Since using them for the first time in 2012, the Syrian regime and its allies continue to deny having utilized chemical weapons, and they deploy various messages to this end. These denials can be divided into four categories that sometimes overlap. The following is a rebuttal of each of them based on statements issued by the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.
1- Categorically deny the occurrence of chemical attacks.
2- Accuse opposition forces of carrying out the attacks.
3- Question information about the attacks.
4- Question the entities that collect and analyze evidence and information.
These four types cover most of the statements made by the regime and its allies in this regard, and, accordingly, they are considered the main denial strategies used. The following is a respective review of some of the positions and statements that fall under these categories:
1- Categorically deny the occurrence of chemical attacks:
Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the regime and its allies have frequently used this method after committing massacres. After the regime began carrying out chemical attacks against areas outside its control, the media narrative of the regime and its allies always began by denying that the chemical massacres had ever occurred.
An example of this is the statements of the Syrian Minister of Information, Omran Al-Zoubi, regarding the chemical massacre committed by the regime on August 21, 2013, in Eastern Ghouta, in which 1,144 people were killed and 5,935 were injured. He said: “The pictures and information that were broadcast have all been fabricated and prepared beforehand .”
As for the Russian Foreign Ministry, it had the following to say about the massacre itself: "There is compelling evidence that pictures of the chemical attack victims were fabricated," without publishing any evidence for its claim. Also, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif "denied thata massacre had taken place" in his statement about the same massacre.
During the Security Council meeting held onApril 2021, the Syrian regime’s representative to the Security Council, Bassam Sabbagh, said: “Syria confirms, once again, that it did not use chemical weapons and that it worked credibly and transparently with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations to meet its obligations.”
In the second week of April 2018, pro-Assad media outlets, including Russian Channel 1, published pictures claiming that the chemical attack in Douma in 2018 had been an act. It later became apparent that these photos were taken from the filming of loyalist director Najdat Anzour’s movie, "Man of the Revolution .” Also, in the third week of that same month, Russian media published footage of what it described as scenes of a fabricated chemical attack on Douma in 2018. Again, it turned out that they were clips taken from a short film by the pro-opposition director Hammam Al-Hosari filmed in 2016.
2- Accuse opposition forces of carrying out the attacks:
While the Syrian regime and its allies in Russia and Iran always deny the occurrence of chemical weapon attacks, they are also quick to accuse opposition factions of being responsible for the attacks, especially after denying their occurrence becomes untenable due to the abundance of evidence.
Back to the Ghouta massacre of the summer of 2013, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif denied the massacre initially, but he also added: “If the incident happened, then the opposition certainly did it.” As for the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, he said: "Moscow has received materials implicating opposition militants in the chemical attack from Damascus."
In statements by the Russian Foreign Ministry, it was claimed that "the missiles loaded with sarin, which caused the massacre, were launched from opposition-controlled sites.” Later, the Guardian newspaper published a French intelligence report that includes 47 satellite videos showing the moment when chemical missiles were launched towards Eastern Ghouta from areas controlled by the Syrian regime.
Contrary to statements by the Syrian Minister of Information, who categorically denied the massacre, the political and media advisor to the President of the Syrian regime, Buthaina Shaaban, said that "the victims of the chemical massacre in Eastern Ghouta are children. The opposition forces brought them from the villages of the Syrian coast to Eastern Ghouta, where they killed them with chemical weapons." In her statement, Shaaban ignored the siege imposed on Ghouta by Syrian regime forces, and the close to 400 kms separating Eastern Ghouta and the villages of the Syrian coast. These two facts, alone, are sufficient to prove the falsehood of its claims.
Afterwards, speaking about the 2017 sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun, the representative of the Syrian regime to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, said: “The opposition forces were able to smuggle chemical weapons from neighboring countries, and they were the ones who used them in Khan Sheikhoun. Or the parties that dumped the Syrian stockpiles at sea left part of it and and used it in Syria to pin the attack on the Syrian regime and allege that the formula used in the attacks is made of the Syrian precursor.
As for the Russian Defense Ministry, it said the following about the incident: "Syrian government forces bombed a chemical weapon depot in Khan Sheikhoun." Subsequently, the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which was established by a UN Security Council Resolution, proved that regime forces had been responsible for that attack.
3- Question information about the attacks:
The Syrian regime and its allies resort to this method in order to further misinform, especially in light of the lack of evidence that opposition factions are responsible for the attacks. They question the veracity of the information provided by opposition parties about the crime, the number of victims, the location of the photographs, symptoms apparent on the injured, first aid method and tools, behavior of the injured and paramedics, means used to document, and others.
All of this to claim that the occurrence of the chemical attack in the manner claimed by the anti-regime parties is doubtful in the first place, and that the videos and documentation of the attack are plays orchestrated by these parties in advance, casting a cloud of misinformation and ambiguity on the issue.
On April 12, 2018, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement regarding the chemical weapons attack on Douma in which it questioned the veracity of the information related to the attack, stating: “At first, it was said that thousands were killed, then the numbers became more modest. The information spread by the opposition includes many contradictions regarding the time and place of the attack.” The statement described the video footage as "unbelievable, showing children and adults pouring water on each other."
After the issuance of the third JIM report of the of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations in August 2016, which conclusively proved that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons twice, the Syrian regime’s representative to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, said: “The conclusions contained therein are not convincing because they are totally based on the statements of witnesses presented by armed terrorist groups or environments that incubated them.” In response to the same report, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Churkin, questioned the results, saying: “A number of issues still need to be clarified before accepting the results,” without clarifying what those issues are or whether the Russian side had written to the JIM about them?
