Coda: The Battle Against The Evidence
Aleppo was not broken in the darkness. Numerous witnesses provided evidence, some of it conflicting but much of it consistent, to substantiate claims of chemical attacks, barrel bombs, air strikes on hospitals and schools, and the deaths of thousands of civilians.
Throughout the siege, the Syrian and Russian governments waged a battle against the evidence, denying the facts, misrepresenting the victims, and attacking the witnesses.
These attacks were consistent across so many platforms that they took on the appearance of a separate disinformation campaign, aimed at distracting attention from events on the ground by focusing on discrediting, and silencing, the ones who were reporting them.
Denying The Deeds
The simplest response to allegations of civilian casualties and indiscriminate strikes was to deny them. Throughout the conflict, and in defiance of the evidence, both the Syrian and Russian governments rejected such allegations outright.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad played a leading role:
Q. So you’re not using chemical weapons?
A. Definitely not.
Q. But you wouldn’t deny that, included under the category of bombs, are these barrel bombs, which are indiscriminate weapons?
A. No, there are no indiscriminate weapons. When you shoot, you aim, and when you aim, you aim at terrorists in order to protect civilians. Again, if you’re talking about casualties, that’s war. You cannot have war without casualties.
Q. And yet you are not seen as a unifying force in Syria; people think that the society is torn apart. Just to use one example, on a personal level, you trained as a doctor and yet your administration stands accused of targeting medical and rescue workers as they race to save lives. How do you make peace with this? And is this a society that, after suffering such consequences, can really just forget the past and move on?
A. I cannot answer that question while it’s filled with misinformation. Let us correct it first. We don’t attack any hospital.
In September 2016, Assad even denied that there was any difference between barrel bombs and precision weapons:
When they talk about barrel bombs, what are barrel bombs? It’s just a title they use in order to show something which is very evil that could kill people indiscriminately, and as I said, because in the media “when it bleeds, it leads.” They don’t talk about bombs; they call it barrel bombs. A bomb is a bomb, what’s the difference between different kinds of bombs? All bombs are to kill, but it’s about how to use it. When you use an armament, you use it to defend the civilians. You kill terrorists in order to defend civilians. That’s the natural role of any army in the world. When you have terrorists, you don’t throw at them balloons or you don’t use rubber sticks, for example. You have to use armaments. So, it’s not about what the kind of armament, it’s about how to use it.
Denials such as these continued throughout the siege, but they increasingly drew skepticism and fact-checking. This was particularly the case of the Russian MoD’s briefings, such as the October 25 press conference that presented side-by-side satellite imagery to claim that reports of airstrikes on the M10 hospital were “mere fakes” (see chapter on hospitals, above). The MoD’s claim was debunked; further analysis exposed a pattern of deception. The phrase “Russia Denies” had already led to the creation of a parody Twitter account, but it gained a new lease on life with the Aleppo siege.
Militarizing The Victims
In parallel to the campaign of denial, Syrian and Russian officials repeatedly misidentified their targets, presenting civilians as combatants. Again, Assad led the way:
Q. Can we talk about the humanitarian situation a little bit? One of the effective military tactics your… the Syrian Army has used, is to isolate areas held by rebels, and effectively to starve them out. But that has had the effect also to starve the civilians, and that, again, is against the laws of war, starving civilians.
A. That’s not correct for one reason, because in most of the areas where the rebels took over, the civilians fled and came to our areas, so in most of the areas that we encircle and attack are only militants.
The re-branding of civilians as legitimate military targets covered both entire city areas and individual buildings, as Assad loyalist member of parliament (MP) Fares Shehabi demonstrated when defending air strikes on hospitals in December 2016:
Q. Why do you bomb hospitals in which your own constituents, your own civilians are seeking aid to help them repair the wounds that your air force has inflicted?
A. If they really care about hospitals, why would they turn state-owned hospitals into command centers for al-Qaeda?
Shehabi’s comment is particularly noteworthy as it appears to justify striking hospitals, contradicting the earlier denials.
The militarization of the victims was not uniform: both Russian and Syrian statements referred to the civilian population, often as “hostages” of terrorist groups, and expressed an interest in protecting them:
When you use an armament, you use it to defend the civilians. You kill terrorists in order to defend civilians.
