On Bellingcat, Truth, and War (revised)

This is a revised version of the original post.

Bellingcat has a difficult job. For those who don’t know, it is “to set the record straight” when US-UK foreign policy is challenged on the truthfulness of its factual premises. The difficulty lies in trying to sustain a reputation for reliable and truthful analysis at the same time. For facts are recalcitrant. They can only ever be spun for so long until a misleading narrative, the effort of maintaining it spent, subsides into acquiescence with the truth.

The founder of Bellingcat is Eliot Higgins. As well as leading the team at Bellingcat and being a Senior Fellow in research at Atlantic Council Higgins is Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London, a leading UK university. This provides Bellingcat a particular source of credibility it could not otherwise claim to have.

It also makes Higgins an academic colleague of people like myself and Professor Piers Robinson of Sheffield University, who has done considerable research on how propaganda about war has come to permeate our media, including a recently published analysis of how we were misled about Iraq.

(We do not get to pick and choose all our colleagues, of course, nor will we agree with all of them, or necessarily rate their work, even though we will treat them courteously.[1])

What binds the academic community is a commitment to discovering and disseminating truths about the world through credible sources of reason and evidence. To contravene those standards is to bring one’s profession and university into disrepute. Engaging in deliberate practices of disinformation risks doing that.

With this in mind, and with Professor Piers Robinson of Sheffield University I put a question to Higgins via Twitter. It was a simple question about whether the UK Government could actually rule out the possibility of opposition forces in Syria having access to the kinds of chemical found in the recent OPCW tests on samples said to come from Khan Sheikhoun. Higgins was brought to admit, thanks to some careful supplementary questioning by Professor Piers Robinson that he could not. He accepted on behalf of Bellingcat that if the UK Government suggested the opposition in Syria had no access to sarin, then that was merely an opinion.

Bellingcat’s admission was duly noted by the journalist Peter Hitchens, the famously independent-minded and highly experienced journalist who had also been party to the Twitter conversation, having that same day published a piece in the Mail on Sunday (found half way down the page here) urging caution (as I had previously) about rushing to judgement concerning the Khan Sheikhoun incident. The next week after the Twitter exchange Hitchens was to write an even more powerful article. Its careful critical analysis of the OPCW report demonstrated the severe weaknesses of its evidentiary base, and he foregrounded the fact that the UK Government opinion was merely an opinion.

The government, of course, has opinions on many things that are not shared by all reasonable people. So we should not allow any rush to judgment about who was responsible for the incident on the basis of the UK statement relayed by Ambassador Adams. Aside from the many other reasons to be very cautious, there are good reasons to be critically alert on the specific matter of access to the chemicals analysed. There are abundant reports, analyses, testimonies and videos available from a variety of sources over the past five years that present at least circumstantial evidence, and potentially more than that, to suggest opposition access to the relevant chemicals. In fact, at times, there have been very grave concerns on the part of our governments’ intelligence agencies about the potential threat from opposition terrorists bringing chemical weapons back to our own lands. In the note beneath the text of this article I include links to some of those sources.[2]

It is said that the first casualty of war is truth. This is a compelling reason for us to fight for truth to prevent war, as urgently and as long as we can.

Some people have fought for the truth at the cost of their lives. Such a person is Serena Shim.

If you have not heard of Serena Shim, that will not be surprising, given the priorities of our media, but I would recommend that you take at least a moment to find out something about the witness she was bearing to events in and around Syria. I wish here to honour her memory. Shortly before her untimely and unsatisfactorily explained death in 2014, she filed a report that was particularly germane to the question about the Syrian opposition and chemical weapons.


[1] In the original post I tried to be super polite to someone I am fundamentally critical of. In my choice of words I evidently over-compensated and conveyed a very misleading impression to some readers. Twitter went a bit berserk, even though both Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett intervened at a very early stage to urge some individuals to calm down. Higgins himself came along to have a laugh at a certain point, and the whole situation became ludicrous. I had not actually been under any illusions about Higgins or Bellingcat; but I evidently had been about some other people! Still, the vast majority of readers, even if they were a bit perplexed by my original tone, were either understanding or prepared to give the benefit of the doubt in light of everything else I have ever published. I thank you for this.

