23 September 2013

Special Report: "Fixing" intelligence on Syria? Deciphering the propaganda war to "hemorrhage" both sides

Published in Ceasefire Magazine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, shake hands after making a deal over Syrian chemical weapons

If there is anything to learn from the Syrian conflict, it is that, in the fog of war, truth really is the first casualty. Narratives and counter-narratives of the conflict have plagued media accounts and the blogosphere ever since peaceful protests erupted on the streets of Syria over two years ago, and increasingly so in the wake of the Ghouta chemical weapons attack of the 21st August.
While the West’s case against Assad in this respect appears politicised and less than conclusive, the same, if not worse, can be said about the case against the rebels. Almost every single piece of evidence that has been put forward to support that case has been disputed at the very least, or proved entirely false. And the politicisation of Russian and Iranian intelligence, the role of Assad in spearheading propaganda, has been overlooked. 
From the White House dossier to the United Nations report, from Syrian nuns to revelations from former and active intelligence officials, the propaganda war between pro and anti-interventionists to control the paradigm through which we understand the conflict – manifesting itself in Bashar al-Assad’s latest call for a ceasefire –  may be feeding into little-known strategic imperatives that see the Syrian people as mere pawns in a wider gambit. 


Following is my detailed response to the first comment on my Ceasefire report by a "Harel B":

@HarelB begins his comment with a veiled ad hominem: 'Ahmed was in such a rush to dismiss this report that he didn’t even take 10 seconds to find out Gavlak is a she and not a “he”... While Gavlak’s gender is not central, it illustrates the glee with which evidence pointing at rebel use of chemical weapons (CW) is dismissed with no more than a cursory glance.'

That error has been corrected. It seems the aim here is to imply that I had a pre-ordained stance on the Mint Press News article which caused me to "rush" into dismissing it.

I think anyone with a half a brain reading this piece will quickly realise 1) I am not particularly gleeful about anything going in Syria, nor any arguments either way 2) I did not rush into any conclusions but rather have conducted a painstaking investigation of the arguments and counterarguments. 3) my critique of the Mint Press News report claiming that the Ghouta attack was carried out by rebels is based fundamentally on the fact that firstly the account is disputed by a far more reputable newspaper publication (let's note that The Independent is also owned by a Russian oligarch), and secondly that the physical evidence at the multiple sites of the attack completely contradicts the therefore implausible scenario put forth in this article, which HarelB bends over backwards to try to rehabilitate.

In any case, I was in no "rush" to dismiss the Mint Press article. This could have been verified by a quick google of my writings on Syria such as here:

where early after the attack I have referenced multiple sources raising questions about the official account., including keeping an open mind about the Mint Press News report.

@HarelB says: "Those who click the link Ahmed provides, discover it is in fact not a direct statement by Gavlak but a page by a blogger who claims to be sharing an email sent by Gavlak. It might be true but is unverified."

That's a bit of a rich observation coming from someone clinging obsessively to an article which itself says some of its contents (without specifying which contents exactly) "cannot be independently verified."

As for the blog where Dale Gavlak's statement is posted (and I am about to notify you of some interesting updates in this regard), for those who don't know, the Brown Moses blog is highly regarded and is a reliable source of coverage on Syria by a citizen journo with a pretty decent track record

@HarelB: "Even if true, the fact is that several others have posted copies of their own emails form Gavlak, two weeks ago, and she told them she helped Ababneh write the article and said not one word to distance herself from co-authorship. She is believed to have known Ababneh (which MintPress made clear was responsible for the interviews) for some three years at the time, so presumably her choice to help him write it up was based on respect for his work she had by them developed. It speaks volumes that Gavlak remained silent for 3 weeks and even more, what the alleged recent statement does not say. Does Gavlak say the story isn’t true? No. Does she say she has reason to doubt Ababneh or his interviewing? No. Does she say she has reason to doubt what the Ghouta residents testified to Ababneh? Again, no. Sympathies are due Gavlak; it does not take great imagination to see the immense pressure anyone is under when an article they helped someone else write goes viral which reports unpleasant things Ghouta residents have said about a Saudi Billionaire prince, let alone one which questions the narrative of the world’s most powerful state. Understandable if true, that she wishes her name was not on the piece she helped Ababneh write; the issue for those who claim to care about the victims remains elsewhere: the testimonies Ghouta area rebels and residents gave, pointing at rebel use of CW."

What HarelB doesn't seem to understand, is that for any impartial observer, there is simply no way to take the Mint Press News article seriously anymore. The idea that we can rely on this report as a credible source is just silly.

More than that, the totality of the information revealed about the report clearly and consistently raises a whole host of disturbing questions about the origins of the whole story. Mint Press News is continuing to claim that Gavlak "wrote the article in it’s entirety as well as conducted the research." 

