Syrian rebels and chemical weapons: a disinformation operation?

The strange tale of an effort to claim that Syria's rebels were responsible for a chemical weapons attack near Damascus.

Loai Alshami/Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters walk together in the eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, September 22, 2013.

On Aug. 21, a chemical weapons attack hit the largely Sunni suburbs of eastern and western Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, leaving more than 1,000 people dead and the US on the brink of going to war with the Syrian government.

Since then, the US has pulled back from its threats of imminent attack in response to a promise from President Bashar al-Assad, brokered by Russia, that he will fully disclose his chemical weapons stockpile and cooperate with its full decommissioning.

Although the evidence of responsibility was scant in the early days after the attack, the Syrian government's possession of chemical weapons was a fact, and the chances that Syria's rebels had obtained a nerve agent like sarin (the substance that the US, France, and now the United Nations all say hit Ghouta on Aug. 21) was highly unlikely.

Last week, UN inspectors said the use of sarin at Ghouta was indisputable, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the attack "the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988." The UN inspectors were careful not to say who they thought was responsible for the attack – determining responsibility was excluded from their mandate – but other generally credible groups say they're convinced that the attack came from the Syrian military.

Human Rights Watch writes in a 22-page report that it is convinced that government forces carried out the attack, arguing that eyewitness testimony, an examination of the rockets used to deliver the sarin, and doctors testimony all point in that direction.

"The evidence concerning the type of rockets and launchers used in these attacks strongly suggests that these are weapon systems known and documented to be only in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces. Human Rights Watch and arms experts monitoring the use of weaponry in Syria have not documented Syrian opposition forces to be in the possession of the 140mm and 330mm rockets used in the attack, or their associated launchers," the group wrote.

But there have been many who insist that the attack was a sort of false flag operation carried out by rebels, designed to make Assad look responsible and draw US to war. Exhibit A for those making this argument was an Aug. 29 article that appeared on the website of startup Mint Press, under the bylines of Yahya Ababneh and Dale Gavlak. Ms. Gavlak is a longtime stringer for the Associated Press, based in Jordan, and her association with the piece led to claims that an "AP reporter" had "confirmed" the attack was carried out by the rebels.

The article in its first iteration didn't pass the smell test. It claimed that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the country's intelligence chief, had supplied chemical weapons to untrained rebels and that an accidental release in tunnels where the weapons were being stored led to the deaths. "They didn't tell us what these weapons were or how to use them," the article quotes a female fighter known only as "K" as saying. "We didn't know they were chemical weapons."

This claim is mindboggling: A senior Saudi official simply handing out chemical weapons – and concealing their nature from the recipients? This claim could illustrate "not credible" in the dictionary. Nevertheless, the story was tailor made to be believed by the "anti-imperial" left – with a Saudi intelligence agent known for his close ties to the US placed at the center of it.

People who closely track the Syrian civil war, led by Eliot Higgins' of the Brown Moses blog, began digging into this strange story. The wheels of the story began to come off last week, and the tale has only gotten stranger.

First, Ms. Gavlak contacted Mr. Higgins last Friday, and said her byline was "incorrectly used" by Mint Press. She wrote that "Yahya Ababneh is the sole reporter and author of the Mint Press News piece" and that Mint Press had refused to remove her byline from the article. Why she waited for three weeks is unclear  – if my byline was inappropriately used on any article, let alone one with such explosive claims, I (and I think most) reporters would be screaming that fact from the rooftops the moment it happened.

In a  follow-up email, with a statement from her lawyers, Gavlak indicated she'd brokered the story to Mint Press on Mr. Ababneh's behalf, that she'd edited the story, that she provided biographical information on Ababneh to Mint Press, and that she told Mint Press in an email "I helped him (Ababneh) write up his story but he should get all the credit for this."

Who is Ababneh? So far it's unclear. He's been identified as a Jordanian reporter by Gavlak, but the truth is certainly not yet determined. Brian Whitaker, a Guardian reporter focused on the Middle East who also maintains a blog, writes that he looked at a LinkedIn profile of Ababneh's that asserted he had worked for Al Jazeera and al-Quds al-Arabi (a major pan-Arab newspaper) but Whitaker could not find his byline in the archives of either website or anywhere else. The LinkedIn profile was deleted on Saturday.

Whitaker also found a reader comment made on an Aug. 26 article about Syria, three days before the Mint Press story, in the UK's Mail on Sunday by a "Yan Barakat" who told a very similar story about Prince Bandar and chemical weapons to the one that would appear three days later. "Barakat" wrote that he came by the story from "some old men" who'd "arrived in Damascus" from Russia. One of the men from Russia "told me they have evidence that they have evidence that it was the rebels who used the weapons."

A little more internet sleuthing from Whitaker found a Facebook page for Yan Barakat and photos of the man, who described himself as a Jordanian journalist. The pictures appear to be of the same man pictured in the deleted Linkedin profile for Ababneh. There is also a profile page on the Russian social media site VK (much like Facebook) under the name "Yahya Barakat" that contains pictures of a man that looks both like the Yan Barakat and Yayheh Ababneh pictures. The profile says the man's hometown is St. Petersburg, Russia (this story was edited after first posting; the original version incorrectly said the VK page stated he was "born" in St. Petersburg).

The Russian government has repeatedly insisted that the chemical weapons used in Syria were carried out by rebels. At the end of last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the attack was a false flag operation. "We have every reason to believe that it was a provocation, a sly and ingenious one," he said.

What happened here? It's all pretty much conjecture at this point, but clearly someone "got played." Whether Ababneh was one of the victims or one of the players is hard to say.

Human Rights Watch did take up the claim in its report on chemical weapons use at Goutah, and wrote that it found no reason to give it any credibility.

"Human Rights Watch has investigated alternative claims that opposition forces themselves were responsible for the August 21 attacks, and has found such claims lacking in credibility and inconsistent with the evidence found at the scene," the group wrote. "Claims that the August 21 deaths were caused by an accidental explosion by opposition forces mishandling chemical weapons in their possession are inconsistent with large numbers of deaths at two locations 16 kilometers apart, and documentation of rocket attacks on the sites that morning, as evidenced by witness accounts, the damage visible on the rockets themselves, and their impact craters."

The information war, like the real war in Syria, is likely to carry on for some time. Caveat lector – Let the reader beware. 

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