A group of British academics has sparked “wide and serious concern” among diplomats after its work was used by Russia to accuse humanitarian workers in Syria of staging war crimes.
A European diplomat this week joined Amnesty International in condemning the work of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM), saying its members were either “unwittingly and naively acting as agents of propaganda for the Russians, or actively support[ing] Russian disinformation.”
None of the academics – one of whom left his job last year after it emerged he was a supporter of 9/11 conspiracy theories – is an expert in the Middle East, Syria or chemical weapons, and the group has previously been accused of “whitewashing war crimes.”
Yet speaking at the United Nations Security Council last week, a senior Russian official praised the “recognized experts and reputable scientists” of the WGSPM, citing their work as he claimed a chemical weapons attack in 2018 never happened.
The same day, another Russian official tweeted a link to the group’s work that accuses the civilian search and rescue group the White Helmets of being “actively involved” in murdering civilians to frame the Syrian government.
There is no reliable evidence to support the theory and an investigation by the globally recognized Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that a chemical attack did occur.
Although not mandated to attribute blame, the report found chlorine gas was released from two canisters that had been dropped from the air. Syrian government and Russian forces are the only ones equipped with aircraft meaning opposition forces could not have carried out the attack.
A European diplomat told HuffPost UK: “There is wide and serious concern about the extent to which academics in the WGSPM appear to be pursuing issues which so closely overlay with Russian lies and propaganda, particularly on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
“Russia appears to be using these academics to amplify and bolster their own disinformation, particularly to undermine the OPCW and divert attention from their own activities.
“It is unclear whether these academics are unwittingly and naively acting as agents of propaganda for the Russians – or they actively support Russian misinformation.
“Either way, it is difficult to see how their involvement with WGSPM is compatible with having any official role in academia.”
The WGSPM counts a number of academics among its members including professors Tim Hayward and Paul McKeigue of the University of Edinburgh, Professor David Miller of the University of Bristol and Dr Tara McCormack of the University of Leicester.
It was established in 2017 by Piers Robinson, who used to teach at Sheffield University but left last year after HuffPost UK reported he was a supporter of 9/11 conspiracy theories.
Robinson told HuffPost at the time that his “decision to leave […] was based on a number of reasons relating to both professional goals and personal circumstances,” and that he was not “criticized or pressured to leave by the university because of my research or public statements.”
Shadi Hamid, senior fellow and Middle East expert at the Brookings Institute thinktank, told HuffPost UK: “These academics don’t know enough about the Middle East to be able to sort through what is real and what is not real.
“And because these people don’t know a lot about the Middle East, they are susceptible to these kinds of bonkers ideas.”
The WGSPM has published a number of papers that all echo Russian disinformation lines and suggest western governments or those working for them are actually responsible for events such as the Skripal poisoning.
How did it start?
Some 40 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Douma in April 2018.
Shortly afterwards, the WGSPM set about trying to prove it had been staged by the White Helmets as a means of justifying the U.S., UK and French missile strikes against the Assad government that had followed.
Eliot Higgins of the investigative website Bellingcat told HuffPost UK: “It’s a theory without any evidence to support it. The ‘working group’ are just useful idiots.
“This kind of denial of war crimes in Syria – it’s like saying vaccines cause autism, or that 9/11 was an inside job.
“It’s insane and the fact their universities still employ them is embarrassing for their universities.”
Why does the Working Group believe the chemical attack didn’t happen?
The WGSPM does not provide any video, picture or documentary evidence to support its theory. Instead, its central argument — which it describes as “[t]he clearest evidence that the White Helmets were actively involved in managing
a massacre of civilians” — rests on a separate attack in 2017 which it argues Syrian jets could not have carried out because of its location. (The OPCW disagrees.)
The Working Group, at something of a stretch, then concludes that “the only possible alternative” is for the White Helmets to have been actively involved in “managing a massacre.”
The WGSPM’s claim that the OPCW report is wrong eschews experts and instead relies heavily on a number of dubious sources, many that the academics came across via Twitter, including:
When asked by HuffPost UK about the sources the WGSPM has used in its research, Robinson stood by them all, adding: “We do not ‘rely on’ these sources: in each of the instances you list, we have examined the original material and drawn our own conclusions.”
