Conspiracy theories, Russia’s antidote to chemical weapons

It is all fake, we are supposed to believe. The attack. The injured. The dead.

2017/04/16 Issue: 102 Page: 7

The Arab Weekly
Claude Salhani

There is a new weapon in the war in Syria besides chemical agents: It is called conspiracy theories. Well, then again, maybe they are not so new.

Conspiracy theories have been around forever and range from the absurd to the sublime. They are relatively simple to initiate and almost impossible to prove right or wrong if cleverly constructed.

They can have a great public rela­tions impact because thousands of people fall for such fake news. For the record, use of chemical weap­ons is not exactly a novelty in the Syrian conflict.

You can find conspiracy theorists all over the world, although they seem to have a special following in the Middle East. At times, it appears the Middle East has a love affair with conspiracy theories.

To be fair, many other places and people do, too, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. A strong supporter of the Syrian regime, Putin accused the United States of staging “fake” gas attacks to discredit Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Of course, when the Russian president comes out publicly with such a statement there is no need to offer proof, at least as far as con­spiracy theorists are concerned. His statement alone gives conspiracy theorists all the ammunition they need.

Putin said Russia had information that the United States was plan­ning to launch new missile strikes on Syria and that there were plans to fake chemicals weapons attacks there. Putin did not identify the source of this information. Many people will assume that, coming from the Russian president who obviously has access to intelligence sources, the statement must have some truth to it.

Truth, the saying goes, is the first casualty of war and in a dirty war, such as the one in Syria, it is hard to say who is telling the truth and who is not.

Can we trust statements from the Syrian government? Unlikely. Its leaders have been known to bend the truth to suit their needs.

Can we trust the opposition to tell the truth? Again doubtful, as its members have emerged through the same schools as the Syrian regime.

Can we trust the regime’s allies: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah? None of the three has a great track record when it comes to telling the truth.

Can we trust Turkey or Saudi Arabia?

Can we trust Western powers to tell the truth? Typically, they tend to have a somewhat better track record but, then again, look at the web of lies told by the United States to get into Iraq.

For decades, many conspiracy theorists promoted the notion that everything bad that happens in the region — from the Maghreb to the Hijaz — is primarily the fault of the United States’ CIA.

Many conspiracy theories making the rounds on social media in the Middle East have to do with the recent chemical attack on civilians in the Idlib region, which led to a retaliatory missile strike by the United States against a Syrian air­base. Well, no great surprise here. What better subjects with which to build a solid conspiratorial thesis than those implicated in the Syrian conflict, a conflict that is increas­ingly difficult to explain?

And a good conspiracy, if well crafted, can go a long way in the propaganda war. It is a fact that if a falsehood is repeated often enough, it ends up being credible.

In this latest conspiracy theory apparently originating in Russia, the chemical attack that Washing­ton blames the regime in Damascus for was supposedly fabricated by the United States. Among evidence put forward by conspiracy theorists are videos showing supposedly fake victims of the chemical weapons attack standing up as soon as they finish acting their role. It is all fake, we are supposed to believe. The at­tack. The injured. The dead.

Moscow, of course, is getting a kick out of supporting the theory, which Russian leaders hope will make Washington look bad.

“A similar provocation is being prepared… in other parts of Syria including in the southern Damascus suburbs where [the US] are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of us­ing [chemical weapons],” Putin said.

Additionally, a Turkish health minister said traces of sarin gas had been detected in the victims of the supposed chemical attack. Doc­tors and aid workers examining the wounded said chlorine may have been present in the weapons.

As I said, conspiracy theories range from the sublime to the absurd.

Claude Salhani is the Opinion section editor of The Arab Weekly.

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