As client of the régime, Russia is compelled to cover up Assad’s atrocities

I have consistently maintained that Assad is an unreconstructed tyrant in the traditional Arab mould whose mentality Westerners, especially those well-intentioned souls on the left supporting him, are completely unable to fathom.

Assad’s theatricals, staged with the help of the Russians and involving the apparent disposition of a stock of chemical weapons in 2013, were intentionally planned as cover for subsequent gassing campaigns which could then be blamed on rebel forces.

As Gilles Dorronsoro writes in Lobelog: “Why does the régime resort to gassing? The question matters because it conditions the response due the Syrian régime in the longer term. One argument frequently heard for holding the régime blameless is the lack of a military rationale for attacking with gas, because the insurgent pocket was destined to fall in any case.

In fact, the attacks with gas above all send a political message to Syria’s own society and to Westerners. If the latter look the other way, they discredit themselves: recall how the Obama administration’s refusal to intervene changed the dynamics of the war and helped pull a régime on the verge of collapse back from the brink. If they act, they polarize the situation, solidify the regime’s alliance with Russia and Iran, and, come the next chemical attack, will only confront their own impotence.

Hence, the bombings ordered by Donald Trump in 2017 after the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack obviously did nothing to deter the régime. In addition, Bashar al-Assad sends a message to his population. You are alone, there is no limit to what we can do: gas attacks on civilians, rape on a massive scale, torture (with hundreds of thousands of victims, and tens of thousands of them killed), systematic bombing of hospitals, and the list goes on.”

Gilles Dorronsoro has just published an in-depth sociological survey of the Syrian Civil War with Adam Baczko and Arthur Quesnay, with Cambridge University Press.

We also find Robert Mackey writing for The Intercept on recent events at Douma that it was very odd that the Russians were propagandising at the Hague, using 11-year old Hassan Diab, before the OPCW had finished the investigation, which had been inexplicably delayed by the Russians, ostensibly while preparing the ground for the new set of theatricals.

“When Hassan told Russian state television last week that he had been given sweets in return for taking part in the filming of the video in the hospital, and his father said that 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 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.

During the presentation, text on a screen behind Russia’s ambassador to the OPCW, Alexsander Shulgin, described the footage shot in Douma’s hospital on April 7 as “Fake Video” produced by the volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets.

Since the video was in fact shot by another group, the activists who run the Douma.Revolution Facebook page — and the images used by Russia include their logo — it is unclear why Russian officials insist on attributing the footage to the White Helmets. One possible explanation is a pre-existing campaign to demonize that group, which receives funding from Western governments and has documented the aftermath of Russian air strikes on rebel-held areas.

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 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.

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.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the event, though, was how deeply beside the point it seemed. Witness after witness swore 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 10 days later. Speaking to 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 the images from the hospital were fabricated by the White Helmets at the direction of British intelligence**, video of Nuseir’s AP interview was obtained and posted online by Press TV, an English-language channel owned by Syria’s ally Iran.”

However, given that scepticism about the Douma justification for the launch of missiles by the US-UK-French trio would reach Tucker Carlson and would become a major talking point of his on FOX NEWS, of all TV stationsRussian information warfare seems to be succeeding in spades in undermining the credibility of Western intelligence services. If the Iraq War hadn’t done the job of burying that forever, the inexplicable lies of the UK government over the Skripal case should have hammered a final nail into this particular coffin. The Russians are driving their advantage home. They are possibly better liars than the Americans and the British.

** N.B. The White Helmets are an operation funded by the UK and US governments, and directed by their intelligence services, although acknowledging this does not absolve Assad of his crimes nor Russia of the crime of covering up his crimes.