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

The Guardian - - JOURNAL | OPINION -

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

Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/ Getty Images

Col­lect­ing sam­ples in Khan Shaykhun

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