Russia and the Syrian Regime are Documenting Their Own Crimes

In the era of “fake news,” Russian hacking, and “post truth presidency,” it can be hard to discern fact from fiction and propaganda from reporting. Over the past few years the smear and bullshit industry has been kicked into overdrive by state actors invested in spreading misinformation.

Propaganda is nothing new but as America comes to grips with the role of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election via hacks and so-called “fake news”, many are wondering what, if anything, can be done to counter these increasingly toxic and advanced strains of misinformation. Most worrying is the fact that US president elect Donald Trump seems to be a voracious consumer of fake information, at the expense of US intelligence agencies and other more rational observers.

This seemingly insurmountable challenge has left lawmakers scratching their heads, considering countermeasures and toying with the absolutely unacceptable notion of censorship. For those of us who oppose censorship but are still terrified by the plague of bullshit there is good news. Simply put, the best cure for Russian propaganda is Russian propaganda.

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the Syrian war, which despite being one of the most recorded conflicts in history, is still the subject of a massive amount of orchestrated disinformation. As the evacuation of Aleppo kicks off Russia and the Syrian regime are franticly pushing to control the narrative through selective reporting and ad hominem attacks. Pro Regime outlets, Russian TV as well as some western apologists have consistently tried to downplay or obfuscate the reports of mass atrocities taking place in Syria. One of the most obvious propaganda tactics has been to attack the credibility of rescue workers and try to debunk evidence of indiscriminate airstrikes.

Fortunately, the disinformation frequently discredits itself.

