‘Useful idiots’ damaging search for truth in Syria

‘Useful idiots’ damaging search for truth in Syria

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A man holds a child after an airstrike on the city of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Syria. (Reuters)

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19), chemical weapons, nerve agents and 9/11 — one thing links all of these dreadful elements. They all fuel an industry that grows and metastasizes like the most virulent pandemic: The world of conspiracy theories. An array of fringe academics, so-called journalists and activists, aided by social media bots and trolls, avail themselves of every opportunity to spread the most creative and dangerous confections with threadbare arguments that serve to question reality and faith in major institutions. These “useful idiots” typically become the willing dupes and echo chambers of Russian propaganda, for example, to advance the most pernicious of agendas. 

All of this was in sharp focus last Wednesday, when the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) published its latest report into chemical weapons use in Syria. For the first time, the OPCW specifically attributed blame for a chemical weapons attack to the Syrian regime. In the past, it had lacked the authority to do so, but this changed after the organization was given additional powers in 2018. 

This new Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) determined that the Syrian regime bore responsibility for several incidents at Ltamenah in Hama province in March 2017, which included the use of sarin gas and chlorine. Its report stated: “The IIT has concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Ltamenah on 24 and 30 March 2017, and the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon on 25 March 2017 were individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force.” The report gives copious details, not least the movement of key Syrian personnel, forces and, crucially, planes. 

One “truther” felt vindicated by the phrase “reasonable grounds to believe,” insisting that “disbelief” was, therefore, also “not unreasonable.” This preposterous piece of quackery makes a false equivalence between “reasonable grounds to believe,” which indicates a high benchmark of evidence, and disbelief.

That said, the OPCW must not escape proper scrutiny. The investigation into the Douma incident of April 7, 2018, has caused controversy, not least allegations from whistleblowers. All this must be cleared up by an impartial assessment. Doubts persist about that particular incident, but this does not exonerate the regime from the other incidents where the evidence is overwhelming. 

Three things stand out from the whole issue of chemical weapons use in Syria. Firstly, until 2013, the Syrian regime denied that Damascus had any chemical weapons. This was the greatest lie of all. When the Syrian regime was finally compelled to sign up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, its years of gratuitous lies and falsehoods were exposed as it coughed up 1,300 tons of VX nerve agents, sarin and mustard gas for destruction. This did not cause any questioning at all among the truthers. The Syrian regime had been caught red-handed with this monstrous arsenal. With this, it was implicitly acknowledged that Damascus had committed the August 2013 chemical weapons attack on Ghouta that killed hundreds. 

Secondly, the Syrian regime could have cooperated with the OPCW investigations, not least if it was innocent. It did not. By failing to grant the inspectors full and immediate access to the locations, no report can be utterly conclusive, which the regime plays on. 

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Syrian regime has bombed and killed far more innocent civilians with conventional weapons than with chemical attacks. The world has failed to stop this. Needless to say, the useful idiots just ignore these blatant regime crimes. These conventional attacks alone are enough to justify war crimes commissions and trials. Moreover, if there is a temptation for the opposition to mount false flag exercises — as some allege — it is because they have realized that it is only chemical weapons use that gets the world to take notice. 

That the IIT report was published during the maelstrom of the coronavirus pandemic is hugely fortunate for the Syrian regime. The media did cover the report, but far less comprehensively than it would have done in normal times.

This cannot be said for the useful idiots. Many of those who question the Syrian chemical weapons attacks are the same people who push baseless conspiracy theories about COVID-19 being a biological weapon, or that it is just a low-fatality virus little different to the flu. One asked in an interview, “Is coronavirus the new 9/11?” — spreading nonsense on both the pandemic and the 2001 terror attacks on the US. 

Some of the worst offenders are ensconced in universities, not least in Britain, and involved in a shady outfit known as the “Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media.” Serious questions must be asked about their academic credentials, not least as they put their names to articles on issues in which they have no expertise. 

Many of those who question the Syrian chemical weapons attacks are the same people who push baseless conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

Chris Doyle

The damage such nonsense does is extraordinary. It serves to undermine leading expert institutions in a muck-throwing exercise that causes sections of the general public to question basic reality. Hard evidence is refashioned as dubious and objective realities questioned in an industrial gaslighting exercise. The evidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons is overwhelming, as is the evidence that Russian agents used Novichok in Salisbury in 2018 and polonium in London in 2006. Yet this is never enough for such characters.

All these institutions, including the OPCW, must be held to account and compelled to maintain the highest of standards, but that process cannot continue if a miasma of confusion and fakery is deliberately deployed in an attempt to bring the whole edifice down. 

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
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