By Aaron Maté / Grayzone
On June 10th, The Guardian’s Mark Townsend published an article headlined “Russia-backed network of Syria conspiracy theorists identified.” (“Russia-backed” has since been removed).
The article is based on what Townsend calls a “new analysis” that “reveals” a “network more than two dozen conspiracy theorists, frequently backed by a coordinated Russian campaign.” This network, Townsend claims, is “focused on the denial or distortion of facts about the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons and on attacking the findings of the world’s foremost chemical weapons watchdog,” the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). According to Townsend, I am named “as the most prolific spreader of disinformation” among the nefarious bunch.
In hawking this purported exposé of “disinformation”, Townsend violated every basic standard of journalism. He did not contact me before publishing his allegations; fails to offer a shred of evidence for them; and does not cite a single example of my alleged “prolific” disinformation. Instead, Townsend bases his claims entirely on a think-tank report that also provides no evidence, nor even assert that I have said anything false. In the process, Townsend failed to disclose that the report’s authors — the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the Syria Campaign — are groups funded by the US government and other belligerents in the Syria proxy war. To top it off, Townsend fabricates additional allegations that his state-funded sources do not even make.
As a result, Townsend and the Guardian have engaged in the exact sort of conduct that they falsely impute to me and others: spreading Syria-related disinformation with coordinated support from state-funded actors. The aim of this propaganda network is transparent: defaming journalism that exposes the OPCW’s ongoing Syria cover-up scandal and the dirty war waged by Western powers on Syria.
The OPCW cover-up is arguably the most copiously documented pro-war deception since the US-led drive to invade Iraq. In Western media, as The Guardian’s behavior newly demonstrates, it is also without question the most suppressed.
At the center of the story are two veteran OPCW scientists, Dr. Brendan Whelan and Ian Henderson. The pair were among a team that deployed to Syria in April 2018 to investigate an alleged chemical attack in the town of Douma. They have since accused senior OPCW officials of manipulating the Douma probe to reach a conclusion that baselessly implicated the Syrian government in a chlorine gas attack. Their claims are backed up by a trove of leaked documents and emails that show extensive doctoring and censoring of the Douma team’s findings.
The Douma cover-up extends far beyond the OPCW’s executive suite. It also implicates NATO governments led by the US, which bombed Syria over the Douma chemical weapons allegation, and then, weeks later, privately pressured the OPCW to validate it. Since the OPCW scandal became public, the US and its allies have thwarted efforts to address it.
At the most criminal level, the scandal implicates sectarian death squads armed and funded by the US and allies during their decade-long campaign for regime change in Syria.
At the time of the incident, Douma was occupied by the Saudi-backed jihadi militia Jaysh-al-Islam and under bombardment from Syrian army forces attempting to retake control. Shortly before their surrender, local allies of Jaysh-al-Islam accused Syrian forces of using chemical weapons. They released gruesome footage of an apartment building filled with slain civilians. A gas cylinder was filmed positioned above a crater on the roof. Concurrently, the White Helmets, a NATO and Gulf state-funded, insurgent-adjacent organization, released footage of what it claimed were gas attack victims in a Douma field hospital. Several journalists, including Riam Dalati of the BBC, Robert Fisk of the Independent, and James Harkin of the Intercept, found evidence that the hospital scene was staged. (In February 2019, Dalati claimed that he can “prove without a doubt that the Douma Hospital scene was staged.” Oddly, more than three years later, he has not released his findings).
The White Helmets’ alleged fakery of a chemical attack aftermath, coupled with the censored OPCW findings showing no evidence that a chemical attack occurred, suggest the inescapable conclusion that insurgents in Douma carried out a deception to frame the Syrian government. And given the unexplained deaths of the more than 40 victims filmed in the Douma apartment building, that deception may have entailed a murderous war crime.
Unlike the Iraq WMD hoax, the very existence of the OPCW’s Douma scandal is unknown to much of the Western world. With few exceptions, establishment media outlets have refused to acknowledge the OPCW whistleblowers and the leaks that brought their story to light.
After largely ignoring the OPCW cover-up since it first surfaced in May 2019, the Guardian has now published defamatory claims about journalists, myself included, who have dared to report on the censored facts.