[2] This is just a small selection that I had readily to hand. There are very many more out there, and if readers mention others in the comments over the next week or so, I shall consolidate them into this list. Meanwhile, thanks go to all who have already sent links, including Qoppa










Serena Shim (born USA 1985 – died Turkey 2014)




Posted in Uncategorized | 28 Comments

We need to talk about #Bana

Bana is safe now in Turkey, and my dearest wish for her is that she be able to lead a peaceful and happy life. I hope her parents can make that possible.  In this piece I shall not be referring to a little Syrian girl, now 8 and settled in a new country. For her, my heart desires nothing but good things.

I shall be speaking of the internet phenomenon @AlabedBana and of the adults responsible for creating it. To speak of family members is unavoidable.

To start with a simple and quite obvious fact: the @AlabedBana Twitter account was not initiated or run by a 7 year old girl from Aleppo, even if one was used as its living avatar. Some intuitively doubtful elements of the tale – that were defended against ‘conspiracy theorists’ by the corporate media and its penumbra of disinformationists – can now be demonstrated. For since the fighting stopped in Aleppo, some verifiable truth about people, places and events there during the time of the occupation and siege has been coming out. It differs in many ways from what we were encouraged to believe by the massed corporate media of the world. The twitter account @AlabedBana is one conspicuous example. Another is the image of the little boy Omran, who we’ll return to at the end.

What I am going on to write here involves no in-depth research or analysis on my part. That has been done by Khaled Iskif, a journalist from Aleppo. (I commend his video about @AlabedBana and other videos covering previously unrecorded aspects of the situation in Aleppo. He regularly adds videos to his Youtube channel) He lives in the Western part of town that was protected by the government while the Eastern part was held hostage. He is now able to go across and track down various locations that have become familiar to us from the video reports earlier transmitted via the Aleppo Media Center (in Turkey) and onward through the world’s corporate media.

In this latest video, Khaled takes us on a short walk around the Alabed house and environs, accompanied by Nour Al Ali doing the filming and photography. They show us into the Alabed house, and then into the Al Nusra headquarters adjacent to it.

The proximity of the house to the Al Nusra headquarters is demonstrated – each a few meters from a shared street corner. This explains why the house was in an area being bombed. About 100 men were quartered in the basement of the adjacent building, according to a local witness interviewed.

We learn about the Alabed family. The paternal grandfather was running a weapons dealership and repair workshop for Al Nusra and other militant groups; his sons worked there; one of them had served a criminal sentence, even before the war, for gun smuggling; and we are shown a photo of the now famous granddaughter at about 3 years posing with a serious-looking weapon that is as big as her.

Her father Ghassan worked as a lawyer, before joining the armed groups. We see photos of Ghassan, armed, with the militant factions Al Nusra and the Islamic Safwat Brigade. We see documents showing he served in the Sharia Court based in the ‘Eye Hospital’. Admidst other papers strewn about the abandoned house is one that indicates he was ‘assistant director of the Civil Registry of Aleppo Council’ – a “rebel” organisation with links to foreign states and armed groups in the governorate. Another document shows he worked as a military trainer and investigating judge for the Islamic Safwa brigades. Prior to 2015 he had been working with ISIS in the Sharia court in the Eye Hospital. We see a photo of him brandishing an AK47 beneath an ISIS flag; and another of him in the midst of an armed Asafwa group. We see him with four brothers, each holding a serious weapon, outside the store.

Also lying around is a dog-eared piece of paper with one of Bana’s famous #StandWithAleppo messages on.

Outside, and a few steps just around the corner, we are taken into the basement. We are now inside the headquarters of Al Nusra. There we see rolled militant flags, Turkish supplies, and a prison.

On this and the other videos there is much more to see. So I recommend them. They don’t have the slick production values of Channel 4 and the other corporate media outlets. What they do offer is honest and dispassionate testimony.   Or as dispassionate as a participant observer can be under the circumstances.