After the JIM report, which proved that the Syrian regime had used sarin gas when targeting Khan Sheikhoun, was issued the aide of the Russian representative to the United Nations wondered: “How can a report condemning al-Assad include phrases such as “likely”, “probably” and “apparently.” As the representative of the Syrian regime at the United Nations said: “The investigation committees are biased, politicized, and unethical. They excelled at their job by using false witnesses, open sources, fabricated evidence, manipulation of information, and cunning language.”
Russian Deputy Representative to the United Nations Vladimir Safronkov, when speaking about the Syrian regime's attack with sarin gas on Khan Sheikhoun, questioned the occurrence of an "attack of this kind" and described the images shared on the internet by activists and aid workers as "fabricated” despite the emergence of dozens of children who died due to symptoms associated with difficulty breathing upon inhaling toxic gases.
4- Question the entities that collect and analyze evidence and information:
After condemnations are issued against the Syrian regime by the investigating international organizations and committees and after the Syrian regime's involvement in the use of chemical weapons is proven, the Syrian regime and its allies are quick to question the integrity and professionalism of these organizations, entities and committees.
The Syrian regime describes Human Rights Watch as a " Western tool" due to its reports indicating its implication in committing massacres with chemical weapons. The same method is used by Russia to challenge the results of investigations issued by international bodies and organizations.
For example, following the "leak of investigators' correspondence" about the chemical attack in Douma, the Russian Foreign Ministry spoke about the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons saying "There is a feeling that the originally abnormal conditions inside the organization continue to deteriorate sharply." Meanwhile, the head of the Russian delegation at the Organization’s conference, Oleg Rezantsev, said : “The report published by the organization in March 2019 (regarding the chemical attack on Douma) distorts reality and is based on the opinions of people hired from outside the organization.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry described the results of the investigation into the 2017 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun as "superficial, unprofessional, and amateurish work." The representative of the Syrian regime to the United Nations, Bashar al-Jaafari, described the JIM report as "partial and unprofessional ," adding that the investigation’s framework relied on “false witnesses, open sources, fabricated evidence, and manipulated information.”
Among the organizations that the Syrian regime and its allies are constantly attacking is the White Helmets (Civil Defense), which is responsible for rescuing the injured and uncovering the dead after destructive bombing campaigns are carried out by Syrian regime forces and those of its Russian and Iranian allies. Russia has led a massivecampaign to demonize the White Helmets and depict them as being part of terrorist organizations, especially after a movie made the oragnization famous and showed the nature their work and its hazards.
France 24 prepared a report in which it refutes these allegations, demonstrating what is true, what is false and what is uncertain.
After the release of the first JIM report on April 8, 2020, which held the Syrian regime responsible for the chemical weapon attacks on the town of Latamna in Hama in 2017, Russia was able, through its veto, to prevent the extension of the Joint International Mechanism’s investigation. It attacked the report, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and its investigating team, saying that it: "exceeded the powers of the Security Council" under the "pressure of countries" that it did not name. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a press conference that "A small circle of countries with an interest to do so imposed the formation of an investigation team in violation of the basic provisions of the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the recognized norms of international law."
Russia and the Syrian regime also took advantage of what was published by the British newspaper, the Daily Mail, about the "correspondence of some investigators of the fact-finding mission in Douma.” It discussed the manipulation of the results of the investigation, and according to the leaks, an unidentified investigator expressed his "great concern" in an email, stressing that the organization's report "misrepresents the facts" and reflects "unintentional bias." Russia and the Syrian regime have worked to promote these leaks with the aim of demonstrating that the report of the fact-finding mission issued in 2019 is inaccurate and irreflective of reality to strengthen the narrative that the attack on Douma had been fabricated.
Commenting on the leaks, the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Fernando Arias, said, "Inspectors (A) and (B) are not informants. Rather, they are two people who could not accept that their views were not supported by evidence," stressing that the behavior of these inspectors "is more egregious because they clearly have incomplete information about the Douma investigation." Arias also announced that an internal investigation would look into the leak of an internal document, as well as confirming the organization's findings regarding the Douma attack on April 2018, which killed 40 people.
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It is clear from reviewing examples of the four types of denials that the discourse of the regime and its allies does not aim to reveal the truth about any of the chemical attacks. Indeed, it aims to confuse, mislead and make it extremely difficult to ascertain the truth. The regime and its allies have no unified narrative; Instead, their narratives are intertwined and sometimes contain contradictory accounts and allegations that are meant to do nothing but hide the truth under layers of lies.
The statements by Omran Al-Zoubi, Minister of Information of the regime: https://2u.pw/BlVU9
Statements by the Russian Foreign Ministry about the fabrication of the chemical attack: https://2u.pw/paFCB
An article containing Javad Zarif's statements regarding the denial of the Ghouta chemical massacre: https://2u.pw/4L6ed
A Sunday Times article: On Russia's use of dramatic footage from a chemical film by director Hammam El Hosary: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/russia-uses-images-from-humam-husari-film-chemical-to-prove-douma-gas-attack-was-hoax-9vgslmbl2
Statements by the regime’s representative to the Security Council, “Bassam al-Sabbagh,” denying the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons: https://2u.pw/aMpgs
Statements by Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister about accusing the opposition of being responsible for the Ghouta attack: https://2u.pw/pBWB3
Link to the France 24 report on the White Helmets: https://2u.pw/yVvy6
Link to the France 24 report on the statements of the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons regarding the Douma leaks: https://2u.pw/KdGzH