Russia Sows Doubts Over Chemical Attack in Syria, Aided by Pro-Trump Cable Channel

An obscure San Diego cable channel got access to the site of a suspected chlorine gas attack in Syria before chemical weapons inspectors did.

People walk in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus, Syria, Monday, April 16, 2018.  Two days after Syrian troops declared Douma liberated from opposition fighters, a tour in the city showed the wide destruction it has suffered since falling under rebel control six years ago. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
On Monday, the Syrian government took journalists, including an Associated Press photographer, on a guided tour of Douma, the former rebel enclave outside Damascus where a suspected chemical weapons attack was carried out this month. Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP

This much we know: Someone is lying about the reported use of chlorine gas to kill dozens of Syrian civilians this month in a rebel-held enclave on the outskirts of Damascus.

Either forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria once again committed a war crime, by dropping gas cylinders on a residential building in the town of Douma on the final day of a bloody campaign to drive out a terrifying Islamist rebel group; or, as Syria’s ally Russia claims, the volunteer rescue workers who sounded the alarm about the attack staged distressing images of its victims in order to prompt air strikes by the United States, Britain, and France.

As accusations continue to swirl nearly two weeks after the attack, international experts on chemical weapons who were deployed to Syria to settle the matter — by gathering scientific evidence and unearthing bodies in hidden graves — have spent six days trying, and failing, to gain access to the site of the suspected attack, which is now under the control of Russian military police.

Russia has chalked the delay up to security concerns in Douma, which seems odd, given that foreign journalists were taken on a government-run tour of the town on Monday, when they were able to wander freely along streets close to the site of the reported attack.

When those journalists filed their reports, it became clear why Syrian and Russian officials might have preferred to give limited access to reporters rather than unfettered access to inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Most of the reports — which were for Russian and Syrian state television channels, but also for British, French, German, and American outlets — featured interviews with witnesses at the medical clinic reporters were led to who corroborated the version of events presented last week in a Russian military video report: namely, the narrative that the victims of the attack who were treated there showed no signs of exposure to any chemical agent, and were only doused in water by volunteer rescue workers who recorded the scene as part of a hoax.

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.

Two enterprising reporters, Seth Doane of CBS News and Stefan Borg of TV4 Sweden, slipped away from their government minders and managed to find the building where the attack took place and interview a man who said he had survived the attack but lost his wife, mother, and brothers to gas.

“We need permission for everything we do here,” Doane told The Intercept in an online message. “We were with other journalists in Douma but weren’t taken to the site. We had the satellite coordinates and found it on our own.” In Doane’s report, a man could be seen watching him interview the attack survivor outside the building; he was also seen in another part of town in Borg’s report, observing the work of the Swedish journalist.

A screenshot from a CBS News report shows that an unidentified man watched a survivor of a suspected chemical attack in Douma speak to the network’s correspondent Seth Doane on Monday, during a government-organized press tour.

A screenshot from a TV4 Sweden report shows that an unidentified man watched the journalist Stefan Borg search for the location of a suspected chemical attack, during a government-organized press tour of Douma on Monday.

Bassem Mroue, an Associated Press correspondent who posted images from the press tour on Instagram, interviewed another man, who said he had survived what he described as a gas attack and gave a harrowing account of how his pregnant wife and two young daughters had died with foam coming from their mouths. That witness and two others, who spoke to Mroue not far from government troops, blamed the gas attack on the Islamist rebels who retreated from the town the following day.

Russian officials, however, ignored those reports, focusing instead on the account of the American cable channel’s correspondent, who reported that he had found no sign of a chemical attack and suggested that “the terrorists” had probably faked the video evidence to prompt air strikes.

Sharp’s initial report was praised  by Russian diplomats and featured as a major development at the start of bulletin after bulletin on Russia-24, a state-owned news channel in Moscow.

Each of the segments on the official Russian broadcaster that were devoted to Sharp’s reporting from Douma featured the Amerikanskiy zhurnalist saying, “The residents told me that the terrorists staged this attack to get the Western powers to attack the Syrian army.”

Sharp’s inability to find any evidence of a chemical attack in Douma was also trumpeted by English-language Russian news outlets that aimed to convince viewers in the U.S. and Britain of the wisdom of Russian foreign policy.