As a resident of Aleppo, Khaled is visibly affected by the whole situation. He expresses something close to despair about “the exploitation of children in politically motivated attempts to distort the image of his government.” His fellow citizens in that part of town have confirmed on the video that they had been human shields for the militants.

Khaled also has a word about the little boy Omran who, photographed in the orange-seated ambulance, was another major media sensation in the West. We meet Omran today in videos with Khaled (and others, like this and this). He is in Aleppo, back in his original home, not Turkey. He was thrust into the world’s media spotlight against his family’s wishes. His family is glad Aleppo was liberated from the likes of those that made the propaganda for #Bana.



Posted in journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 5 Comments

On Bellingcat, Truth and War

Because this post generated some misunderstanding I have replaced it with a revised version.  I leave here readers’ comments to the original post.




Posted in disinformation, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 19 Comments

How like sarin is a sarin-like substance?

The OPCW has analysed samples from Khan Sheikhoun in April containing what they have identified as ‘sarin or a sarin-like substance’. They know that much, even if they are not sure how it got there or who is responsible.

But how much actually is that? Throughout the OPCW report we find the cumbersome expression sarin or a sarin-like substance.  Why not just sarin, pure and simple?

All a non-chemist like me can understand from this is that we are dealing with some nasty stuff, but there is no definite confirmation it is sarin pure and simple. Of course, a non-chemist also has no idea how impure a sample or how different a molecule would need to be to count as merely of a substance like sarin; nor would we know how much more impure or different it could be before becoming unlike sarin.  So we non-chemists could easily be bamboozled in these matters.

One thing we do know is that the sarin the Syrian government produced and gave up for destruction in 2013 was referred to by all concerned as sarin, pure and simple. To produce sarin with military grade purity is not easy.  To produce improvised versions, however, is within the capacity of insurgents in Syria.

Given that there are already open questions about motive, means and opportunity, as I indicated in my previous blog, then if there is doubt about even the weapon as well, the case for blaming Assad looks decidedly uncertain. In fact, regarding the weapon, as I mentioned in the blog before last, the OPCW could not ascertain the method of delivery or therefore the ‘hardware’ used. So it becomes crucial for those who would prosecute a case against Assad to say that the chemical was one the opposition could not have had access to.  So crucial has it become that the UK’s Ambassador Adams has said it: ‘There is no evidence to suggest that any party to the conflict in Syria, other than the Syrian Government, has access to a complex nerve agent such as sarin.’

Still, just saying it does not make it true if the report you are relying on does not say it is true. And – it bears repeating – the OPCW does not say anything that clearly rules out the possibility of opposition responsibility for the incident.

It bears repeating because to accept the unsubstantiated claim as a pretext for sending more bombs, death and destruction against the people of Syria would be a heinous act. Anybody who pronounces on the matter without striving to be scrupulously honest and clear about what they are saying will be complicit in that act.



Posted in disinformation, journalism, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 9 Comments

Should UK attack Syria? What Parliament might say

Has President Assad used chemical weapons in Syria? In 2013, UK parliamentarians were not convinced. Asked to vote on military action, our representatives decided against.

Today, the same question arises again, but this time they may not get a chance to debate it.[1] We face the profoundly worrying possibility that this government could commit us to warfare without seeking or getting democratic approval.

So I want to highlight some points made by our representatives in 2013. [2] If they were true then, they could be as true or even truer now.

On 29th August 2013, UK parliament was recalled early from summer recess to vote on authorising military intervention in Syria. It was alleged that Syria had crossed President Obama’s ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons. Prime Minister David Cameron came to the House of Commons to seek approval for military action.[3]

Cameron told parliament of a report from the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and he presented a two page summary of it. The first question put to him, by Caroline Lucas, was why the full report was not made available.[4] He replied that the case for action ‘is not based on a specific piece or pieces of intelligence.’ He added, ‘intelligence is part of this picture, but let us not pretend that there is one smoking piece of intelligence that can solve the whole problem. This is a judgment issue…’

In the JIC Chair’s judgement it was ‘highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible.’

