehoods, the obfuscation of facts actually helps foster the air of impunity that allows a dictator to carry on committing war crimes.

But even as his group levels unfounded allegations against journalists, academics, and rescuers, McKeigue evinces no sense of contradiction about engaging in what might fairly be called “covert information operations” with someone he considered an operative working on behalf of a party to the war in Syria to further this noble-sounding agenda. (And where “Ivan” was an invention, the Working Group’s contacts with four Russian missions are not, as revealed by McKeigue himself.)

But Toby Cadman, an international lawyer working on Syrian accountability as well as a CIJA advisory board member, confirmed to Newlines that McKeigue’s correspondence with “Ivan” has been passed to British authorities given the solicitations to spying and hacking.

So far, McKeigue has not suffered any professional or legal consequences for his actions. The University of Edinburgh has given him cover citing “freedom of expression,” even though he has used his title and affiliation with the university to lend respectability to the conspiracy theories he has published with the Working Group. His tenure as a supervisor of doctoral students at the school’s Usher Institute and his research grants have not been impacted thus far.

CIJA’s director of external relations, Nerma Jelacic, told Newlines that the involvement of Russian diplomats and state-run media outlets in the Working Group’s operations is an important part of why this otherwise marginal collection of academics has seen tactical victories. “These networks would have remained nothing more than a bunch of marginalized ideologues and conspiracists” but for Moscow’s platforming and assistance, says Jelacic. And “Russia’s disinformation campaigns about Syria would be far less effective if they had to rely solely on statements from the Russian foreign and other ministries rather than on what Westerner academics and self-described ‘whistleblowers’ have said.”

“It can be easy to dismiss these propagandists as cranks, but they indicate a far more sinister threat,” Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK campaigns manager, said. “As international justice efforts gain momentum, there’s a very real threat that the Syrian and Russian governments will try to harm those seeking justice for Syrian victims. So vigilance and increased security will be crucial. … These individuals, quite disgracefully, are trying to deny Syrians these rights.”

Just as this story was being finalized, the OPCW released its latest report into the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The watchdog, which has since been authorized to assign responsibility for chemical weapons attacks, found there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that on Feb. 2, 2018, a Syrian military helicopter controlled by the Assad regime’s forces dropped “at least one cylinder” of toxic chlorine gas on the eastern town of Saraqib, affecting a dozen people. This chemical attack, again one of hundreds perpetrated in Syria over the last decade, never drew the scrutiny of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, no doubt because it was underreported at the time and never engendered U.S. or British airstrikes in response.

This article was part of a joint investigation between Newlines and The Daily Beast. Their story can be read here.

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