When I wrote The Guardian about the Townsend article’s journalistic lapses, I did not get a response. One week later, I phoned Townsend, who was now back in the office but had yet to reply. In our conservation, which I recorded and recently published, I repeatedly asked Townsend to substantiate his claims about me and identify even a single example of my alleged disinformation.
Townsend did not attempt to defend his article’s assertions, beyond claiming that they were based on what was “in a report.” When I pressed further, he claimed that he had to “dash for a meeting” and promised that I would soon hear from the paper’s reader’s editor. (Before I published our phone call, and this article, I emailed Townsend a detailed list of questions and invited him to offer any additional comment. He did not respond).
Townsend could not provide any evidence for his assertions because the report that he parroted offers none as well.
The report, titled “Deadly Disinformation” and authored by The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) and the Syria Campaign, contains bare references to my reporting and makes no effort to refute it. Nowhere does the report even claim that I have said anything false. It simply claims to have “identified 28 individuals, outlets and organisations who have spread disinformation about the Syrian conflict,” and that I am “the most prolific spreader of disinformation” among them.
When the report bothers to mention of anything that I hace actually said, it engages in distortion. In its first mention, the report states that I wrote an article that “attacks Bellingcat for its contributions to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).” Here, they not only fail to assert that I said anything false, but offer a false portrayal of what happened.
As for “attacking” Bellingcat — a website that, like the report’s authors, is funded by NATO states that were belligerents in the Syria dirty war – what I really did was expose its disinformation.
In this case, Bellingcat fraudulently attacked Whelan (the key OPCW whistleblower), along with several journalists (myself included) by falsely accusing us of concealing an OPCW letter that, I quickly revealed, did not in fact exist. Bellingcat was forced to add a correction, delete embarrassing tweets, and apologize to one of the article’s targets, the journalist Peter Hitchens (who resides in the UK, home to strict libel laws). I later exposed that Bellingcat copied a hidden, external author for some of their false material.
In short, the ISD/Syria Campaign’s first purported example of my alleged “disinformation” is an easily verifiable case where I’ve exposed state-backed lies.
The report’s only other substantive example comes when it notes that I have argued that the OPCW probe’s Douma probe “was flawed.” This far understates my case: the OPCW’s Douma investigation wasn’t “flawed”; it’s a scandalous cover-up worthy of global attention. Regardless, yet again, the report does not even assert that my argument is false, let alone try to explain why.
In a July 13th email, I asked the ISD to substantiate their claim that I have spread disinformation, and provide even one example of it. On its website, the ISD claims to “take complaints seriously,” and promises a response “within ten working days.” As of this writing, after 13 working days, I have not heard back.
At The Guardian, OPCW leaks are “problematic”
When I emailed a complaint about Townsend’s reporting, The Guardian admitted fault only on failing to contact me before publishing his evidence-free allegations. This was the result, they claimed, of a “breakdown of communication internally.” I was then offered the chance to respond to the article in 200 words.
A key point in my reply (which can be read here) was that The Guardian and its state-funded source is unable to identify any falsehoods in anything I’ve written “because my reporting on the OPCW’s Douma cover-up scandal is based on damning OPCW leaks.” These leaks, I added, “reveal that veteran inspectors found no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma, and that expert toxicologists ruled out chlorine gas as the victims’ cause of death. But these findings were doctored and censored by senior OPCW officials.”
At The Guardian, this passage set off an apparent alarm. After disparaging my reporting on the OPCW leaks, The Guardian informed me that they would now prevent me from even mentioning them. In a July 8 email, a Guardian editor wrote that the “the part about the OPCW” in my reply “continues to be problematic.” My reference to the OPCW leaks, the editor claimed, “makes an assertion that has been rebutted by an independent inquiry.”
I responded by asking the editor to specify exactly which “assertion” of mine has been rebutted. I also proposed that, if they believe that I have said anything “problematic,” they publish their own rebuttal.
In multiple follow-up emails, the editor failed to identify any “rebutted” assertion of mine. Despite that, the Guardian proceeded to publish my reply without its reference to the OPCW leaks. But this raised a new problem: in censoring my statement, they misquoted me. When I pointed out that error, they updated my reply to finally allow a (minimal) mention of the OPCW leaks.
The Guardian also took me up on my proposal that they publish their own rebuttal:
Editor’s note: Both the ISD and the Syria Campaign list a diverse range of funders and describe themselves as “fiercely independent”. In 2020 the OPCW rebutted claims about its investigation into the Douma incident (Inquiry strikes blow to Russian denials of Syria chemical attack).