Cameron stated that he had ‘consulted the Attorney-General and he has confirmed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria constitutes both a war crime and a crime against humanity.’ The standard of proof in criminal investigations involves eliminating reasonable doubt, and can be tested with respect to such matters as motive, means and opportunity. MPs were minded to test it because they thought they were being expected to take a lot on trust. What does ‘highly likely’ mean, what is it based on, how is that judged, and is reasonable doubt eliminated?

Motive was a matter that bothered MPs. Peter Bone saw ‘no logic to this chemical attack and that is what is worrying some people.’ Julian Lewis noted ‘the JIC is baffled to find a motive for Assad having done this’, adding, ‘as well it might be’, given that it would have been ‘the height of irrationality for him to do the one thing that might get the west intervening against him.’ Like Mr Godsiff, too, David Davis pointed out that ‘even the JIC says that this is an irrational and incomprehensible act’. George Galloway asked what reason Assad could have to ‘launch a chemical weapons attack in Damascus on the very day on which a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team arrives there’.

Neither Cameron nor the JIC could answer on motive. By contrast, a clear motive could be attributed to Assad’s enemies, as David Davis pointed out: ‘it could have been done by the Syrian rebels with the direct aim of dragging the west into the war.’ He noted that ‘JIC discounted that last possibility’, but he worried it was not clear why.

It was on the grounds of means, not motive, that JIC judged it could rule out rebel responsibility. The JIC’s chair stated that there is ‘no credible intelligence or other evidence’ that the opposition possessed chemical weapons, so it is ‘not possible for the opposition to have carried out a CW attack on this scale’. Yet there were MPs who believed this claim to be false. David Davis noted that ‘the UN representative for human rights for Syria thought there was concrete evidence of rebels having sarin gas. There were reports that the Turkish authorities arrested 12 al-Nusra fighters with 2 kg of sarin gas, and other reports that Hezbollah fighters are in Beirut hospitals suffering from the effects of sarin gas.’ George Galloway was forthright in stating that ‘the Syrian rebels definitely had sarin gas’ and he highlighted the relative ease with which improvised forms of sarin can be produced without sophisticated lab equipment.[5]

On this point I think it is important to note that now, in 2017 a similar claim is asserted by UK government: there is ‘no evidence to suggest that any party to the conflict in Syria, other than the Syrian Government, has access to a complex nerve agent such as sarin.’[6] I am sure there would be MPs with concerns that this could be misleading. Certainly, the reference to complexity suggests they are thinking of how military grade Sarin could perhaps only be produced by the Government; yet the actual evidence suggests the chemicals involved are other grades of sarin that can be made by rebels. Given that the OPCW report is vague on precisely this point – whether it is sarin a ‘sarin-like substance’ that has been found where and by whom – the MPs could rightly pose some challenging questions. Those who had followed some of the debate by independent researchers would know to ask that information be released from the UK’s own labs on both the 2013 and the 2017 samples. The UK scientists would presumably know the chemical profiles of those samples, as would those in USA and Russia too.[7]

The fact is, that if rebels were understood to have Sarin in 2013, they would still have it now. Unless, of course, they had used it all, in which case a major premise of the UK’s government’s stance would be directly kicked away. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that with supply lines continuing to operate since 2013 they could have a great deal more by now. In light of all this, would MPs, if allowed to debate, agree that rebel capability is ruled out?

But even if the opposition could have had the means, did they really have the opportunity? MPs would be aware that the incidents of both 2013 and 2017 occurred in areas over which the opposition were in complete control.  Evidence could be managed and produced by them to a great extent without external interference or observation.[8] This means that if they had sought to construct a ‘false flag’ operation, they could have had the opportunity. Exactly how they would have done it involves considering some very horrific possibilities.[9] But if a possible account sounds ‘too horrific to believe’ MPs might still be wary of underestimating the horrors that some of those involved might be capable of.

So where might our elected representatives think evidence concerning motive, means and opportunity points today? Would they be inclined to accept the view of the government that it is so likely Assad was responsible for the chemical attacks that we’d be justified in engaging in acts of war against Syria?