Note how carefully worded this is - now compare it to Gavlak's further statement which clarifies her exact role in the piece:

"Email correspondence between Ms. Gavlak and Mint Press News that began on August 29 and ended on September 2 clearly show that from the beginning Ms. Gavlak identified the author of the story as Yahya Ababneh, a Jordanian journalist. She also made clear that only his name should appear on the byline and the story was submitted only in his name. She served as an editor of Ababneh’s material in English as he normally writes in Arabic. She did not travel to Syria and could not corroborate his account.
 "Dale Gavlak specifically stated in an email dated August 29 'Pls find the Syria story I mentioned uploaded on Google Docs. This should go under Yahya Ababneh's byline. I helped him write up his story but he should get all the credit for this.'
 "Ms. Gavlak supplied the requested bio information on Mr. Ababneh later that day and had further communications with Mint Press News’ Mnar Muhawesh about the author's background. There was no communication by Mint Press News to Ms. Gavlak that it intended to use her byline.  Ms. Muhawesh took this action unilaterally and without Ms. Gavlak's permission.
 "After seeing that her name was attached to the article, Dale Gavlak demanded her name be removed. However, Ms. Muhawesh stated: 'We will not be removing your name from the byline as this is an existential issue for MintPress and an issue of credibility as this will appear as though we are lying'."

So it does seem that Gavlak made clear her byline shouldn't be on the piece. It also seems that she admits to helping write up the story as a friend to Ababneh, and even pitching the piece - and it's plausible that she might have tried to check with colleagues and officials as Mint Press News claims to see if there was any corroboration of Ababneh's reporting. Either way, what does seem clear is that Gavlak was not responsible for the fundamental content of the piece, and the attribution to her is dishonest, against her clearly stated wishes from the outset.

While I have no doubt that Gavlak probably is under immense pressure, her specific account that she had from the beginning made clear to not use her byline because she was not responsible for the content of the piece seems increasingly plausible in the context of new evidence of Mint Press News' dubious background, along with the dubious behaviour of the other primary author of the piece Yahya Ababneh.

The New York Times has investigated the issue further and discovered that Mint Press News' financial backers and advisers included the website editor's father, an ethnic Jordanian of Shi'a persuasion.  Now that in itself would not be important except 1) sectarian issues have become extremely polarised and polarising with respect to the Syrian conflict and stances supporting and opposing intervention and 2) the NYT found evidence of vehemently sectarian and anti-Saudi anti-Wahabi sentiments linked to her father's role in Mint Press News. So Mint Press News. For a news site that is supposed to have a semblance of impartiality doing exclusive reporting on Syria, I'm sorry but this is pretty fatal. (also see this)

It gets worse. An investigation by Brian Whitaker, former Mideast editor at the Guardian, has found compelling circumstantial evidence that Ababneh's real name is Yan Barakat, has lied about his journalistic credentials, and that the whole story blaming rebels for the chemical weapons attack may have derived from a Russian source in Damascus.

No wonder "some" of the information "could not be independently verified." Anyone claiming that we should now continue to applaud this article and, on its basis, call for an investigation due to its "testimonies", should take a good look in the mirror to admire their ability to undertake the most profound sorts of mental gymnastics.

HarelB says: "Aside: Mother Agnes who Ahmed tells us ” has long openly supported Assad” is on record calling the Assad government “totalitarian” This is hardly “supporting” Assad, and that fact is not changed by the fact that her own experiences and those testimonies given to her suggest many of the rebels are as or more totalitarian and brutal."

More admirable mental gymnastics follows as HarelB completely ignores all the evidence I've provided proving quite clearly that "Mother Agnes" is utterly compromised, demonstrably close to "Assad's security forces", and lauded his so-called "reforms", not to mention, according to independent journalists, apparently worked with Assad's forces to have a bunch of them exterminated (successfully). She denies this, unsurprisingly, but the journalists on the ground who witnessed it with their own eyes hold fast to their very plausible and harrowing account.

Harel B ignores all of that, and misquotes "Mother Agnes'" by quoting, not Mother Agnes, but an article by Robert Moynihan, who writes, "Yes, Syria’s president Assad is no democrat; he is a powerful totalitarian leader." Moynihan then cites an interview in Ha'aretz with the nun titled 'On visit to Israel, Syrian-based nun backs beleaguered President Assad', where she says:

"She believes the Assad regime is the only thing that can save Syria from a takeover by Al-Qaida, and that most Syrians support the present regime."

I have not found a single source where the nun actually describes Assad as "totalitarian" herself.

I myself was taken in by the nun and quoted her in the past. But we do not need "Mother Agnes'" discredited pro-Assad ramblings and unverifiable claims of rebel atrocities to be aware of the danger of the Islamist forces therein, and the atrocities they have carried out, a matter I have documented at length elsewhere, and which have been well-documented by both independent human rights observers, journalists, and by multiple UN war crimes inquiries.

@HarelB says: "Most stunning is Ahmed’s dismissal of what two pro-rebel journalists held hostage by rebels overheard, in English, in an adjacent room to where they were held.... The fact that they can’t be 100% sure of it as proof, is apparently reason enough to dismiss it entirely, and move on to other matter, rather than to call for a vigorous investigation."