On Tuesday, Ed Schultz, the prime-time news anchor for RT America in Washington, D.C., introduced a segment on Sharp by claiming, incorrectly, that chemical weapons inspectors had entered Douma that day, even though “American journalists who have visited the area have found no traces of poisonous substances.”

The use of the plural by Schultz appears to have been prompted by the false assertion later in the report that Sharp, who works alone, was accompanied by “other journalists of the One America News Network” when he “visited the site of the alleged gas attack.”

“We just randomly went up to different people — no one came up to us — and interviewed probably about 30 or 40 people throughout the town. And consistently, not one person in the entire town that we talked to said that they had seen or heard anything about a chemical attack,” RT America viewers heard Sharp report. “When I asked them what they thought the chemical attack was, they told me — all of them told me — that it was staged by the rebels, rebels who were occupying the town at that time; they said that it was a fabrication, that it was a hoax,” he added.

The news agency Sputnik also promoted Sharp’s reporting as apparent confirmation of the Russian military’s claim that the attack had been a hoax staged by the volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets. (Unfounded conspiracy theories about the White Helmets, concocted by Syrian and Russian state media, have spread so widely that they have become uncritically accepted as fact by many American, British, and French critics of their own governments.)

By Friday, Sharp was also being featured as an expert witness on RT Arabic, the Russian government’s Arab satellite channel, assuring viewers that he could find no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma.

A selfie taken by Sharp in Douma was also used by Press TV, a news channel run by Iran, another military ally of Syria.

OAN did not broadcast any footage of Sharp’s interviews in Douma on Monday until late the next day, by which time his descriptions of what he heard there had already made him a household name in Russia.

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.

One part of Sharp’s report from Douma — in which he incorrectly describes himself as being “basically at what would be ground zero if the attack happened, right now it’s not clear if it even did” — is remarkable for what it accidentally reveals about the shallowness of his work.

“I’ve interviewed 20 people so far who live here in this area and who say they were there that day and they didn’t see anything,” Sharps says. “They didn’t hear anything, they didn’t smell anything, they don’t know anyone who was injured, they’ve never heard of that. They did see it on TV, they heard about it on TV, but from personal eyewitness accounts, no one has seen anything, so far.”

At the very moment that the American reporter was making this declaration that he could find no evidence of a gas attack, the Swedish journalist Borg, wearing a blue shirt, could be seen on the street behind Sharp, with a man in a red shirt who was seen in the TV4 correspondent’s own report guiding the journalist to the actual location of the suspected chemical attack, where he interviewed a witness who described being gassed.

A screenshot from a television report by Pearson Sharp in Douma, with the Swedish journalist Stefan Borg, in a blue shirt, behind him.

Sharp later posted an image of himself at the medical center nearby, where victims of the bombing had been taken for treatment.

He poured scorn on the idea that any of those victims had been suffering from chemical exposure. Yet an Associated Press photographer who took part in the same government-organized tour of Douma on Monday showed a witness standing right outside the medical center who described suffering during the gas attack.

In this Monday, April 16, 2018 photo, Kahled Mahmoud Nuseir, 25, who lost his wife, Fatmeh Karout nine months pregnant and daughters Qama 18 months and Nour two and half years, during the alleged chemical weapons attack occurred speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in front of a hospital that locals referred as Point One, background, just meters away from where in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus, Syria. The survivors blamed the attack on the Army of Islam, the powerful rebel group that controlled the town before it was taken over by Syrian government forces this week, although they did not offer evidence to back up their claims. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Kahled Mahmoud Nuseir, 25, told the Associated Press in Douma on Monday that his wife and two daughters were killed by chemicals during a suspected chlorine gas attack on April 7.

Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP

Sharp has not explained how he managed to convince the Syrian government to give him a visa to report in the country, but his reporting on Syria before his trip had hewed closely to Syrian and Russian government talking points about the conflict.

Immediately after the suspected chlorine attack, Sharp produced a report for One American News that was headlined, “Experts Warn Assad is Not to Blame for Latest Chemical Attack.”

Last June, Sharp had reported that Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, “said Moscow has already received information that Syrian rebels, many of whom are directly supported by the U.S., have already staged videos to frame Damascus for another chemical weapons attack.”