I don’t claim to know how the debate would go today, but we can reflect on how it went in 2013. Andrew Mitchell offered his ‘strong advice to the Government’, in view of doubts about whether the use of chemical weapons is unequivocally the work of Assad, ‘to publish in full the evidence’. Julian Lewis argued that even if not all members could see the full report, at least The Intelligence and Security Committee should be allowed to, given that it had sufficient security clearance. Ed Milliband found that evidence against Assad was not compelling, and John McDonnell agreed that ‘to say that “highly likely” and “some evidence” are not good enough’. Richard Ottaway complained that all they’d been given was ‘bare bones’ with ‘no depth’. He endorsed the proposal that ‘the Intelligence and Security Committee could ​look at the JIC analysis, report to the House on the veracity of the intelligence and confirm that it agrees with the opinion in the JIC intelligence letter before us.’ Alasdair McDonnell expressed concern about acting ‘on the basis of uncertain or confused intelligence, particularly in view of possible consequences of action for the Syrian people, something Galloway urged the house to think about: ‘Every religious minority in Syria—there are 23 of them—is petrified at the thought of a victory for the Syrian rebels, whom the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been doing their utmost to supply with weapons and money over ​the last two years.’

So much hinges on the reliability of intelligence, and yet so little, in truth, is really known about it by those who uphold democracy in our country. Surely, if we have learned anything at all from the recent history of UK intervention in the Middle East, it is that our leaders’ summary judgements about indirect reports of evidence can let us down, and very badly.




[1] See the worrying discussion of the use of the ‘Enabling Act’ to authorize military action without express approval http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-40496773

[2] Source of Hansard references: http://www.parliament.uk Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons 29 August 2013 Volume 566 [Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 16 July 2013, on Developments in UK Foreign Policy, HC 268-i.]

[3] In the event, of course, Obama himself drew back from the direct confrontation with Syria. Did he know the evidence did not in fact support a justification for it, and congress could expose this fact?

[4] The Greens’ Caroline Lucas: asks ‘why he has refused to publish the Attorney-General’s full advice? ​Why has he instead published just a one-and-a-half-side summary of it, especially when so many legal experts are saying that without explicit UN Security Council reinforcement, military action simply would not be legal under international law?’ And the SNP’s Angus Robertson says ‘we have been recalled to Parliament because of potential imminent military action by UK and other forces. We have been called back four days before Parliament was to reconvene anyway, so it is not unreasonable to conclude that there was a high probability that intervention would take place before Monday. The UK Government expected that we should vote for a blank cheque that would have allowed UK military action before UN weapons inspectors concluded their investigations and before their detailed evidence was provided to the United Nations—or, indeed, Members of this House. Following our having been misled on the reasons for war in Iraq, the least the UK Government could have done was to provide detailed evidence. Frankly, they have not, as was underlined in my intervention on the Prime Minister earlier. … Surely we must have definitive evidence that the Syrian regime or opposition was responsible for the use of these weapons—with the greatest respect, that means not just two pages of A4 paper.’

[5] Galloway: ‘The Syrian rebels have plenty of access to sarin. It is not rocket science. A group of Shinto obscurantists in Japan living on Mount Fuji poisoned the Tokyo underground with sarin gas less than 20 years ago. One does not have to be Einstein to have one’s hands on sarin gas or the means to distribute it.’

[6] Statement by H.E. Ambassador Sir Geoffrey Adams, UK Permanent Representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. 5th July 2017 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/55th-special-session-of-opcw-executive-council

[7] According to a technically well-informed blogger, ‘There is ample evidence that (1) the Nusra Front was producing sarin, and (2) that the sarin used in Syria in 2013 was kitchen sarin that did not match the synthetic pathway used for Syrian military stocks. Mokhtar Lamani, the UN Special Representative in Damascus, had reported to the UNSG in March 2013 that Nusra was bringing nerve agents into Syria through the border at Azaz. The Russian lab that analysed environmental samples from the Khan-al-Assal attack in March 2013 reported that the sarin had been produced under “cottage industry” conditions. It’s likely that Porton Down had obtained similar results from their own analysis of a sarin sample from Uteybah, and were able to compare the Russian findings with their own (very helpful when trying to interpret mass spectrometry results on a complex mixture). This would have helped to establish the credibility of the Russian in this matter.

