Over the objections of chemical weapons inspectors, who are still at work in Syria trying to determine if gas was used to kill dozens of civilians in the former rebel stronghold of Douma on April 7, Russia flew 17 Syrians from the war zone to The Hague, Netherlands, on Thursday, where they all testified that they had seen no sign of a chemical attack.
The Syrians were chosen because they had been seen in video that was recorded by an opposition activist in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The activist’s footage showed what looked like frantic efforts in the town’s hospital to treat survivors for possible exposure to a chemical agent, by dousing them with water and helping them to breathe.
Even though no one claimed that the hospital had been attacked with chemical weapons, Russia has made undermining the credibility of that video the centerpiece of its effort to prove that no chemicals were used in the Syrian government’s final bombardment of the town, which passed out of rebel hands the following day.
The group it brought to the Netherlands included several medical workers seen in the footage and one patient, 11-year-old Hassan Diab, who has been described by Russian officials as the star witness in support of its case that the entire incident was a hoax, staged by volunteer rescue workers to provoke Western military intervention against Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
When Hassan told Russian state television last week that he had been given sweets in return for taking part in filming of the video in the hospital, and his father said the boy had been doused in water for no reason, since there was no sign of any chemical attack, Russia’s United Nations ambassador announced plans to screen the interview for the U.N. Security Council.
However, Russia has failed to acknowledge concerns that the boy and his father might not have felt free to accurately describe what happened, given that the interview was filmed at a Syrian army facility used by Russian military advisers.
Former colleagues of the Douma hospital workers told The Guardian that Syrian officials had subjected the medics to “extreme intimidation,” threatening to harm their families if they made any mention of chemical weapons.
When they arrived in the Netherlands on Thursday, Hassan and the medical workers were first taken to the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for a presentation of Russia’s case that the attack was a hoax.
The joint briefing of the Russian Federation ?? and the Syrian Arab Republic ?? has started at the #OPCW. All national delegations were invited to this unique event with the participation of real witnesses of staged “chemical attack” in Douma. pic.twitter.com/u3Ata9ik0a— Russian Embassy in NL???? (@rusembassynl) April 26, 2018
During the presentation, text on a screen behind Russia’s permanent representative to the OPCW, Alexander Shulgin, described the footage shot in Douma’s hospital as “fake video,” produced by the volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets. But the original video was in fact shot by one of the activists who helps run the Douma.Revolution Facebook pages. The images of the hospital used by Russia in its video analysis were copied from a compilation of that footage posted online hours after the attack by another Douma.Revolution activist, and are clearly marked with one of the group’s logos.
It is unclear why Russian officials insist on incorrectly attributing that footage to the White Helmets instead of the Douma.Revolution activists. One possible explanation is a preexisting campaign to demonize the well-known rescue workers, who receive funding from Western governments and have documented the aftermath of Russian airstrikes on rebel-held areas. (Earlier this week, Russian state television’s main evening news broadcast tried to argue that the White Helmets had been caught staging atrocities by misrepresenting photographs that were actually production stills from a fiction film about the Syrian civil war as evidence.)
Russia had ignored a request from the OPCW to allow its inspectors in Syria to interview the witnesses first, and wait until after the investigators had filed their report to present its theory of the case.
When the Russian briefing went ahead, it was denounced as “a crude propaganda exercise” by 17 nations that boycotted it, including the United States, Britain, and France. Those three countries are convinced that the Syrian government did use chemical weapons, and carried out retaliatory airstrikes two weeks ago, before the OPCW inspectors had even begun their work.
The Syrian entourage was then presented to the media at a bizarre press conference in which the opposition activist’s video of each of them in the hospital on the night of the attack was projected onto a big screen behind them as they delivered prepared remarks to reporters.
Hassan Diab shown on video in presser as his father says they were told on April 7th go to hospital. Tyres being burned and smoke. People started pouring water on Hassan. Later told it was fake, saw no poisoning. All in good health pic.twitter.com/CM2VJpuiMA— Michelle Clifford (@skynewsmichelle) April 26, 2018
Many reporters in the room expressed disquiet at the spectacle of the young boy, who addressed them for all of 40 seconds, speaking in defense of the government that has been shelling his hometown for half his life.
In his brief remarks, the boy merely said that he had been doused with water in the clinic, and made no mention of having been enticed with sweets to cooperate in the filming of a staged scene or of any encounter with members of the White Helmets.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the event, though, was how deeply beside the point it seemed. For nearly two hours, witness after witness testified that there had been no sign of chemical exposure and no deaths among the patients they treated in the hospital, and Hassan’s father insisted that no one in his family had been sickened by gas, but there was no testimony at all related to what took place that same night in a nearby residential building — where activists had filmed piles of dead bodies, some with foam on their lips, and a large yellow canister identical to those used in previous chlorine gas attacks.
The exclusive focus on what took place in the hospital that night, in nearly two hours of testimony, was particularly bizarre because two different witnesses told reporters in Douma last week, on a government-led press tour, that their families had been killed by gas in that residential building.
One witness, Nasser Amer Hanen, told Stefan Borg, of TV4 Sweden, that he had survived the attack but lost his wife, mother, and brothers to gas. When the same man spoke to Seth Doane, of CBS News, inside his ruined home in the building, he led the reporter to an upper floor, where the large yellow gas canister was still resting.
Another witness in Douma, Kahled Mahmoud Nuseir, told Bassem Mroue, of the Associated Press, that his wife and two daughters had been killed by gas in a basement shelter that still had a peculiar smell nine days later.
Speaking to the AP outside Douma’s hospital, Nuseir blamed the gas attack not on the Syrian government but on the Islamist rebels who held the town until April 8. He also faulted the White Helmets for failing to save his family.
Although it contradicts the Russian claim that no gas was used anywhere in Douma — and that the images from the hospital were fabricated by the White Helmets at the direction of British intelligence — footage of Nuseir’s AP interview was later obtained and posted online by Press TV, an English-language channel owned by Syria’s ally Iran.
Bizarrely, Nuseir was also interviewed by Russia Today on the same day that he spoke to AP, but the Kremlin-financed network reported that he called reports of a chemical attack fake. RT showed Nuseir speaking to a reporter for its Arabic-language channel and then provided an English translation in which he reportedly said: “people poured water over our heads, repeating that we had been attacked with chemical weapons; somebody ran out from outside shouting about a chemical attack, we don’t know who that was.”
Despite these conflicting accounts from Douma, throughout Thursday’s news conference, Shulgin and Syria’s envoy, Ghassan Obaid, acted as if the witness testimony made an overwhelming case that there had been no gas attack at all.
Near the end of the event, Shulgin compared what he called the hoax chemical attack to the Gleiwitz provocation, a false flag attack carried out by Nazi Germany and used as a pretext for the invasion of Poland at the start of the World War II. He also blamed the West’s actions in Syria for bringing the world closer to the threat of direct military conflict between the U.S. and Russia than at any point since the Cuban missile crisis.
“The world is now at a very dangerous crossroads. God forbid there was any kind of nuclear confrontation,” Shulgin said ominously. “Everyone in Russia says that, God forbid there is another war, we lost 27 million people in the last war, all we want is peace.”
Speaking later to the state-owned Russian news agency Ruptly, Shulgin said it was “a pity” that American, British, and French representatives had missed the opportunity to hear what he described as irrefutable evidence of a hoax. “Maybe they were afraid to look into the eyes of little Hassan,” the Russian ambassador said. “We caught them red-handed, our Western colleagues, because it’s absolutely proven now: They have been lying — to themselves, to the world community.”