It is to be stressed that Russian party [sic] does everything possible in order to prevent victims among civilians and does not assign targets located in towns, unlike the US-led anti terrorist coalition.
However, repeatedly, Syrian and Russian rhetoric blurred the distinction between al-Qaeda-linked forces and other groups, to create an impression that all were extremists. Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Sergy Rudskoy commented on August 8, 2016:
Jabhat al-Nusra militants, which now call themselves Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, as well as their allied groupings of the so-called moderate opposition keep attacking government troops.
In an interview published in December 2015, Assad turned a question of civilian casualties caused by his forces to characterize the entire uprising against him as “terrorists”:
“The rhetoric that has been repeated in the West for a long time ignores the fact that, from day one, terrorists were killing innocent people,” Assad said. “It also ignores the fact that many of the people killed were supporters of the government.”
Attacking The Witnesses
Increasingly during the siege, however, eyewitness evidence discredited these claims: airstrikes were hitting civilian buildings, and civilians were dying. In response, Syrian and Russian officials began to attack the credibility of those witnesses.
One of the most important witnesses to the suffering was the aid organization initially called Syria Civil Defense, and later dubbed the “White Helmets” after their trademark headgear.
In Aleppo, the White Helmets began as a rescue organization in early 2013. As the conflict intensified and independent journalists no longer had access to the front lines, they increasingly became a main source of evidence of the true nature of the bombings, posting GoPro footage of airstrikes and their aftermath. This put them on a collision course with the government and its allies:
Q. We have eyewitnesses that were relatives, we have the White Helmets, we have many people saying that they witnessed helicopters in the air. Now, only the Syrians and the Russians have helicopters. Are you saying this is just invented?
A. Those witnesses only appear when there’s an accusation against the Syrian Army or the Russian, but when the terrorists commit a crime or massacre or anything, you don’t see any witnesses, and you don’t hear about those White Helmets. So, what a coincidence.
The attacks came from the highest levels of government in both Syria and Russia, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accusing the group of faking its evidence:
In a number of cases, these attempts have already been exposed. There is that organization called the White Helmets. The BBC went as far as nominate it for the Nobel peace prize. What these White Helmets do is pretend to save people from under the rubble left after Russian air strikes. The BBC even showed footage of this kind, but later the full video appeared on YouTube in which not only do we see how a man is extracted from the rubble, but also how he gets into it so that he can be saved. They did a few takes. The BBC was even forced to offer excuses, and later came out with a statement that these White Helmets were just kidding. What an innocent statement. There was also this story about an eight-year old girl Aya who, if the reports are to be believed, was saved from certain death three times on the same day by different people in different Syrian cities. She also appeared in a fake video.
Lavrov’s statement combined two stories. The accusation of a staged rescue can be traced back to a “Mannequin Challenge” video, posted by White Helmet volunteers on YouTube, for which the organization was widely criticized, and apologized. The video originated as a misguided attempt to bring attention to the conflict, in the same way a Pokemon Go launch had been used to draw attention to the situation in Douma. It was a serious error of judgement, as the organization itself admitted, but to present it as proof that the White Helmets systematically fake evidence was disingenuous.
The triple rescue of the “eight-year-old girl called Aya,” meanwhile, was originally launched in a meme online, repeated by Canadian activist Eva Bartlett at a press conference at the United Nations on December 9, and widely amplified by the Kremlin media.
According to Bartlett, the White Helmets’ video footage “actually contains children that have been recycled in different reports. So you can find a girl named Aya who turns up in a report in say August, and she turns up in the next month in two different locations.”
However, UK independent broadcaster Channel 4, which has regularly used White Helmets video footage in its reporting, fact-checked Bartlett’s claim and the photo-montage meme, and concluded it was “almost certainly nonsense,” adding, “We think it is beyond reasonable doubt that the three little girls in these pictures are different people.”
Lavrov is not the only Russian official to have accused the White Helmets of systematic fakes. On October 22, Russian MoD spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov accused UNICEF of “falling victim to another hoax by the White Helmets.” In December, state internet agency Sputnik wrote that “journalists have repeatedly condemned the ‘White Helmets’ for distributing lies” and claimed that they had been “discredited as radical militants engaging in spreading propaganda.”
