Russian officials said on Friday that their government can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a suspected chemical attack on a rebel-held enclave in Syria last week was a hoax staged by British spies.
The defense and foreign ministry officials declined, however, to say what the evidence was, or expose it to public scrutiny. That matters because Russian officials have a history of making false or misleading claims about attacks in Syria based on internet conspiracy theories or hoaxes.
Volunteer rescue workers and antigovernment activists in Syria said that more than 40 people were killed in a chemical attack in Douma, east of Damascus, on Saturday, and shared images of the dead and wounded on social networks.
With the United States and Britain considering military strikes on the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to deter the use of chemical weapons, Russia seemed to go all-out on Friday to shield its Syrian ally.
“We have irrefutable evidence that this was another staged event,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, “and that the secret services of a certain state that is now at the forefront of a Russophobic campaign was involved in this staged event.”
That Lavrov was accusing Britain of carrying out false-flag attack was clear, since Russian diplomats have repeatedly claimed that another recent chemical attack — the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian-British double agent living in England — was also staged by British spies in order to frame Russia.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, made the accusation explicit, telling reporters later that Russia’s military had “evidence that proves Britain was directly involved in organizing this provocation.”
Russian officers in Syria, Konashenkov said, visited Douma after rebels surrendered control of the suburb on Sunday and could find no trace of any chemical agents at the site of the bombing. They did, however, interview two medics there who said that video of the attack survivors being treated for exposure to chemicals had been faked by armed men with cameras who burst into the hospital.
Video testimony from the two medics, displayed on a giant screen behind the Russian spokesperson, was presented as proof that the attack had been a hoax in an Arabic-language tweet from the ministry.
At the news conference where it was presented, the testimony of the two men could not be properly evaluated, however, because the ministry showed video of them speaking, but did not play the audio of what they said.
Late Friday, the video of the two men — bearing the copyright of MIL.RU, the Russian defense ministry’s website — was posted online by the Kremlin-run news site Sputnik. It was difficult to tell if the report produced by the Russian military, in an area of the country that had been outside the Syrian government’s control for years, recorded the genuine impressions of what the Douma hospital workers had witnessed, or was more akin to the kind of forced confessions that aired on Iranian state television after the post-election protests in 2009.
Konashenkov also claimed, without citing evidence, that “London” had directed a group of volunteer rescue workers, known as the White Helmets, “to stage a provocation with an alleged use of chemical weapons.”
Russian diplomats and pundits on state-controlled news outlets have, for years, promoted unverified conspiracy theories about the White Helmets working with Islamic extremists and foreign intelligence agencies. Attempting to discredit the rescue workers, who often film in the immediate aftermath of bombings by government forces or Russian jets, has been a central concern for supporters of the Syrian government since the protest movement of 2011 turned into an armed conflict.
Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, Karen Pierce, rejected the claim that her country’s foreign intelligence service had staged a fake chemical attack. “This is grotesque, it is a blatant lie,” Pierce said, “it is the worst piece of fake news we’ve yet seen from the Russian propaganda machine.”
Given that Douma is now under the control of the Assad government, Russia’s ally, and thus off-limits to independent journalists, the Russian claims are impossible to verify or debunk — a situation Russian and Syrian officials have taken advantage of throughout the war to cast doubt on claims that atrocities have been committed by forces loyal to Assad.
However, the last time Russia claimed to have evidence of secret collaboration between a Western government and Islamic extremists in Syria, that proof was quickly shown to be fake.
As Eliot Higgins explained on the open-source investigations site Bellingcat in November, the Russian defense ministry claimed that month to have uncovered “irrefutable evidence” of cooperation between the U.S. military and Islamic State militants.
However, images offered as proof on the ministry’s various Twitter feeds were identified within hours as screenshots taken from a video game and clips of Iraqi combat operations against ISIS fighters.
After the hoax was exposed, the ministry deleted its tweets.
In 2013, a spokesperson for Russia’s foreign ministry accused opposition activists in Syria of fabricating distressing video clips that showed the aftermath of a chemical attack outside Damascus, pointing to the fact that time codes on some of the distressing images seemed to suggest that the images had been uploaded to YouTube one day “before the so-called attack.”
What the Russian official called evidence of rebel propaganda, however — the fact that some of the first video clips said to show victims of the attack were stamped with the previous day’s date on YouTube — was based on widespread confusion about how the video-sharing site, based in California, assigns dates to clips uploaded by users in other parts of the world.
As YouTube explained at the time, its computers automatically assign a date to each clip based on the current time in California when the upload begins, which can differ from the date in the user’s time zone. Given that California is 10 hours behind Syria, that means that any clip uploaded to YouTube before 10 a.m. on any given day is stamped with the previous day’s date.
Even after that theory had been debunked, Lavrov continued to cite it as evidence that footage of showing victims of poison gas “had been posted on the internet hours before the chemical attack against the opposition forces was announced.”
Three weeks later, Lavrov continued to insist that there were “serious grounds to believe” the deadly chemical attack in Damascus “was a provocation,” staged by Syrian rebels.
After a U.N. report then concluded that the attack had been carried out by Assad’s forces, Lavrov maintained that equal weight should be given to the opposite conclusions of an unusual source: a skeptical analysis of the online video evidence produced by a Lebanese nun who did not witness any part of the attack.
A look at the evidence Lavrov cited then revealed that it was a rambling, 50-page analysis of the video written by Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun living in another part of Syria, whose report contained nothing but speculation that some or all of the footage had been staged.
The nun’s idiosyncratic study of the video evidence would have attracted little attention, but for the fact that she was subsequently presented as an expert witness to events by Russia Today, the Kremlin-owned news network that is promoted on the Russian foreign ministry’s website.
In an interview with RT at the time, Mother Agnes said that the most important evidence that the incident “had been staged and prepared in advance with the goal of framing the Syrian government as the perpetrator” was the fact that video of the attack had been reported on by Reuters within an hour.
“The key evidence is that Reuters made these files public at 6:05 in the morning,” Lavrov’s source told the Russian network. “The chemical attack is said to have been launched between 3 and 5 o’clock in the morning in Ghouta. How is it even possible to collect a dozen different pieces of footage, get more than 200 kids and 300 young people together in one place, give them first aid and interview them on camera, and all that in less than three hours? Is that realistic at all?”
However, Mother Agnes also appears to have been confused by the way time stamps work. The Reuters report the nun cited as evidence originally noted that it was first posted online on August 21, 2013 at “6:05 a.m. EDT,” or Eastern Daylight Time, the time zone used in New York, which is seven hours behind Syria. That means that the report, based on video of the attack’s victims, appeared just after 1 p.m. in Syria that day — 10 hours, not three, after the first video of the victims was posted online.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow on Friday, Lavrov concluded that an attack on the Syrian government by American and British forces could lead to another huge surge in “migrants” fleeing the war zone for Europe. That, he said, would please only “those protected by an ocean, who hope to stay safe as they stir up things across the region in order to advance their geopolitical projects.”
Updated: 6:34 p.m. EDT
This column was updated to add the Russian military’s video report featuring the testimony of two Syrian hospital workers in Douma, as published by Sputnik, a Kremlin-controlled news site.