The Russian government just made a bullshit claim about chemical weapons in Syria—and used some bullshit graphics from an old video game to help make its argument.
“Several trucks with improvised munitions fitted with chemical warfare agents based on chlorine have arrived in northern territories of Aleppo, which had been controlled by Jabhat Al Nusra terrorists, from the Idlib province,” the Russian defense ministry reported on May 11.
The Russian embassy in the United Kingdom helpfully tweeted the defense ministry’s claim—and included a CGI image of munitions-laden trucks along with the disclaimer that the image was “for illustration purposes only.”
But that image was a screenshot from the popular 1995 video game Command and Conquer. Freelance journalist Kelsey Atherton was the first to notice the embassy’s rip-off. “Shout-out to the Russian intern who googled ‘bomb truck,’ found a picture from a video game, slapped on ‘illustration only’ & ran with it,” Atherton tweeted.
Russia’s claims about chemical weapons are as dubious as the artwork. Yes, it’s true that Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria have used chlorine gas. On April 19, Kurdish authorities reported that a mortar round apparently containing a chemical agent struck Peshmerga troops in the town of Makmour in northern Iraq—the second such attack in just a week’s time.
On the same day as that alleged April attack, Turkey’s foreign ministry claimed that Ankara Polatli State Hospital was treating 68 Iraqi Turkmen from the town of Tuz Khurmato in northern Iraq after the men were apparently exposed to chlorine gas.
And the State Department believes that ISIS was responsible for several small-scale sulfur mustard attacks in Iraq and Syria, including on in the Syrian town of Marea in August 2015.
“Given the ISIL interest and intent in weapons of mass destruction capabilities, the United States has been working proactively to disrupt and deny ISIL’s (and other non-state actors’) WMD capabilities,” Elizabeth Trudeau, a State Department spokesperson, told The Daily Beast, using an alternate acronym for the militant group. “ISIL’s resorting to chemical warfare and apparent interest in other WMD is a continuation of its barbarism and contempt for international norms and values.”
Even the Russian government has acknowledged attacks by terrorist groups, but has tried to deflect attention from other culprits. “Chemical weapons are spread by terrorists whereas some states turn blind eye on that & go on blaming ‘Assad regime’ for everything,” the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted on May 7.
In fact, the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad has been responsible for more—and more devastating—chemical attacks in Syria. The regime copped to possessing chemical weapons in July 2012. The following December, an apparent regime gas attack killed seven people in the rebel-held city of Homs.
In early 2013, there were additional gas attacks—again, apparently launched by the regime. In June that year, Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said that President Obama had “high confidence” that the Al Assad regime was behind the chemical assaults. Rhodes claimed U.S. officials had based their assessment on several physiological samples from multiple sources.
The worst chemical attack occurred on Aug. 21, 2013. when thousands of people fell ill and as many as 1,400 died in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, where Syrian forces were locked in bloody combat with rebel forces.
Al Assad denied his forces were responsible for the Ghouta gassing. But on Aug. 30, the White House again said it had “high confidence” that the regime was behind the attack. A French intelligence report backed up the Obama administration’s assertion.
But Russia came to Al Assad’s defense. “It was not the Syrian government that was using chemical weapons,” said Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Nevertheless, in October 2013 Syria agreed to hand over its declared chemical weapons stockpile—a process that was largely complete by the end of 2014. But chemical attacks continued. “Evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in northern Syria in mid-April 2014,” Human Rights Watch reported.
The international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed three more chemical attacks, involving helicopters deploying chlorine gas, in September 2014. While the OPCW did not assign blame, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the presence of helicopters "strongly points” to the regime, as rebel groups do not possess helicopters.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria and Iraq continued into 2015 and 2016, with Islamic State and other militant groups including Jaysh Al Islam deploying chlorine gas. Russia seized on the militants’ chemical attacks as “confirmation” that, in fact, the rebels had been responsible for all the gassings.
“The use of chlorine by Jaysh Al Islam fighters in Aleppo is yet further confirmation of what we have been saying all along,” said Maria Zakharova, a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said, “that while it has been alleged and widely reported by the Western media that Damascus used chlorine for military purposes, including against civilians, these attacks were actually perpetrated by terrorist groups.”
That’s clearly not true. Both the Syrian regime and militant groups have used chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria. Russia’s most recent round of propaganda, complete with the bizarre repurposing of video game graphics, does nothing to change the facts.