Fraud was not the only claim leveled at the White Helmets. During the siege, Syrian and Russian officials and media also accused them of working with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and therefore al-Qaeda.
Shehabi, for example, regularly attacked the group on Twitter, conflating them with Islamist extremists and linking them to atrocities, including beheadings. He also tied the group to NATO, as did a number of other sources, including activist Vanessa Beeley, one of the most vocal critics of the White Helmets, who called them “NATO’s pseudo ‘NGO’ construct.” This NATO linkage is false and betrays a deep ignorance of the difference between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the various countries that belong to it; it does nothing for the credibility of those who made the claim.
Meanwhile, on September 20, after the UN aid convoy air strike, Sputnik quoted the Russian MoD in three separate reports as saying: “The perpetrator of the fire, as well as his goal may be known by members of the White Helmets organization that has connection to the Nusra Front terrorists who have ‘accidentally’ been at the right time and in the right place with cameras.” Two further reports added the word “allegedly” to the quote.
A week later, Sputnik columnist Finian Cunningham called the White Helmets “propaganda conduits for al-Qaeda terror groups”; on October 23, the same columnist wrote, “Virtually all the information that the West relies on for its allegations is sourced from Western and Saudi-funded organizations such as the so-called White Helmets and Aleppo Media Center, both of whom are embedded with proscribed terror groups like Jabhat al Nusra.”
As Cunningham’s comment shows, Kremlin officials and media also amplified the claim that the White Helmets could not be relied upon as sources, because they were funded by a number of Western governments.
Thus, on November 18, Konashenkov rejected claims of strikes on civilian targets, saying, “The so-called reports about ‘hospitals’ and ‘schools’ allegedly located in terrorist-held Syrian territory were created by the ‘White Helmets’ group financed by London.”
Kremlin media interviewed a number of commentators who made the same accusation. These included Beeley, a regular commentator for RT and Sputnik whom Shehabi hosted in Aleppo. She said that the White Helmets “cannot be considered anything other than an extension of the propaganda and the actual proxy war inside Syria; they are an infiltration agent for the US coalition inside Syria.”
They also included German politician Albracht Müller, quoted as listing the White Helmets among “NGOs which receive large donations from the EU and the US, are mainly located in the areas controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Müller continued: “They cover the situation only from one side and comment on it in a corresponding way. Thus, the White Helmets is being portrayed as a neutral aid organization and not as an organization financed and inspired by the West.”
Insofar as these commentators’ opinions are sincerely held, reporting them is acceptable journalism; reporting them repeatedly without presenting any other point of view is not.
Between August 13 and December 31, Sputnik ran twenty-seven articles which mentioned the White Helmets. Of those, twenty-four were negative, two were neutral, and just one—a preview of the Nobel Peace Prize contenders—was positive. When the Nobel prize was awarded to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Sputnik ran a Beeley article celebrating the fact that the White Helmets had lost out. By contrast, when the group won the “Right Livelihood Awards,” dubbed the “Alternative Nobel,” in a prize widely reported by independent media, Sputnik remained silent.
Taken together, this suggests a deliberate policy of only reporting news and views that placed the White Helmets in a negative light.
The context of these various negative comments is also important. Müller’s quote is significant: “They cover the situation only from one side and comment on it in a corresponding way.” Cunningham and Beeley both labeled them as “propaganda”; so did Norwegian communist Pål Steigan, again interviewed by Sputnik; Konashenkov accused them of “creating” reports about strikes on hospitals and schools.
In other words, all these attacks on the White Helmets were not related to their rescue activities, but to the way in which they documented and reported airstrikes and civilian suffering.
As this report, and many others, have demonstrated, such strikes did occur repeatedly. In the vast majority of cases, the White Helmets’ claims and video footage were corroborated by other sources, including news footage, security cameras, and satellite images.
Thus the White Helmets, formed as a response to the government and Russian bombing campaign, emerged as witnesses whose evidence could, when verified against other sources, be relied upon. Yet, they were consistently portrayed as a group whose evidence should be dismissed unregarded.
Similar treatment was meted out to a single family in the last months of the siege. This was the family of seven-year-old girl Bana al-Abed, who shot to international prominence when a series of tweets in her name began chronicling daily life under the siege.