The group’s conspiracy theory was given an apparent boost last year by a leaked internal report penned by an OPCW worker that appeared to cast doubt on the widely held belief that a chemical weapons attack had indeed taken place.
But a source close to the OPCW told HuffPost UK that the document given to the Working Group was based on incorrect assumptions and ignored crucial evidence on which the OPCW investigation’s final conclusions were based – just one of the reasons it was not reflected in the eventual public report.
A further source cited by the academics was a series of leaked anonymous emails apparently written by a different OPCW staffer questioning the organization’s work. HuffPost UK, however, has learned that much of the OPCW’s investigation was conducted after the whistleblower, self-styled as “Alex,” left the organization.
The OPCW has stood by its conclusion that a chemical attack using chlorine as a weapon did happen.
Why is Russia interested?
Russia intervened in Syria in 2015 in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crushing of a popular revolution.
It has subsequently sought to discredit and veto OPCW investigations that have directly accused its ally of a number of chemical weapons attacks.
The Kremlin’s version of what happened in Douma has changed numerous times, from “no attack happened at all” to “British spies did it” to “the White Helmets did it” and various theories in between.
Kate Starbird, an expert in online disinformation networks at the University of Washington, told HuffPost UK: “It has all the elements of ‘throw as many different conspiracy theories at the wall until we find one that sticks.’
“It’s taken a few years for them to find one that sticks but the techniques are so similar to what we’ve seen in other events like the [downing of flight] MH17 and the Skripal poisoning.”
In November last year Russia’s own OPCW representative addressed The Hague and praised the “dozens of experts, recognised and respected people, with remarkable international reputations, led by Professor Robinson” as it made its case that the OPCW had been hijacked by western nations in order to frame the Syrian government.
Russian state media channels have been working hard to promote the narrative, and RT – formerly Russia Today – provided Robinson and McCormack with a platform to air their views.
Caroline Orr, a behavioural scientist who specialises in disinformation networks on social media, told HuffPost UK the paper was “the latest in a long line of misleading and defamatory claims from the ‘working group.’”
“It’s done for the purpose of creating confusion about what’s going on in Syria,” she said, “to make people doubt the facts and, ultimately, to bury evidence of some of the most heinous atrocities and war crimes in modern history.
“If you look at the tactics they use, they’re straight out of a propaganda handbook.”
Undeterred, Russia has stuck to the theory and last week reiterated the claim at the UN.
Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK’s Syria campaign manager, told HuffPost UK: “Discrediting the White Helmets is partly about discrediting war crimes evidence.
“The White Helmets’ filming at attack sites has meant they’ve built up a significant body of evidence of potential war crimes by pro-Assad and Russian forces – something neither Damascus nor Moscow views kindly.
“The millions of Syrians whose lives have been devastated by years of barrel bombing, chemical weapons attacks, imprisonment, torture and killing deserve genuine truth and justice, not this squalid propaganda.”
The millions of Syrians whose lives have been devastated by years of barrel bombing, chemical weapons attacks, imprisonment, torture and killing deserve genuine truth and justice, not this squalid propaganda. Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty International UK’s Syria campaign manager
Two days after Russia spoke at the UN, Robinson and Miller appeared at a briefing in parliament sponsored by Labour’s shadow peace and disarmament minister, Fabian Hamilton.
Hamilton has insisted he was unaware of who would be speaking when his office agreed to book a room for an anti-war collective “to discuss the OPCW report.” Hamilton’s spokesperson added that the shadow minister “does not support [the speakers’] offensive and factually incorrect views”.
His spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “Fabian fully supports the OPCW’s conclusions into the vile chemical attacks that took place in Douma in 2018.
“Any suggestion that Fabian somehow supports the ridiculous conspiracy theories held by some of the attendees at this event are ludicrous.”
Responding to questions from HuffPost UK, Robinson maintained that the OPCW report “can reasonably be described as fraudulent by the standards applied to scientific reporting.”
He added: “As far as we know, no one is denying that the Douma incident and other alleged chemical attacks in Syria were war crimes.
“We are investigating these crimes, and making some progress in identifying the perpetrators and those in the media who collude with them.”
(Infographics supplied by Statista)
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