A false flag disinformation operation preceded a massacre of civilians by Russia and the Assad regime using banned cluster bombs on camps for the forcibly displaced in Idlib in Syria on Sunday 6 November. This was nothing new in the Syrian context – Vladimir Putin’s forces systematically allege that opposition forces are about to carry out an attack on civilians, which they then carry out themselves. What was so notorious about this false flag was the detail it provided about the targets and the attempts to blame the White Helmets – a search and rescue service that saves lives 24/7 while gathering evidence of war crimes committed by Russia and the Syrian regime. Indeed, accusing the White Helmets, whom I know as courageous first responders having featured them in our last two major documentaries – Syria The Impossible Revolution and Bringing Assad To Justice – was perhaps the most incriminating aspect of this very serious war crime by Russia and the regime. Nevertheless, that Russia would allege the White Helmets would be capable of firing relatively advanced missiles with warheads loaded with cluster bombs at their fellow Syrians is a measure of how confident the Russians are that their years-long disinformation and delegitimisation campaign has been successful.

Even more troubling about this war crime, and the false flag disinformation salvo that announced it in advance is that it generated little if any outcry in the European Union or the United States. Syria has clearly fallen off the international news agenda even though one can make the case that Ukraine and Syria are one arena in which Russia is committing the same war crimes. This is worrying at a time when some Arab states are still trying to normalize the Assad regime and as some European states are pressing for a similar approach in the mistaken hope it might facilitate the return of refugees, as recently noted by Charles Lister, a leading Syria analyst. Appreciating how the Russians have used false flag disinformation techniques in Syria, with which they pin their own war crimes on their opponents, is important to understand similar efforts in Ukraine.

The White Helmets have been systematically targeted by Putin’s forces since they entered Syria in 2015 and started bombing primarily civilians and civilian targets with the Assad regime. This is because the White Helmets record evidence of Russia’s war crimes, and are often the only independent witnesses as they are directly involved in saving lives following such atrocities and attacks on civilian targets like hospitals, schools, markets, and in camps for the forcibly displaced like in the recent attack in Idlib. We analyzed that disinformation campaign against the White Helmets in our award-winning documentary Bringing Assad To Justice, and one of the most chilling conclusions is that it has been very effective with some constituencies in muddying the waters and providing cover for Russia and the regime in carrying out their atrocities. The sometimes absurd propaganda pumped out by Russian state media, such as RT and Sputnik, has for example claimed that the White Helmets are involved in organ trafficking. Other equally bizarre and clearly false allegations do not necessarily have to convince anyone – they only need to sow doubt. As Professor Kate Starbird said in Bringing Assad To Justice, the aim is to get people to tune out and switch off because they are left feeling they do not know who to believe. In other words, they need not be right or even try to prove their outrageous allegations – all that is needed is to spread such allegations in as many media outlets as possible, to confuse the public and sap their interest in protest.

The media was a primary target of the Syrian regime when it began crushing the peaceful uprising in 2011, as it sought to censor coverage of its atrocities and present peaceful protesters as “terrorists”. The premeditated murder of the legendary Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik in 2012 in Homs, as proven in a US court by the family of Ms. Colvin when they successfully sued the Assad regime for her killing, is a good example of how the regime made every effort to clear opposition areas of independent witnesses to its crimes. Local media have also been relentlessly persecuted, yet despite that reign of terror citizen journalists have made a difference. Nevertheless, the lack of major international media organizations covering the situation on the ground on the front line helped the regime to commit atrocities with impunity. Just how strategically important that was can be seen in Ukraine now, where we are receiving television news coverage of the same types of atrocities that Russia committed in Syria. The regime’s success in removing international news networks from the frontlines in Syria also helps to explain the success of the regime and Russia’s disinformation.

What was extraordinary about the attack on the camps in Idlib a few days ago, however, was the confidence with which the Russians carried out its false flag operation. They released detailed information about the attack plan in advance, while bizarrely trying to blame the White Helmets for it. On Saturday 5 November, the day prior to the attack, Sputnik, the Russian state-owned news agency, announced that Oleg Egorov, deputy head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria, had accused the White Helmets of preparing to launch attacks targeting the Kafr Jales camps and other camps in the Idlib countryside. We now know these are the very same camps Russia and the regime attacked with banned cluster bombs. We also know, from evidence gathered by the White Helmets, that Russian 9N235 bombs were used, fired at the camps by a barrage of Russian surface-to-surface 220mm 9M27-K Uragan missiles which have submunition warheads each capable of carrying 30 N9235 banned cluster bomblets. These are the ultimate inhumane or anti-human weapons, which if they do not kill or severely wound immediately can kill subsequently as unexploded bombs tend to cover a wide area. Children are particularly at risk from this unexploded ordinance.

Civilian sites, such as these camps for displaced persons, are supposed to be neutral areas in war zones and are protected under international law. The camps are peppered with flimsy temporary structures, which ensure civilians experience the full horror cluster bombs are capable of delivering in terms of death and injury and explain both the death toll and the high number of wounded.

What was especially troubling about this attack was the relative silence by leaders in the European Union and the United States. While it is understandable there is a focus on Ukraine, there is also an important case to treat Ukraine and Syria as one crime scene, not least because we can learn a great deal about the way the Russians operate. This is particularly the case in how they focus on targeting civilians, which can be seen in the horror they visited on the Syrian people since September 2015 when Vladimir Putin’s forces first entered Syria.

The current Russian commander in Ukraine, Sergei Surovikin, earned his reputation as a butcher in Syria through the way he executed a campaign of civilian slaughter. A textbook aspect of Russian methodology that Surovikin appears to be applying in Ukraine is the false flag, given recent allegations without evidence of a planned “dirty bomb” attack. While the United States, France and the United Kingdom were quick to loudly dismiss such a charge, it was clearly worrying as, based on experience in Syria, such bold propaganda could be a false flag bid to provide cover for just such a weapon being deployed by Russia. We still do not know if the rapid response by the Western Allies in calling out Russia over the false allegation may have stayed Putin’s hand.

This concern was especially real before the withdrawal from Kherson. It was reasonable to assume that Russia had plans to turn Kherson into a “city of death”[1], as one of President Zelensky’s advisers put it, because the retreat was not only a major humiliation for Russian forces but also a major embarrassment for Putin. That his defense minister contacted his Western counterparts to allege Ukraine was planning a dirty bomb attack without offering a shred of evidence suggests, based on experience in Syria, that it could have in fact been part of a false flag disinformation operation to herald just such an attack by Russia as its forces left Kherson. The slaughter of Syrian civilians continues, and the same tactics used against them are now being used in Ukraine. The risk of a dirty bomb attack is reason enough to highlight the Russian use of false flag disinformation tactics in Syria, all the more so when the same textbook formula was followed before the attack in Idlib only some days ago.

[1] reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-says-russia-wants-turn-kherson-into-city-death-2022-11-10/