In the wake of an airstrike against a UN SARC convoy earlier this year Russian television claimed that Russian forces did not know the location of the convoy and that no airstrike had taken place. Yet they also showed Russian drone footage of a rebel mortar being driven past the very convoy. Russians can’t have been unaware of the convoys location while simultaneously tracking it for proof that it was somehow a legitimate target. The UN subsequently provided satellite evidence that showed that indeed airstrikes had taken place.
Russia and the Syrian regime have claimed that they don’t target civilians yet they have dropped leaflets over Aleppo which threaten the population with extermination if they remain in their city.
There has also been an obsession with discrediting civilian voices coming out of Aleppo. Russia Today and InTheNow have both aired videos over the past 72 hours calling into question the validity of activists tweeting videos out of Aleppo, blatantly asserting that they themselves are part of a misinformation campaign. The implication has been that the activists are somehow linked to the west or are not in Aleppo.
The most startling example of this has been the campaign to discredit the twitter account run jointly by the seven year old Bana Alabed and her mother Fatimeh, from inside Aleppo. During a segment featuring RT’s Anissa Naouai for the Russian funded InTheNow tried to discredit Bana’s and other Syrian’s twitter accounts and pleas for help “it almost looks like a coordinated PR campaign.”  This regardless of the fact that many journalists have been in direct contact in Bana and her mother and Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins has used geolocation to prove Bana’s precise location in Aleppo.
A subsequent RT segment featuring Murad Gazdiev attacked Alabed’s parents, “for all their concern for Bana’s wellbeing instead of fleeing east Aleppo the parents chose to take Bana deeper into rebel territory.” Gazdiev went on to try and discredit the notion that Bana’s family could have access to internet “the odd thing is how Bana’s parents seem to have a constant internet connection.” Gazdiev claims that while he was in government controlled Aleppo there was no internet yet Bana was still tweeting.
Of course tweets from RT’s own correspondents show that there is internet in Aleppo and anyone who has been to rebel controlled Aleppo knows that there are ways to stay online. Finally after complaining about being blocked by Bana and questioning why she would be “up at 2am,” Gazdiev did acknowledge that she is “a real girl in Aleppo being used as a tool in a war she probably doesn’t understand.” In other words Russian propaganda discredited Russian propaganda, Bana is real and in Aleppo, and Russia knows it.
One of the most frequent targets of disinformation and smear attacks has been Syria’s lauded Civil Defense group known as the “White Helmets.” Attacks from Russian outlets and apologists have been relentless. In a press conference held along with Syria’s UN delegation a Canadian blogger named Eva Bartlett claimed that no one had ever heard of the White Helmets in East Aleppo. Unfortunately for Eva Bartlett and Russia’s disinfo narrative RT also ran a segment where surrendered civilians—undoubtedly in a position where they could be coerced by nearby regime soldiers—claimed that the White Helmets were notorious thieves known to everyone. RT has also claimed that the White Helmets abandon civilians under the rubble. This is what Freud called the logic of dreams. The White Helmets which RT says don’t exist have been behaving terribly according to RT.
The fact checking website Snopes was so appalled by Bartlett’s dishonesty that they weighed on her false assertions that victims were being “recycled” and that Al Quds hospital cannot have been struck on two separate occasions.
The Syrian military itself is also a great source of corroborating information. Earlier this year after the White Helmets were struck in an attack, the Syrian armed forces posted a screen grab on their official Facebook page taking credit for the attack and boasting about “tearing apart” civil defense, yet regime and Russian outlets continued to deny targeting the group.
On Saturday the famous and beloved Syrian doctor Salem Abualnaser posted a powerful video from the roof of Al Quds hospital in Eastern Aleppo, showing the destruction around him explaining to the world why he chose to join the demonstrations in his home city of Tartus back in 2011 and why he is still in Aleppo. The subtext of this message makes it one of the most poignant pieces of footage filmed since the war began.
For several years the Assads themselves have been a great source of information on their own human rights abuses and lies. When the image of a shell shocked five year old, Omran Daqneesh in the back of an ambulance following a regime or Russian strike was seen across the world, Bashar Assad promptly dismissed the image as a fabrication during an interview with Swiss media. His wife Asma al Assad, however, had a different take, when she was questioned about the photo she did not dispute it’s authenticity. The Assad regime likewise has often claimed to be fighting ISIS in Aleppo, yet pro regime accounts consistently post images of dead fighters in Aleppo affiliated with other groups.
The regime has also dismissed all evidence that it is conducting mass displacement in communities like Daraya as propaganda, yet Syrian state television broadcast images of Bashar Assad visiting a completely bombed out and empty Daraya where he bragged “we have come here to replace the fake freedom which they tried to peddle during the beginning of the crisis- including here in Daraya- with true freedom.” This statement delivered in a completely empty street of a depopulated suburb was a direct denunciation of the peaceful protests that had taken place in Daraya in 2011 and furthermore it is an admission of guilt in the policy of displacement.
After the 2013 sarin gas attack on Eastern Ghouta Assad admitted to having chemical weapons during an interview with Dennis Kucinich for Fox News saying “it’s not a secret anymore.” The Syrian regime has always blamed the Ghouta attack on Syrian rebels in what they describe as a “false flag attack.” In the immediate aftermath of the chemical attack Russia Today initially aired segments calling into question weather or not the attack actually happened and Russian diplomats insisted that images of the attacks were faked.
Months later as evidence of the chemical attack became insurmountable, Russia Today aired a segment conveniently quoting “Russian diplomatic sources” saying that the Ghouta attack was the work of “an Al Qaeda linked group backed by Saudi Arabia.” Interestingly the segment contradicts previous Russian and regime assertions that the attack wasn’t real, by confirming that “one thousand and a half” people were killed. Curiously the regime has never been able to explain why they think the rebels have never again used their supposedly massive stockpile of sarin.
In recent weeks doubters and deniers have questioned the location and sincerity of activists uploading messages from besieged Aleppo. However as evacuations from rebel held Aleppo get underway more and more video evidence is emerging which proves that Aleppo was in fact full of civilians who were bombed indiscriminately. Activists and residents who’s location and validity have been questioned by doubters and state actors have been posting videos of themselves with civilians preparing to be evacuated in the easily identifiable green buses that have become a notorious tool of Assad’s policy of displacement. The videos posted by the activists the regime tried so hard to discredit either match the images of green buses taken from the regime side or are in easily identifiable locations. A video of evacuees running in terror seems to have escaped the attention of those openly mocking the besieged and terrified population.
The old axiom that “the first casualty of war is the truth” may be true, but sometimes you just aren’t looking hard enough.
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