I should call for a vigorous investigation into what exactly? Into a skype conversation overheard by journalists where one of them explicitly admits that he wasn't sure whether the conversation was about something that had actually happened, or was a conversation about a rumour about what may have happened, and that even if the conversants were clearly amongst the rebel forces, the journo wasn't sure precisely who they actually were?

An investigation by the UN is already underway. I'd suggest waiting for the results of that before jumping up and down about the allegedly groundbreaking implications of a vague report such as this in the hope it might prove one's suspicions. People are free to make up their own minds, but this report, again, offers no firm ground to draw any meaningful conclusions either way to the available evidence. NOTE: I have not said the account is false. Just that with added caveats, it's no longer compelling.

HarelB says: "One can imagine in some 'opposite' parallel universe, in which two pro-Assad journalists are taken hostage, clearly held by Assad forces, and overhear such a conversation with direct CW admission by an Assad commander. Perhaps some pro-Assad hack journalist would say it’s not “compelling”, after all, since the former hostages cannot “even” be 100% certain of the identities of their captors and it “might be” a rumor – surely no one else, certainly no serious journalist, no Western journalist, would react the same way – demands for a full investigation (if not dropping bombs) would be step 1."

Interesting that HarelB thinks we should adhere to the standards of the Western journos and govts who might demand "dropping bombs" on Assad on the basis of such poor evidence. He completely ignores the fact that I've already looked at the dubious and politicised nature of the way the US government has utilised "intelligence" in relation to the CW issue. So no, we shouldn't adopt that standard in this case and use it as a basis to think such thin evidence justifies jumping to conclusions the opposite way either.

HarelB: "Surely at the very least if we care about the dead children, we should demand an investigation into these testimonies."

Again, difficult to understand what is being expected here. We should all start "demanding" investigation "into these testimonies"? What HarelB clearly fails to grasp from the article is that these testimonies are a dead-end. They do not offer or open up lines of inquiry in themselves that actually lead anywhere. They are vacuous. They might be true. They might not be true. We don't know. We might never know. 

Because in one case - e.g. Mint Press News - we now have a body of compelling evidence that the "report" is just garbage Russian propaganda swallowed by an amateur overly-credulous Jordanian journo looking for a scoop, and backed up by a somewhat foolish AP correspondent who tried to help him get it published without wanting to sully her name with such an evidently dubious piece. As for the Belgian and Italian journos' story, it is inherently unverifiable because we can't track down the rebels that took them hostage to ask them what they were conversing about and whether or not they were discussing rumours and who exactly they were. We are simply left suspended with the possibility that it might be true, while noting the evidence that it might just be nonsense.

HarelB: "In the actual universe, they will be brushed under the rug –what Piccinin and Quirico overheard, what Ghouta rebels and family told Ababneh– unless the public bands together to insist on an impartial inquiry into the many lines of evidence pointing at rebel use of chemical weapons. The victims deserve nothing less."

What the victims deserve is not to have the public trumping up bullshit lines of inquiry as if they are made of evidentiary gold.

I remain open-minded about the CW issue and as the article above shows, have drawn no specific conclusions either way. But what I have done is shown how all parties, even so-called anti-war activists and journos who really should know better, are politicising the facts.

The Syrian people deserve better.


  1. Hi Nafeez,

    Good piece.

    It does seem a lot of people have made their decision either way as to who was responsible and then they find evidence to support this. To quote Eager this is classic 'reverse scientific method'.

    Anywho, have you seen Assad's interview with Fox news? At around 21 minutes in he states:

    "When we invited the delegation [the UN chemical weapons team], we wanted this delegation to have full authority to investigate everything, not only the use of the Sarin gas or the chemical weapons, but to investigate everything about who did it and how, but the United States made pressure in order to keep it only about was it used or not."

    Is there any way of verifying this (that the US blocked the UN from reporting on culpability for the weapons attacks)? This would be a pretty big story...

  2. I heard it was Russia that blocked the UN (but don't remember where).

    Interested not in if Mother Agnes can write properly is pro or anti Assad, but in the arguments she makes. Some of the dead children definitely appear in two photos, supposedly at different locations. It is curious that nobody is in pajamas, and that the mothers are not around. Even if the attack was real, it is hard to believe that some of the shots were not 'staged' - such as the same mother finding different children. This happens all the time in the Arab media. It would be astounding if hadn't happened at least some of the time here. The real question is how much is faked? At one extreme you could have a couple of dozen children and rebel prisoners really gassed by the rebels so they could video them dying, and almost everyone else represented by "Pallywood" actors. At the other extreme you could have a few dead children taken on taxi tours of the city to appear in as many shots as possible. Some of the "foaming at the mouth" also looks very faked, some looks real.

  3. There is considerable questions surrounding the impartiality and objectivity of the blog Brown Moses. Equally, collective eye brows have been raised, regarding the author of this blog who does not detect such blatant bias of the blog Brown Moses.


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