“With U.S. warships moving into position to strike Syria if President Assad were to carry out a chemical weapons attack, this seems like a particularly poor time to do it,” Sharp added.

“But Washington isn’t letting a lack of evidence stand in its way,” he continued. “Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov points out that not only has the White House offered no proof for their latest claims, but that U.S. officials aren’t interested in investigating their previous accusations of a chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun.” (In fact, the same day that Sharp quoted Lavrov’s remarks, the OPCW had debunked them, reporting that the nerve agent sarin had been used in an attack that killed nearly 100 people in the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria.)

Sharp ended that report by editorializing that “rather than work against President Putin, many people … say cooperating with both Damascus and Moscow is the only way to resolve the conflict.”

That sentiment closely echoed comments made by Robert Herring, the owner and de facto news director of One America News.

Former employees of the news channel told the Washington Post last year that Herring, 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.”

Sharp’s previous investigations for One America News have promoted the conspiracy theory that the Democratic National Committee emails published by WikiLeaks in 2016 might have been leaked by Seth Rich, a DNC staffer who was murdered, rather than stolen by Russian hackers, and failed to debunk evidence that Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate, had preyed on young girls.

On Tuesday, after CBS News broadcast images of a yellow gas cylinder that its correspondent Seth Doane had come across in the building where the attack took place — matching video posted online by the White Helmets right after the attack — the Russian military suddenly revealed to state television that it had discovered exactly the same kind of cylinder, in what a military expert described as a fully stocked chemical weapons lab left behind by the rebels.

The yellow canister looked identical to what experts from Human Rights Watch identified as gas cylinders filled with chlorine that were dropped on rebel-held areas in Aleppo from Syrian government helicopters in 2016.

Later on Tuesday, a security detail for the chemical weapons inspectors was taken to Douma under Russian military escort, and met with protesters at one site, and a bomb and gunfire at another.

But, while the chemical weapons inspectors remained stranded in Damascus, waiting for safe passage to Douma, journalists for Russia’s state-owned news channel continued to work freely in the town. On Wednesday, Evgeny Poddubny of Russia-24 filed a report in which he claimed to have discovered that an 11-year-old boy who was seen among the attack survivors in footage of the Douma medical center on the night of the attack had been coerced into acting in the the video.

Following the broadcast of that report — which was, again, made without any way of knowing whether or not pressure had been put on the family to lie — Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry’s spokesperson, suggested that the boy should be brought to the United Nations to testify.

Update: Friday, April 20, 7:00 p.m. EDT After this report was published, readers pointed out that a close look at the video of Hassan Diab, the Syrian boy who appeared on Russian state television this week to say that he had not been a victim of a chemical attack, reveals the presence in the background of one shot of three men in military uniforms.

The journalist who conducted the interview, Evgeny Poddubny, has not yet responded to a request to explain who those men were and if he met the boy at a police or military facility.

Another reader noted that, according to the Kremlin-funded channel Russia Today, or RT, the medical personnel who worked at the clinic were “questioned by” the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides, a branch of the Russian military deployed to Syria, before they gave interviews to the international media during the government-led press tour of Douma on Monday.

Indeed, the website of Russia’s defense ministry reported last week that soldiers from the Center for Reconciliation, which has ties to Russian military intelligence, had carried of the “interrogation of witnesses” to the suspected chemical attack at least four days before foreign journalists were permitted to enter Douma under Russian escort.

The same Russian military unit has been responsible for the registration of Douma’s entire civilian population, a process that likely involves screening for rebel sympathizers in an area where mass demonstrations against Assad’s rule were once common. That means that families and individuals who wish to be “reconciled” to the Assad government are vulnerable to pressure from the Russian soldiers who take their details.

Despite doubts about the veracity of the boy’s testimony to Russian state television, the accusation that he had been used to create “fake news” of a chemical attack was quickly picked up and repeat uncritically by Western news outlets, including Britain’s Metro UK, a free newspaper distributed to commuters.

The boy was reinterviewed on Friday by Russia Today’s RT Arabic channel, and the story was also injected into social media by In The Now, a Russian government-owned outlet that has been stripped of all branding that identifies it as such.

Top photo: On Monday, the Syrian government took journalists, including an Associated Press photographer, on a guided tour of Douma, the former rebel enclave outside Damascus where a suspected chemical weapons attack was carried out this month.

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