A Russian "disinformation campaign" against the White Helmets has been exposed by renown citizen journalist investigations website Bellingcat. An investigation by the group, which publishes reports on war zones and the criminal underworld, found that Russian and Syrian governments and state-controlled media pushed a narrative about the search-and-rescue organisation to paint them as terrorists.
The Syrian Civil Defence (SCD), also known as the White Helmets, have recorded some of the worst atrocities carried out in Syria and provided vital evidence of gross human rights abuses by the Syrian government and the Russian military. The report says that this has made them the target of a significant disinformation campaign attempting to smear them as "terrorists".
During mid-2018 this disinformation campaign focused on attempting to associate the SCD with chemical attacks in Idlib, despite there being no reputable body finding that SCD being involved in any chemical incidents in Syria. The report notes, however that the Syrian government has been identified as the perpetrator in 23 chlorine and sarin attacks and has likely been involved in many more.
Bellingcat has identified 22 separate accusations relating to SCD's use or transportation of chemical weapons in Idlib and the surrounding area in 2018. Despite continual claims that chemical attacks were imminent or had already taken place, no chemical attacks were accurately predicted.
Exposing the source of the disinformation Bellingcat found that eight out of 22, of these accusations came from the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria (RCROSS). The body was set up by the Russian Ministry of Defence. The report indicates that RCROSS plays an important role in disseminating disinformation against the White Helmets. Elevem of the remaining accusations originate from Russian government controlled sources, such as Sputnik, the Russian Ministry of Defence, or representatives of the Russian government.
The White Helmets are portrayed as a subversive force working with the West to carry out "false flag" operation to provoke western governments into a military conflict with Syria. Of the 22 claims, all except four explicitly state that future chemical attacks will be some form of "false flag" designed for that purpose.
"If one were to take the word of the Russian or Syrian governments, there is a vast network of different groups many of whom are currently fighting against each other, working together to carry out these attacks which didn't actually happen," said the report.
Refuting this repeated claim made by Syria and Russian, denounced as being beyond the "boundary of absurdity", 19 different groups, including British intelligence; British Special Forces and their US counterparts; the French government; Turkish experts and a host of terrorist organisations, are cited as working together in a conspiracy against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Despite there being no evidence, the conspiracy is presented as "irrefutable" while pointing out that time and again the Russian government has provided evidence which has either been faked, doctored or plagiarised from bloggers.
The report concludes that "the disinformation campaign waged against the White Helmets has been brutal and unrelenting". Russian and Syrian reporting of the SCD have tried to paint them as "terrorists" and ultimately tried to transform them into "legitimate targets".