As for the “inquiry” that The Guardian claims “rebutted claims about its investigation into the Douma incident,” the inquiry was not independent, and did not rebut anything.
The “inquiry” was appointed by the OPCW’s Director General’s office, the very body that presided over the cover-up. It was also staffed by two “investigators” from the US and UK. These happen to be the two states that bombed Syria based on the Douma allegations that the OPCW fraudulently validated, and that have since tried to bury the scandal at every stage.
Accordingly, the OPCW “inquiry” avoided the allegations of censorship in the Douma probe and instead disingenuously minimized the whistleblowers’ role. The whistleblowers themselves have rebutted the inquiry’s claims about them, as have I in subsequent reporting.
A network of NATO disinformation
As for what the Guardian calls the ISD and Syria Campaign’s “diverse range of funders,” both groups indeed enjoy a diverse range of funders: everyone from NATO governments to NATO government-funded organizations. They also receive support from billionaire-funded foundations that often work in concert with these same NATO governments’ foreign policy objectives.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s “diverse range of funders,” according to The Guardian.
The ISD’s “diverse” funders include the US State Department, the US Department of Homeland Security, three other US state-funded organizations, and more than two dozen other NATO government agencies. On the private side, the ISD’s funders include the foundations of three of the world’s richest oligarchs: Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Group, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In using the ISD as a source, The Guardian has a conflict of interest that its article did not disclose. The latter two ISD donors have also given sizeable grants to The Guardian: at least $625,000 from Open Society Foundations since 2019, and at least $12.9 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation since 2011.
Omidyar’s foundation has a direct role in the ISD/Syria Campaign report. The Omidyar Group’s Luminate Strategic Initiatives is listed alongside the German government-funded Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung foundation as the report’s fiscal sponsor.
Omidyar’s sponsorship of an attack on journalism about the OPCW scandal is highly fitting. The Intercept, the self-described “fearless and adversarial” outlet that Omidyar also funds with his vast fortune, has never once acknowledged the OPCW leaks or whistleblowers’ existence. While ignoring the OPCW scandal for more than three years, The Intercept has published multiple articles promoting the allegation that Syria committed a chemical attack in Douma.
Like the ISD, the Syria Campaign is also funded by governments and other belligerents in the Syria dirty war. As The Grayzone’s Max Blumenthal reported in 2017, the Syria Campaign was founded by Ayman Asfari, a Syrian-British billionaire oil tycoon and leading financial supporter of the Syrian National Coalition, the largest government-in-exile group established after the Syria conflict erupted in 2011. The Syria Campaign has also done extensive P.R. and fundraising for the White Helmets, the insurgent-adjacent, NATO state-funded organization implicated in the Douma incident.
That these two state-funded groups “describe themselves as ‘fiercely independent’” is apparently enough for The Guardian. I trust that the Guardian would feel differently if they were dealing with self-described “fiercely independent” groups funded by the Russian and Syrian governments.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of sources quoted in the ISD/Syria Campaign report are funded or employed by the same NATO state and private sponsors. This includes the White Helmets; the Global Public Policy Institute; Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS); self-described journalist Chloe Hadjimatheou of the BBC, who produced a podcast series that disparaged the OPCW whistleblowers and whitewashed the Douma cover-up; and James Jeffrey, the former US Special Envoy for Syria.
For a report that claims to be concerned with protecting Syrians from “real-world harm,” Jeffrey is a particularly interesting interview subject. Few US officials have been as candid about their willingness to immiserate Syrian civilians in pursuit of hegemonic US goals in their country.
Jeffrey has declared that al-Qaeda is a US “asset” in Syria, and has admitted to misleading the Trump White House to undermine an effort to withdraw the US military, whose illegal occupation deliberately deprives Syria of its own wheat and fuel. Jeffrey has openly bragged about his “effective strategy” to ensure “no reconstruction assistance” in Syria — even though the war-ravaged country is “desperate for it.” And he has also taken credit for helping to impose crippling US sanctions on Syria that have “crushed the country’s economy.”
Jeffrey’s proudly self-acknowledged real-world harms on millions of Syrians don’t seem to bother the study’s authors, presumably because their Western state sponsors implement them.
