After Idlib chemical attack, four pro-Assad talking points to be wary of

Published April 5th, 2017 - 02:19 GMT
A child killed in the chemical attack in Idlib at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, Syria. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)
A child killed in the chemical attack in Idlib at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, Syria. (AFP/Omar Haj Kadour)

Most of the world yesterday reeled from the news that almost 100 Syrians were dead in an apparent chemical attack - including 25 children. Media and social media were mostly filled with outpourings of grief and anger.

Simultaneously, however, some mobilized on social media in an apparent attempt to deflect blame from the attack’s main suspect - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Conversations on Syria have long been bitter, with views sharply divided between those who support the government and those who support the various opposition groups.

Yesterday was no different, with many pro-government tweeters suggesting either that it was impossible to know what was happening on the ground:

Or that the attack was a “false flag”:

The discussions mirrored those that followed a previous chemical attack in 2013 that targeted opposition-held areas of Damascus.

While the UN stopped short of saying definitively that the Syrian government was behind that attack, it said that the perpetrators had access to government stocks of Sarin, the expertise and the equipment to use the weapon.

Governments such as the US, France, Germany and the UK all released intelligence assessments that accused Assad’s government of being behind the attack.

The Syrian government denied carrying out the attack, and Russia - its ally and patron - claimed that the attack had been carried out by the opposition in order to provoke an international intervention against the Syrian government.

With history apparently repeating itself, here are four pro-government talking points you should be wary of.

1. “No information from opposition-held areas is trustworthy”

This claim is often repeated, and some caution with information coming from Syria is necessary: reporting from Syria is extremely difficult, not to mention dangerous.

From the beginning of the uprising in 2011, the Syrian government targeted journalists and media activists for arrest, torture and death.

For foreign journalists, reporting from opposition-held areas became impossible when kidnappings became common.

Some Syrians remain committed to getting reliable information out of the country, however, and it is wrong to simply dismiss all of the news from opposition-held areas as propaganda.

In addition, two journalists from Agence France Presse - a well regarded wire service - were on the scene of yesterday’s attacks. Presence on the ground is the gold-standard for reporting.

However, even without it, major news outlets now have years of experience in reporting on Syria and are well-equipped to filter fact from fiction.

2. “al-Qaeda controls Idlib, and they control all of the information from there”

One of the dominant opposition groups in Idlib is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), which was formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

When the group rebranded as JFS, it publicly announced it was cutting ties with al-Qaeda, but that proclamation was met with widespread scepticism.

However, that does not mean that all people who continue to live in Idlib support the group, or are controlled completely by it.

Over the summer of 2016, Idlib saw one of the longest series of protests since 2011 by people unhappy with JN’s rule. Many of the protests took place in Maarat al-Numan, just north of where yesterday’s attack occurred.

Even people living in areas controlled by extremists are not homogenous in their views, and the groups’ control is never total, even if journalist and activists face severe difficulties in their work.

3. “The rebels had their own stock of chemical weapons”

Russia, a staunch ally of Syria, has claimed that the injuries stemmed from a stock of sarin being held by the opposition in a warehouse in the town, which was then bombed by the Syrian air force.

The claim recalls that made by the Syrian and Russian governments - and echoed by journalist Seymour Hersh - that it was extremist groups that were behind the 2013 Damascus chemical attack.

Such claims have been widely dismissed by other governments and credible experts.

The latest claim has also been met with scepticism. Colonel Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, a British chemical weapons expert, told the BBC that Russia’s claim was “pretty fanciful”.

“If you blow up Sarin, you destroy it, and it is pretty clear that this is a Sarin attack. The view that it’s an al-Qaeda or rebel stockpile of Sarin that’s been blown up in an explosion I think is completely unsustainable.”

Journalist and researcher Eliot Higgins also pointed out an apparent discrepancy in the timings of the attack and the Russian description of it:

As well as highlighting Russia’s long history of lying about military activity in Syria:

4. “Assad had no reason to attack civilians”

Targeting civilians is strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law - the set of laws the govern war - but it has been a major feature of the war in Syria.

While no side is innocent of the practice, the Syrian government has been found time and again to target a variety of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals.

Yesterday’s chemical attack was followed up by a rocket hitting a hospital treating the wounded from the attack. You can watch footage appearing to show the moment of impact here:

Medicins Sans Frontieres, a medical aid group, reported that one of its hospitals in Hama province was hit with a chemical weapon dropped from a helicopter on March 25, killing two people. It was only the latest in a long line of Syrian government attacks on hospitals.

Whether Assad had “a reason” to or not, no one should be surprised that the Syrian government is targeting civilians.

While Syrian government responsibility has not been established beyond doubt, they remain the prime suspect due to their air force, access to chemical weapons, and history of using them.

Jacob Burns

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