The phone transcripts of the Nusra team arrested in Turkey in May 2013 showed that they were buying sarin precursors in quantities of hundreds of kilos, including white phosphorus. The OPCW labs reported that the sarin used in Ghouta contained hexafluorophosphate. This indicates that the synthesis started with phosphorus trichloride or elemental phosphorus, and that intermediate reaction products were not purified at each step. The Syrian government’s sarin production started with trimethyl phosphite, bought in large quantities from the UK and India during the 1980s. Finally, Seymour Hersh has reported that the US, which fitted out the ship Cape Ray as a sarin disposal facility, obtained samples of the sarin binaries given up by the Syrian government and determined that their chemical profile did not match the Ghouta sarin.’ ‘On 29 August, just before the House of Commons met to debate the resolution for war on Syria, the UK Joint Intelligence Committee released a report to the Prime Minister stating that there was “no evidence for an opposition CW capability” and therefore “no alternative to a regime attack scenario”. Yet only one day later, Obama had been informed that both these statements were false. It’s clear that the UK defence lab scientists and defence intelligence officials were well aware that the JIC was misleading the House of Commons (a crime against the constitution) and that they resorted to passing information via the military chain of command.’ http://pundita.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/ghouta-sarin-gas-story-i-think-this-is.html

[8] The 2017 incident occurred at (or around) the time of a Syrian bombing raid at the area in question, and some MPs would surely ask how the rebels could have arranged for this. But, apparently, it would not have been as difficult as one might imagine. Given that air raids within a certain radius and timeframe could be known in advance, and given that various elements of testimony could also be prepared ahead, then mobilizing some key parts of material evidence on the day would not be logistically impossible. In fact, there are unresolved discrepancies in accounts of the timing of events on the ground in relation to the bombing from the air as well as surprising vagueness about locations of victims at key times. Independent researchers have discussed at great length every aspect of the reported incidents and seem to be coming towards the sort of view that became a consensus among them regarding the 2013 incidents.

[9] Attentive researchers have examined these and come to some extremely disturbing conclusions about these. Anyone interested is recommended to consult the collective findings and analysis of A Closer Look On Syria: http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Special:AllPages. I find this rather more exhaustive and realistic than Bellingcat’s recent hasty attempt to set out a reductio ad absurdum of what would need to be believed https://www.bellingcat.com/resources/articles/2017/07/04/khan-sheikhoun-false-flag-conspiracy-actually-mean/ .

Posted in constitutional politics, disinformation, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 9 Comments

Khan Sheikhoun: why it is sensible to be sceptical still

The OPCW fact finding mission (FFM) has now reported on the chemical incident in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, in April 2017. Although heavily trailed in previews, by Bellingcat and others, as presenting virtually a smoking gun implicating the Syrian government, the report itself is so hedged with caveats that one could perhaps say there is so much smoke that we can’t even see a gun.

Certainly, the report cannot specifically verify any weapon involved, as the FFM ‘was unable to retrieve any items from the site which would indicate the means of dispersal of a chemical. After analysing photographs and video supplied by witnesses, the FFM could not establish with a great degree of confidence the means of deployment and dispersal of the chemical.’ (6.19)[1]

I know nothing about chemical weapons but I know a little about how reports get written. A number of people collaborate in piecing together the evidence and analysis that goes into the long document. One voice then has to come clearly through the summary that goes out to press, even though different glosses are possible. Since a certain gloss, given some extra spin, has been making the rounds in the media, I think it worth pointing out how one could interpret it quite differently.

The OPCW tell us they could not visit the site of the reported incident (since it is in the control of very dangerous men) and could not therefore get high value evidence (3.11).[2] The evidence they examined included samples that were sent (via those dangerous men) to Turkey without the FFM being able to document a verifiable chain of custody (3.46).[3] So how the samples came to be contaminated or by exactly what (since it apparently could have been a ‘Sarin-like substance’ or Sarin) is a matter of surmise. They tried to piece together a narrative on the basis of witness statements from people on the ground who were among, if not of, the dangerous men. ‘It was not possible to corroborate’ the narrative that was inferred from those testimonies (5.10); and the narrative was in fact contradicted by statements taken by the Syrian authorities (5.10).