The report is so invested in its state funders’ aims in Syria that it approvingly airs frustration that other governments are failing to toe the NATO line. A “former Western diplomat” complains that “disinformation” on Syria is helping states “avoid making the decisions that we want them to make, say in the Security Council or elsewhere.” (emphasis added). From the point of view of Western officials, the anonymous diplomat is employing an accurate operative definition of what constitutes “disinformation”: any information that causes those deemed subordinate to “avoid making the decisions that we want them to make.”
Fittingly, another anonymous “senior diplomat” laments that supposed Syria disinformation is intended “ultimately to cast doubt upon the legitimacy and integrity of the people doing this kind of [policy] work.” Daring to question the “legitimacy and integrity” of Western policymakers who oversaw a multi-billion dollar CIA-led dirty war on Syria that knowingly empowered al-Qaeda and other sectarian death squads while leaving hundreds of thousands dead — another intolerable act that can only result from “disinformation.”
A member of the US-funded, insurgent-adjacent White Helmets is also given space to lament that alleged “disinformation” is hurting its donations. “We hear about billions of dollars for aid at conferences on Syria but most of that funding goes to the UN,” a White Helmets manager complains. Unmentioned is that European governments have cut funding to the group after their late founder, the lavishly paid UK military veteran James le Mesurier, admitted to pocketing donor funds and financial fraud right before he took his own life.
Having promoted the hegemonic agenda of its state sponsors, the report closes with a thinly veiled call to censor the dissenting voices it targets.
The ISD and Syria Campaign urge policymakers to “adopt a whole-of-government approach in tackling disinformation” and “ensure that loopholes or special privileges are not created for ‘media’ which would only exacerbate the spread of disinformation.” These “privileges” presumably refer to free speech. The report also notes favorably that platforms have addressed “thematic harms such as public health disinformation or foreign interference in elections.” As a result, the report calls on these platforms to “commit to applying similar levels of resourcing… in the context of the ongoing Syrian conflict.” Perhaps they have in mind the censorship of journalism about Hunter Biden’s laptop before the 2020 election, on the fake grounds that the story was “Russian disinformation.”
The fact that this network of state-funded actors is devoting energy to disparaging journalism about the OPCW’s Syria cover-up — and even advocating that it be censored – reflects their powerful sponsors’ desperation to bury a damning scandal.
In public, OPCW Director General Fernando Arias has provided misleading and outright false answers about the Douma probe, including why he refuses to meet with the dissenting inspectors and the rest of the original investigative team.
On top of the two known whistleblowers, Arias has ignored calls for accountability from his original predecessor, founding OPCW chief Jose Bustani, as well as four other former senior OPCW officials. Along with Bustani, former senior UN official Hans von Sponeck has spearheaded the Berlin Group 21, a global initiative to address the OPCW scandal. The US has responded to Bustani by blocking his testimony at the United Nations. Arias meanwhile refused to open a letter that he received from Sponeck’s group, returning it back to sender.
The response of Western media outlets like the Guardian to the stonewalling of these veteran diplomats and senior OPCW officials has simply been to ignore it.
In whitewashing the OPCW cover-up, the preponderance of state sources parroted by The Guardian reveals the ultimate irony in its allegations. While claiming to “identify” a fictional network of Russia-backed disinformation actors about Syria, The Guardian’s Townsend is himself spreading the disinformation of a NATO-funded network that defames voices who expose the dirty war on Syria.
In fact, one of Townsend’s central allegations goes well beyond his state-funded sources. Although Townsend’s article is premised on identifying a “network of conspiracy theorists,” Townsend’s sole source – the ISD/Syria Campaign report – never alleges that such a “network” exists. Nowhere in the report does the word “network” even appear.
Thus, Townsend has not only parroted state-funded sources, but concocted an additional allegation in the service of their narrative. This is not just an ordinary fabrication: in creating the fantasy of a “coordinated”, “Russia-backed”, “network of conspiracy theorists,” Townsend also reveals himself to be the very thing that he accuses his targets of being: a conspiracy theorist.
And given that Townsend not only parrots his state-backed sources but works for an outlet funded by some of the same sponsors, it is fair to say that The Guardian and these state-funded think tanks are a part of the same network.
Consequently, reading the article’s headline — “Network of Syria conspiracy theorists identified”—as a description of The Guardian and the NATO-funded sources that it relied on, the claim is no longer inaccurate.