On August 21, 2013, at around 2 o’clock in the morning, the Syrian Arab Army under the command of Bashar al-Assad fired artillery shells laden with sarin gas into the rebel-held Damascus suburb of East Ghouta. The massacre that followed claimed the lives of around 1,400 people. One of the casualties of that attack—the worst use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in Halajba in 1988—was Kassem Eid, an opposition activist in the neighborhood of Moadamiyah, who recounted his near-death experience through asphyxiation on 60 Minutes, two years later.
Footage of the Ghouta atrocity circulated widely, shocking the world, but not Alexander Lukashevich, the spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Two days later, on Aug. 23, after more evidence as to the cause and provenance of the attack had come to light, Lukashevich said in a statement, “More and more evidence emerges indicating that this criminal act had an openly provocative character. So the talk here is about a previously planned action.”
For Lukashevich, the “gotcha” evidence was the fact that the first videos were uploaded to YouTube on Aug 20.—the day before the alleged attack took place. Voice of Russia—the Kremlin’s answer to Voice of America—and other pro-Assad outlets ran with this interpretation that rebels in Damascus staged the event as a way to prompt a military intervention that would never come.
However, YouTube timestamps its videos according to Pacific Standard Time, which is 10 hours behind Damascus time. Syrians at the scene of the crime were therefore uploading evidence of Assad’s massacre for hours before the day officially changed over on the video-sharing platform.
The real story, as my colleague James Miller noted at the time, was that the Russian Foreign Ministry did not know that the earth rotates on its axis in diurnal fashion. This of course did not stop many respectable news organizations from citing this self-evidently debunkable debunking as though it were anything other than what we now call “fake news.”
And this was just one of a series of varying and contradictory explanations provided by Moscow to account for how its embattled client-regime in the Levant could not possibly be guilty of mass murder. Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister and Lukashevich’s boss, even credited the risible “analysis” done by a Carmelite Lebanese nun known for her closeness to the Syrian security services, who alleged that the corpses of the victims had been ferried in from other parts of the war-ravaged country.
Now comes another gas attack on Syrian civilians, this time via aircraft, in the city of Khan Sheikhoun, Idlib. Between 69 and 100 people have died so far, and hundreds more are still suffering from being poisoned, or from the follow-up airstrike on a nearby hospital that was treating them from being poisoned. As the bodies pile up, so too do the Kremlin conspiracy theories for whodunnit or whether or not this atrocity was even done at all.
Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry’s new spokesperson, has taken a leaf from her predecessor’s playbook. On Wednesday, she intimated that despite a U.S., EU assessment that around 60 people were gassed by the regime from the air using sarin—a nerve agent Assad has previously admitted to have stockpiled—the whole ordeal was an elaborate bit of playacting.
In a press conference, Zakharova darkly commented on the “too-calm behavior of the representatives of this organization under emergency conditions,” by which she meant the White Helmets, an internationally funded and trained group of first-responders who often pull victims from the rubble of Russian, Syria and American bombing raids. Her government has vilified them as being either agents of regime change, al-Qaeda or both. Though her characterization of the rescue workers’ composure is at odds with press accounts describing how some “grew ill and collapsed from proximity to the dead.” But then, this is a woman who previously said that Donald Trump won the presidency because American Jews decided the election.
Speaking of Trump, one of his allies in the tin-hatted corner of the internet, the conspiracy site InfoWars, ran several articles and segments on Wednesday calling the atrocity a “false flag attack.” One article said the attack hadn’t been carried out by Assad but by the White Helmets, which InfoWars labeled as a “an al-Qaeda affiliated group funded by George Soros and the British government.”
“They have also been known to stage ‘rescue’ videos in the past. However, this time it appears children were indeed killed in the making of this ‘media campaign,’” the report reads.
The article also alleges that “the rebels smuggled in chemical weapons from Libya through Turkey with the approval of Hillary Clinton,” citing a 2013 report from the journalist Seymour Hersh, whose name is spelled incorrectly.
President Trump is a self-professed fan of InfoWars, saying as recently as December 2015 that the website’s “reputation is amazing” and that “I will not let you down.”
An alternate theory peddled by Moscow is that Syrian rebels struck a nearby chemical weapons warehouse, inadvertently unleashing nerve agents that killed dozens and injured hundreds more. This allegation was swiftly knocked down by one British chemical weapons expert, Col. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, as “pretty fanciful” because immolating sarin eliminates sarin. Eliot Higgins, the founder of the open-source investigations website Bellingcat, told The Daily Beast, that such an explanation “would have to account for the first images from the attack being shared hours before the time the Russian Ministry of Defense provided as the bombing of the warehouse occurred. It would be absurd to claim the chemical attack was linked to a bombing that occurred hours later. “
But, as Higgins noted on Twitter, the Ministry of Defense has form for misinterpreting, misidentifying, misdating or modifying satellite footage of its airstrikes in Syria.
Sometimes the ministry says that because a building is already shown as damaged before its sorties took place, that building can’t have been targeted or struck—leaving aside that the same building was hit on earlier, separate occasions and so bore signs of destruction. Very frequently, Higgins noted, the ministry likes to pretend it is pummeling the Islamic State when it is not.
“By examining Google Earth satellite imagery of Syria it was possible to find many of the locations featured in the Russian Ministry of Defense’s bombing videos, and by comparing those locations to the Russian Ministry of Defense’s own map of ISIS controlled areas it was possible to establish that from the first 30 videos claimed to be ISIS targets only one was in ISIS controlled territory as per the Russian Ministry of Defense’s own map,” Higgins writes.
The Ministry of Defense has also done this in Ukraine, trying to fudge its own culpability in the downing of the MH17 passenger jet, by passing off an aerial photograph of a Ukrainian air base— which it claimed produced the Buk missile that destroyed the commercial airliner—as having been taken in July, when it was not.
The falsification of history travels, too. The late Vitaly Churkin, until recently, Russia’s reliable ambassador to the UN, once claimed at Turtle Bay that children in besieged East Aleppo were covering themselves with dust, the better to drum up international sympathy. Churkin died of a heart attack in February and was nevertheless eulogized by none other than Samantha Power, a nominal upholder of the rights of those dust-covered children.
So standard is this Putinist protocol for blaming the victims of atrocity for their own deaths that it is difficult to feel indignation or disgust anymore. Inurement is the point. It is designed to make us forget, or not care, that a conscious denial of crimes against humanity is its own crime against humanity.
—with additional reporting by Ben Collins