In recent weeks the American public has been inundated with reports claiming the U.S., the U.K., and France have conclusive evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly used chemical weapons against his own people. Most of the American, British, and French media have lined up behind the proclamations of their respective political leaders by declaring as fact that the Assad regime is responsible for alleged chemical attacks as far back as 2013. The most recent attack is alleged to have taken place earlier this month in Douma, Syria.
In a recent episode of Reality Check, Ben Swann examined government justification of air strikes in Syria, noting that “the U.S. government has a history of taking humanitarian action without evidence.” Swann also pointed out that “the U.S. is meddling in a country where multiple countries are playing out a proxy war, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran, not to mention the heightened tensions from our president calling out Russia for its support of the Assad regime.”
Despite the confidence displayed by the corporate Western media, there is actually an abundant amount of conflicting reports regarding who used chemical weapons – was it pro-Assad forces backed by Russia and Iran, or was it “rebels” with backing from the U.S., the UK, France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia? Some reports have also questioned whether the attacks happened at all.
[Read more: Russia Accuses UK of Masterminding Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria]
Several foreign correspondents have been able to gain access to Douma and conduct interviews with residents. A few of the reports coincide with the Western media version of events (Assad used chemical weapons on his people), but several journalists reportedly found lack of evidence of the attack, or witness testimony to place the blame for chemical attacks on the U.S.-funded rebels.
Reviewing Ground Reports
On Monday, April 16, several journalists gained access to Douma and interviewed residents in the area. One of these journalists was Robert Fisk, two-time winner of the British Press Awards’ Journalist of the Year prize and a seven-time winner of the British Press Awards’ Foreign Correspondent of the Year. Fisk is a longtime foreign correspondent who the New York Times referred to as “probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain” and The Guardian called “one of the most famous journalists in the world.”
Writing for The Independent, Fisk described the situation in Douma:
This is the story of a town called Douma, a ravaged, stinking place of smashed apartment blocks–and of an underground clinic whose images of suffering allowed three of the Western world’s most powerful nations to bomb Syria last week. There’s even a friendly doctor in a green coat who, when I track him down in the very same clinic, cheerfully tells me that the “gas” videotape which horrified the world– despite all the doubters–is perfectly genuine.
War stories, however, have a habit of growing darker. For the same 58-year old senior Syrian doctor then adds something profoundly uncomfortable: the patients, he says, were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm.
According to the doctor Fisk spoke with, Dr. Assim Rahaibani, the international organization commonly known as The White Helmets had a role in carrying out the false or exaggerated scene depicting a chemical gas attack.
I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night–but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia–not gas poisoning.
At the same time that Fisk was interviewing the doctor and residents, Pearson Sharp of One America News stated he interviewed between 30 to 40 residents of Douma. As with Fisk, Sharp says he found no evidence of chemical attack and the residents he spoke with seemed completely unaware of the apparent incident.
Sharp’s reports have been criticized by the mainstream press, as well as typically anti-establishment press like The Intercept. A recent report from The Intercept was critical of all of the foreign correspondents who claim to have seen no evidence of a chemical attack. However, they reserved a specific distaste for Sharp and OAN. The Intercept reported:
There was no way of knowing if any of the medical personnel who spoke to the reporters in the presence of government minders had been coerced into making those statements by threats from Assad’s secret police, the mukhabarat, to harm their families — as the head of the largest medical relief agency in Syria told The Guardian they were. Still, Russian state television channels and critics of Western military intervention seized on credulous reports from the British writer Robert Fisk, the French news agency Agence France-Presse, Dirk Emmerich of Germany’s RTL, and Pearson Sharp of One America News, which is a San Diego cable channel known for its full-throated backing of Donald Trump and its hiring of “alt-right” conspiracy theorists.
The report went on to note that “former employees of the news channel told the Washington Post last year that Herring (owner of OAN), who met his wife in Russia, had ‘directed his channel to push Trump’s candidacy, scuttle stories about police shootings, encourage antiabortion stories, minimize coverage of Russian aggression, and steer away from the new president’s troubles.'”
It appears that a priority of The Intercept is describing Sharp and OAN as pawns for President Trump and thus, their reporting from Syria unworthy of consideration by Americans. However, they do point out one important aspect of Sharp’s reporting:
When his report was broadcast, however, it revealed that he had mistakenly described the location of the suspected gas attack as a town square and interviewed people close to it who said they had not been exposed to any chemicals. Since the attack in fact took place on a residential street some distance from the square, those accounts are not surprising.
It is possible that Sharp interviewed people in the “wrong” area of Douma or in an area which government handlers directed him, yet does not change the reports from Robert Fisk or other reporters who also concluded there was little sign of a chemical attack. In addition to Fisk, Sharp, and the aforementioned journalists, there is also a new report coming from German news station ZDF which claims the attacks were staged.
While speaking on ZDF Huete, ZDF correspondent Uli Gack reportedly stated, “People told us in a very convincing manner that this whole story was staged.” According to translations of Gack’s commentary, he also noted that “the militants brought canisters containing chlorine to the area and “actually waited for the Syrian Air Force to bomb the place, which was of particular interest for them.”
It is possible that these journalists were led astray by witnesses who had been threatened by Syrian or Russian government officials. In fact, The Intercept noted that medical staff were apparently questioned by the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides, a branch of the Russian military, prior to giving interviews for foreign correspondents last Monday. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides was in the area patrolling to “control observation of ceasefire regime, ensure security, organize assistance for civilians and keep a record of refugee flow.”
The presence of the Russian military police could indicate that some witnesses may have been tampered with or instructed what to say to the incoming foreign press. However, the truth of what is taking place in Syria has been scarce in the typical 24-hour corporate news cycle which tends to grab the attention of the average American. These issues are complex, with misdirection apparently coming from both the American and Syrian governments. When looking for truth in media, individuals should start by carefully examining all of the evidence before drawing conclusions and rushing to support another potentially disastrous conflict.