Commentators who had sight of the report during its embargo period, like Bellingcat, worked very quickly to bring out publications aimed at convincing us the report provided a refutation of those of us who are sceptical about the narrative of Syrian Government responsibility for the Khan Sheikhoun incident.

It seems to me, though, that the caveats are extremely significant.  Especially given that in order to feel safe in disregarding those caveats one has to put a good deal of faith in the honesty and integrity of the people in control of the area of the incident. I find this hard to do, given that everyone considers them not even safe to visit.

[Readers will notice that in this brief comment I have not referred to the victims of the incident.  The cause of death of all those people should presumably be a matter for criminal investigation, which was not the purpose of the OPCW mission. It is a matter of very grave concern indeed.]



[1] All references are to paragraphs in the Report Of The Opcw Fact-Finding Mission In Syria Regarding An Alleged Incident
In Khan Shaykhun, Syrian Arab Republic April 2017.

[2] ‘During an investigation, complete, direct, and immediate access to the alleged initiation site provides the greatest opportunity to collect high value evidence.’ (3.11)

[3] ‘Typically, samples from an incident would be collected by the investigating team immediately after the incident, using approved procedures and equipment, including full documentation of the chain of custody of the samples. As noted earlier, the team 
was constrained due to the inability to access the site of the alleged incident and the amount of time that had passed between the alleged incident and receipt of samples by the team (depending on the source, between 1 week and 2 months after the incident). As a result, the team was unable to:

(a) assess the geography and conditions of the location of the alleged incident; (b) directly select sampling points and items;
(c) conduct on-site collection of samples; and
(d) implement a complete chain of custody, by the team, for samples from source.’ (3.46)

Posted in journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 23 Comments

Who Shall Debunk The Debunkers?

Established information sources like Google or Wikipedia sometimes answer a search about an intriguing claim you’re investigating by assuring you from the get-go that it has been discredited or debunked. They seem keen you should know this before they even explain what the claim actually is. I’ve learned to be suspicious.

Relatedly, I’ve found, the entire purpose of certain “independent” organisations calling themselves “fact checkers” seems to be to dispose of views that challenge or dissent from a given narrative promoted by the corporate media. These defensive communicators are savvy enough to know you can’t fool all the people all the time but, being part of a near monopoly of information, they have an advantage of numbers.  Dissenters can get isolated and marginalised as “conspiracy theorists”.  Challenges to authorized versions of events are portrayed as all the crazier when they diametrically oppose “what we all know”.

“We all know”, for instance, that Bashar Al-Assad is an evil dictator murdering his people, so when people die in an apparent chemical attack, “we all know” he was responsible; sure, the definitive prove might not be there “yet”, but we are promised we’ll have it in due course. Meanwhile, the sight of some dead children – no matter if they might have been killed and filmed by war criminals opposed to the Syrian government – is enough evidence for warmongers in Washington to license the unleashing of a bit of armed “democracy”, US-style.

Complicit in this process are those who undertake to discredit dissenting voices. Their support is needed because regarding such red-line-crossing incidents as those involving chemicals in Syria – as in 2013 and in April 2017 – controversy remains about who was responsible. Certainly, it is not beyond reasonable doubt that Assad was responsible. Too many indications suggest the possibility of an opposed conclusion.[1]

The quality of debunking, in fact, is sometimes shoddy. I first got drawn into publicly debating information about Syria for that reason. Having seen the famous clip of Eva Bartlett confronting the mainstream media narrative at the UN,[2] I was intrigued to learn that Channel 4 had debunked her claims. The Channel 4 piece was extraordinarily misleading, however, since it did not in fact attempt to refute any of Eva’s major claims about no western journalists being on the ground in Aleppo and about all information coming from compromised sources. She was demonstrably correct on those points. Her substantive version of events on the ground was also then vindicated with the liberation of Aleppo.

