In war, so the saying goes, the first casualty is truth. The saying is particularly pertinent for observers of Syria. Since the earliest days of the conflict more than eight years ago, Syria’s protest movement-turned-civil war has been the setting for some of the most vehement denials of facts and manipulations of narrative ever seen. Every new development in the war has produced an instant cornucopia of conspiracy theory.
The last few months have seen such commentary reach new heights. A guided tour of Damascus and several other cities organized by the Assad regime in early September for half a dozen Western journalists produced a litany of articles and videos glamorizing the “prosperity” and “stability” of the Syrian dictator’s restored rule, while condemning America’s “dirty war” and “economic terrorism.”
A new report on Syrian chemical weapons delivery systems by Bellingcat, the investigative outlet that unearthed incontrovertible documentary proof that the Syrian government was behind the massive sarin gas attack in 2013, was met with a chorus of denials on social media and elsewhere. Recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Washington had confirmed the Assad government used chemical weapons again this May, which is sure to provoke more outcry.
The response to the Bellingcat report was predictable. Well-known defenders of Assad, as well as hordes of anonymous commentators, flooded Twitter with denials and counter-accusations: the evidence had been fabricated by Al Qaeda (a catch-all term used to refer to any opposition group in Syria) and others, including the White Helmets, the civilian volunteer first responders who have long been labeled covert CIA/Al Qaeda/Gulf regime-change propaganda operatives by their detractors. Novel tactics this time included claiming that the identification of the chemical delivery bomb proved the rebels had stolen it. Nobody asked, however, how the rebels had delivered this aerial munition when they had no aircraft.
This disinformation offensive dovetailed nicely with the aforementioned Damascus propaganda mission by various pro-regime reporters, among them those affiliated with Russia’s state-owned network, RT. Some of these have repeatedly praised Bashar Al Assad’s “defense of Syria” against “bloodthirsty US neocons” and “foreign-backed regime-change agents,” (i.e., all the millions of Syrians who had risked everything to stand up to their dictatorial overlord).
October in particular has been a bonanza for false information. Turkey’s long-awaited offensive in northern Syria has seen both sides spreading falsehoods that fit their chosen narrative. The Kurdish-led SDF exaggerated narratives about a resulting ISIS comeback, making such claims as a massive ISIS assault on Raqqa – one that later emerged was a single suicide bomber. Turkey has similarly claimed that it was inflicting no human rights violations or forced displacements, despite organizations such as Amnesty International detailing indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas and summary executions conducted by Turkish-backed militants. These developments show little sign of slowing.
This sort of propaganda has been a common feature of the Syrian conflict from the beginning. In the first months, Syrian government media regularly insisted that the protests rocking the country were in fact videos of actors in studios in Qatar. Later, as the brutal repressions began, peaceful demonstrators were labeled violent extremists attacking Syrian troops.
But willfully distorting the facts is not confined to the Syrian regime and its allies. Supposed opponents of Assad in the White House are no less guilty. Even former US President Barack Obama was not above using a few distortions to explain why he had not stepped in to stop the slaughter. His administration regularly claimed that Syrian air defenses were formidable enough to endanger air strikes (they weren’t). When Bashar Al Assad violated Obama’s self-defined “red line” by using chemical weapons, the US president claimed he needed the approval of Congress to retaliate with airstrikes (he didn’t).
Perhaps most egregiously, his administration upheld the illusion that US non-involvement was a neutral act, one that would hold no consequences for Syria one way or another, when it was anything but neutral: America’s hesitation opened the door for regional interventions by Iran, Russia and others that simply worsened the slaughter.
Obama was driven to lie because of an understandable desire to avoid involving his country in yet another intractable Middle Eastern conflict. But lie he did. It was not as intrinsically malicious as others, but it probably did more damage than any falsehoods disseminated by pro-regime individuals.
The impetus behind this obfuscation is obvious, but how do others justify lying in defense of one of the world’s most brutal regimes? Some of it is simply financial. Ideology is another factor; some people really do believe the US is the root of all evil in the world and that Al Assad, Russia and Iran are benevolent and have been unjustly demonized.
Finally, there is the psychological factor. Put simply, people like to believe conspiracy theories because it makes them feel clever, as if only they have worked out what’s really going on. And every time a Bellingcat report drops, they leap onto social media with its many echo chambers, all confirming their beliefs, no matter how outlandish.
What can be done? Probably very little. To discuss the conspiratorial rhetoric spouted by those with bad intentions only lends it more credibility by tacitly granting it recognition. It’s far easier to create a lie than it is to debunk one and by then the damage is usually already done.
The most important response is for those with the power to formulate policy and make decisions to recognize the lies and not use them or create more lies because it is expedient or morally self-aggrandizing. The rest of us should simply grit our teeth and keep our critical faculties on high alert.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict, particularly Russia’s role; politics and minorities in the South Caucasus; and violence and politics in the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya and Ingushetia.