A lesson from Syria: let’s not fuel the conspiracy theories of the far right George Monbiot
The way discredited stories spread after a chemical war atrocity should be a matter of serious concern
What do we believe? This is the crucial democratic question. Without informed choice, democracy is meaningless. Our only defence is constant vigilance, rigour and scepticism. But when some of the world’s most famous crusaders against propaganda appear to give credence to conspiracy theories, you wonder where to turn.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) last month published its investigation into the chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun, which killed almost 100 people on 4 April and injured around 200. It concluded that the atrocity was caused by a bomb filled with sarin, dropped by the government of Syria.
The Syrian government has a long history of chemical weapons use, and the OPCW’s conclusions concur with a wealth of witness testimony. But a major propaganda effort has sought to discredit such testimony, and characterise the atrocity as a “false-flag attack”.
This effort began with an article published on the website Al-Masdar news, run by the Syrian government loyalist Leith Abou Fadel. It suggested that either the attack had been staged by “terrorist forces”, or chemicals stored in a missile factory had inadvertently been released when the Syrian government bombed it.
The story was then embellished on Infowars – the notorious far-right conspiracy forum. The Infowars article claimed that the attack was staged by the Syrian first responder group, the White Helmets, “to lay blame on the Syrian government”. The author of this article was Mimi Al-Laham, also known as Maram Susli, Partisan Girl, Syrian Girl and Syrian Sister. She is a loyalist of the Assad government who has appeared on podcasts hosted by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. She has another role: as an “expert” used by a retired professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Theodore Postol. He has produced a wide range of claims casting doubt on the Syrian government’s complicity in chemical weapons attacks.
First, Postol claimed that the crater from which the sarin in Khan Shaykhun had emanated was most probably caused not by a bomb dropped from the air but by an explosive device laid on the ground (a hypothesis examined and thoroughly debunked by the OPCW report). Then he claimed that there was “no evidence to support” the notion that sarin had been released from the air, and proposed there was strong evidence to suggest that the mass poisoning had been caused by a bomb that hit a rebel weapons depot.
He further claimed that a French intelligence report contradicted the story that sarin had been dropped from a plane, as it suggested that sarin had been dropped by helicopters in a different place. Each of these contradictory hypotheses was patiently demolished at the time by bloggers and analysts.
The Guardian visited Khan Shaykhun (also known as Khan Sheikhun) in the aftermath of the attack – the only news organisation to do so. It established that there had been no weapons depot near the scene of the contamination. Surrounding warehouses were abandoned. None had been attacked in recent months. The contamination came from a hole in the road from where the remains of a projectile protruded.
But eight days after the Khan Shaykhun attack John Pilger, famous for exposing propaganda and lies, was interviewed on the website Consortium News. He praised Postol as “the distinguished MIT professor”, suggested that the Syrian government could not have carried out the attack – as he claimed it had destroyed its chemical arsenal in 2014 – and maintained that jihadists in Khan Shaykhun “have been playing with nerve gases and sarin … for some years now. There’s no doubt about that.” Despite many claims to the contrary, I have found no credible evidence that Syrian jihadists have access to sarin.
On 26 April Noam Chomsky, interviewed on Democracy Now, claimed that Postol, whom Chomsky called “a highly regarded strategic analyst and intelligence analyst”, had produced a “pretty devastating critique” of a White House report that maintained the Syrian government was responsible. Although Chomsky accepted that a chemical attack had taken place and said it was plausible that the Syrian government could have carried it out, this interview helped trigger a frenzy of online commentary endorsing Postol’s hypotheses and dismissing the possibility that the Assad government could have been responsible.
In June the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an article in the German paper Die Welt, based on information from a “senior adviser to the US intelligence community” who maintained that there had been no sarin strike on Khan Shaykhun. Instead, a meeting of jihadist leaders in “a twostorey cinder-block building” had been bombed by the Syrian air force with the support of the Russians and with Washington’s full knowledge. Fertilisers and disinfectants in the basement, Hersh claimed, could have caused the mass poisoning. (Again, this possibility was discredited by the OPCW).
I asked Hersh to give me the building’s coordinates: the most basic evidence you would expect to support a claim of this nature. The Terraserver website provides satellite imagery that makes it possible to check for any changes to the buildings in Khan Shaykhun. But he told me that the images are not sufficiently “precise and reliable”. As every building is clearly visible, this claim is hard to understand.
Scepticism of all official claims is essential, especially when they are used as a pretext for military action – in this case Tomahawk missiles fired on the orders of Donald Trump from a US destroyer on 7 April. We know from Iraq not to take any such claims on trust. But I also believe there is a difference between scepticism and denial.
In Vox earlier this month, the writer David Roberts suggested that America is facing “an epistemic crisis” caused by the conservative rejection of all forms of expertise and knowledge. Politics in the US and elsewhere is now dominated by wild conspiracy theories and paranoia – the narrative platform from which fascism arises. This, as Roberts proposes, presents an urgent threat to democracy. If the scourges of establishment propaganda promote, even unwittingly, groundless stories developed by the “alt right”, we are in deeper trouble than he suggests.
We know from Iraq not to take any such claims on trust. But there is a difference between scepticism and denial
Collecting samples in Khan Shaykhun