Weeks before the world saw the bodies of men, women, and children dead from an apparent Syrian military chemical attack in Douma, Syria, the Russian military was already spreading bizarre conspiracy theories about an impending “false flag” chemical attack carried out by rebels.
Russian conspiracy propaganda and truther chum have been a staple of official discourse whenever Moscow wants to cover up bad behavior by its allies in Damascus. When the Assad regime used sarin nerve agents on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, Russian officials accused Syrian first responders—a group known as the White Helmets—of fabricating the attacks—saying it was impossible to explain otherwise how the group “managed to work for such a long period of time and remain alive without gas masks and special protection equipment” while documenting the attack.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia has dredged up the same talking points now to label Douma a “pretext” that was “eagerly provided by the White Helmets’ provocateurs.” But this time, the propaganda campaign got a head start—and they’ve even tried to remix old children’s plays and spy novels to make their point.
“What’s perhaps interesting in this one is the way that Russian officialdom started building the narrative on a false flag a month ago,” Ben Nimmo, a researcher at Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who studies disinformation campaigns, told The Daily Beast. “There’s a measure of foresight and forethought there which is quite interesting.”
Beginning in early March, Russia’s ministry of defense began to claim that it had picked up intelligence about “provocations” planned by Islamist militant groups outside Damascus designed “to accuse government troops of using chemical weapons in the Eastern Ghouta against civilians.” Defense ministry officials later elaborated that the conspiracy to mount false-flag chemical attacks involved a whole cast of characters ranging from U.S. special operations forces operating in the Syrian desert to Free Syrian Army members in the south of the country to al Qaeda members in Idlib Province.
The anticipatory claims about rebel chemical weapons provocations coincided with mounting frustration in the Trump administration over the Assad regime’s continued use of chlorine gas attacks in and around East Ghouta. Reports of Syrian military chemical attacks died down in the months after the Trump administration struck a Syrian air base in retaliation for the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun, but began to increase as the Assad regime pressed an operation to take back the northeastern suburbs occupied by rebels.
Russia’s announcement of the false flag conspiracy followed a late February meeting by the Trump administration to consider a potential military response to Syria’s ongoing chemical weapons use, according to The Washington Post.
Russian diplomats have used the conspiracies floated in March to try and validate their claims of a false flag, but Moscow still can’t seem to get its story straight about whether the conspiracy raised in March involved a fake chemical attack or a real one. The March claims all involved chemical weapons being used by rebels. Russia’s UN ambassador has since argued that there “were no chemical substances found on the ground, no dead bodies found, no poisoned people in the hospitals.”
In the wake of the attack, pro-Russian, pro-Assad and general conspiracy enthusiast social media trolls have joined the fray to make Moscow’s case—with a little help from Russian state media. “[Trump] said let’s pull out of Syria, as a deflection, So that a week later he can declare war,” cried the famously pro-Assad troll Partisangirl. “He knew a chemical false flag was planned.”
Outlets like Sputnik have amplified spy-novel stories about several British commandos captured near the scene of the attack in Douma supposedly operating on behalf of an international Super Friends alliance of the U.S., Israel, Jordan, and the U.K. aiming to thwart the recapture of rebel-held territory.
“Therefore, the US has ordered Jaysh al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman and other terrorist groups to allow the evacuation of civilians from Eastern Ghouta to army-held regions in a bid to provide the ground for these foreign agents to also leave Ghouta in disguise and enable the Turkish intelligence service to send them to specified regions in At-Tanf and northern Syria,” according to the intricate claim.
Social-media trolls have also spun their own artisanal disinformation since the Douma incident, taking footage of a 2013 children’s play about chemical weapons put on for kids in East Ghouta and editing the video to claim that civilians in rebel-held areas are teaching children to fake chemical weapons attacks. The play, put on by volunteers shortly after the 2013 sarin attack in East Ghouta, had local children lying on the ground acting out the part of poisoning victims as assembled kids watched and applauded. Twitter trolls grabbed the footage from YouTube, edited it down and circulated it blaring “LET'S PLAY FAKE SYRIAN CHEMICAL ATTACK children's party!”
By and large, though, social media propaganda in the wake of the alleged Douma chemical attack has closely resembled that seen after the Khan Sheikhoun nerve gas attack. “The main things we’ve been seeing are attacks on the White helmets, calling them terrorists and calling it a false flag,” Nimmo said. “What we’ve seen this time around are attacks on the White Helmets, calling them terrorists and calling it a false flag.”
The conspiracy theories about the White Helmets and Douma piggyback on a well-developed disinformation infrastructure aimed at discrediting the civil defense group. A study released by the Syria Campaign, a non-governmental human rights organization, and carried out by the social media analysis firm Graphika looked at tweets by 2.65 million accounts discussing the White Helmets between June 2016 and October 2017 and found a “a solid indication of a coordinated disinformation campaign” against the group.
Discussions focused on a series of common themes accusing White Helmets volunteers of being members of al-Qaeda and staging the deaths of civilians in attacks following Russian bombings or the Syrian military’s use of chemical weapons.
“[Chemical weapons] used by #AlQaeda not by #Assad #Khansheikun was falseflag of alqaeda linked fake aid organisation #whitehelmets,” cried one cluster of tweets, pushed out at the same time by accounts ostensibly located on different continents.
The volume of social media activity, according to the report, allowed conspiracy-theorist critics of Syrian Civil Defense to dominate discussions of the group on social media with “some of the most connected and influential accounts in Twitter conversations about the White Helmets are the same individuals targeting the White Helmets with false accusations and violent threats.”