In November and December, Bana was repeatedly cited in the Western media as an example of the suffering of civilians—especially after she engaged in a Twitter conversation with Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling, who has over nine million followers, and who sent her a collection of books.
The response from the Russian and Syrian governments was harsh. On October 6, Assad was interviewed by Denmark’s TV2. One of the questions focused on Bana’s tweets as an illustration of suffering. Assad’s response was to brush her aside:
Question 9: At the moment, there’s a seven-year-old girl, her name is Bana al-Abed, from Aleppo. She’s Tweeting about her life in the eastern part of Aleppo. She’s talking about the massive bombardment. She’s very scared, every time she wakes up and realizes, fortunately, she’s still alive. Do you trust her as an eyewitness?
President Assad: You cannot build your political position or stand, let’s say, according to a video promoted by the terrorists or their supporters. It’s a game now, a game of propaganda, it’s a game of media.
Shehabi was more aggressive, characterizing Bana as a “fake” while dismissing the White Helmets as belonging to MI6, and linking both to al-Qaeda—all in one tweet:
Anyone saw AlJazeera fake character "Bana"? Anyone saw MI6's "White Helmets"? Maybe they are in the green buses with alQaeda to Idlib! pic.twitter.com/dehjFO7teB
— Fares Shehabi (@ShehabiFares) December 15, 2016
In parallel, a number of fake Twitter accounts sprang up, parodying Bana and claiming that she and her mother were jihadists and terrorists. These accounts were subsequently removed, but their attacks were chronicled by a number of reports, including in New Statesman and Bellingcat:
In December, Bana’s reputation came under wholesale attack in the Kremlin-run media. The primary source of the attack was a Syrian identified as Maytham al-Ashkar, and interviewed by RT, by whom he was introduced as a “journalist.”
Al-Ashkar’s verdict on Bana echoed the attacks on the White Helmets: “I keep saying that this little girl is part of the Western information campaign against Syria.” He claimed, as particular grounds for suspicion, that Bana had a good internet connection, concluding that “We’re now sure that this account is run by more than one person and that these people are not just in Aleppo but outside the city.” He also claimed that he had offered to arrange safe passage out of the siege for Bana and her family, but that this had been refused.
Rather than challenging these claims during the program, RT’s anchor, Murad Gaziev, amplified them, repeatedly saying that Bana “probably doesn’t understand” what she is tweeting about, claiming that her father had links to al-Qaeda, stating that, “Instead of fleeing, the parents chose to take Bana deeper into east Aleppo,” and adding, “Odd, all of that, but who cares? The media certainly doesn’t.”
Al-Ashkar’s specific claims deserve analysis. According to a study conducted by Bellingcat, the images shown in Bana’s posts match a single address in eastern Aleppo, debunking the claim that she was based outside the city. The claim that her parents were radical Islamists was based on fake social media accounts. The claim that her internet access was suspiciously regular was compared with known 3G and Wi-Fi services in the city, leading to the conclusion that “it appears there are multiple ways Bana and Fatemah could be gaining access to the internet.” Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham also rejected the thesis.
However, al-Ashkar himself also deserves examination. In the following days, his views were repeated by a number of sources, including Sputnik and pro-Kremlin Russian-language site rusvesna.su. Sputnik, however, introduced him as an “activist,” rather than a journalist; rusvensna.su introduced him as a “pro-government activist.” Sputnik even included a screen grab of a twitter conversation purportedly between al-Ashkar and Fatemah Alabed, in which he explicitly said, “I am not a journalist.” When Fatemah answered, “But ur friend said u r a journalist,” the answer was, “It does not matter.”
The difference does matter, however. al-Ashkar was, by his own admission, not a journalist; a number of sources identified him as a pro-government activist. For a news outlet to interview him is legitimate, as long as he is correctly identified; however, any such interview should be balanced by some voice representing the opposing point of view. Neither RT nor Sputnik provided such a voice; in fact, RT’s interview, in particular, reinforced al-Ashkar’s stance by claiming that Bana “probably did not understand” what was being tweeted from the account in her name.
Just as in the case of the White Helmets, therefore, the coverage provided by the Kremlin’s media appears to be a one-sided recitation of accusations from questionable sources, aimed at discrediting a key witness to Aleppo’s suffering.