Misdirection, however, appears to be standard practice for those debunkers who present themselves as impartial arbiters of evidence but in fact cherrypick and obfuscate it.[3] One modus operandi is to pick up on some technical detail of an event that can be cast as a scientific inquiry. Very long and convoluted reasoning is then deployed to “prove” that this scientific evidence is actually sufficient, for those capable of understanding it, to prove the authorized account. Dissenters are then dismissed by showing that they cannot grasp the science. If they say that the scientific question is not sufficient to settle the matter about who is responsible, they get carefully coralled back to questions that the debunker has prepared a position on.  Those who persist in asking independently reasonable questions are liable to get ignored.  As are those who engage knowledgeably about the science. One way or another, dissent is largely managed away.

So who is to debunk the debunkers? The rest of us have less information about events than will a well-supported debunker.  It is quite possible that the more prominent organisations, particularly those that appear to have no need to engage in any fundraising activities, will be suitably briefed about what “is known” in relevantly authoritative circles.

Nonetheless, all of us are capable of using basic logic and evaluating the credibility of competing witness statements. That is why jury systems can deliver verdicts that as a society we are prepared to rely upon. Whereas a jury in a trial gets to hear evidence on two sides, however, the current situation involves a virtual monopoly of information on the part of the authorized version. The case for the other side remains to be made.

To answer my question: those who have skills or knowledge to challenge the authorized version have an obligation of responsible citizenship, in the public interest, to do so.  This applies across the social world, but includes a part I know quite well, namely, the academic.  Universities and research institutes are full of people with the knowledge and experience to ask probing questions and develop credible alternative explanatory hypotheses.  The particular obligation of academics is all the more pointed, I would suggest, since among the debunkers themselves may be some who hold university positions.

There is a line here that I believe we – as academics, and also as part of a wider society – have to hold. It is a line already worryingly breached by the dramatic burgeoning in the neo-liberal era of Think Tanks with barely a veneer of objectivity or impartiality.  Within universities, I believe, the disinterested pursuit of knowledge should be regarded as a sacrosanct goal.  It has already been put somewhat at risk by governmental pressures on academics to have ‘impact’, and it has always been somewhat blurred in practice, especially in research fields closely alligned with industry interests.  I would also acknowledge that those of us who work in social sciences will have certain political leanings that can affect our research priorities.  But the academic world as a whole ought to be pluralist and open enough for manifestations of bias to be exposed and adjusted for.

So we depend on proper academic procedures that ensure we all maintain suitably rigorous standards of practice in the conduct of research and dissemination of its findings.

Practitioners from other fields that enter academia with different expertises and experiences can greatly enrich it. This is certainly true in the case of journalists and citizen investigators. There are special affinities here, because we are all engaged in the same kind of enterprise – researching what is going on in the world.  The main difference is that a priority for journalists is to do so in timely fashion, whereas the priority for academics is to do so with great accuracy.  In an ideal world, we could collaborate to generate knowledge of the world that is invariably both timely and accurate.  In the real world, our collaboration may not yield perfection but it can strive for an optimally timely and reliable knowledge.

But I end with a word of caution. It is theoretically possible that people with academic positions could also have conflicts of interest. I believe it is the collective responsibility of members of universities to ensure that none of our number should act in ways that so contravene basic academic standards as to undermine the very purpose of the university as a public institution. Of course, universities have disciplinary mechanisms for ensuring they are not brought into disrepute. All of us as academics have a professional and personal responsibility, I think, to ensure that the operative criteria of good reputation match those of the fundamental purposes of a university as a social institution. In the age of social media, with truth claims of all sorts being contested as never before, the public role of the university is something to be duly reflective about.



[1] I have written about the lack of evidence regarding the April 2017 incident here. In subsequent debate on the subject with George Monbiot here, and further here, numerous people have also added interesting additional points in the comments sections.

[2] See the video here, especially from 13:30: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1VNQGsiP8M

[3] Readers will notice that I am not naming names here. My ultimate purpose is not to name and shame any person or organisation but to get the measure of a hat that nobody will want to admit fits them!









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