Report

How Social Media Built the Case for Trump’s Strike on Syria

Evidence of chemical weapons used to require a chain of custody. Now, open-source intelligence is often enough.

Portraits of the Russian and Syrian presidents are displayed at the government-held Wafideen checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus on April 3. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)
Portraits of the Russian and Syrian presidents are displayed at the government-held Wafideen checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus on April 3. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Social media has emerged as a key battleground in the U.S. and Russian media campaign to promote their sharply divergent accounts of chemical weapons in Syria.

The intelligence assessments presented over the weekend by the United States and France to justify missiles strikes against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb relied to an unusual degree on information gleaned from open source material and social media. Russia, meanwhile, is mustering an army of internet trolls to shift blame for the chemical weapons attack.

The development reflects the evolution of social media as a key source of propaganda on Syria but also as a critical source of evidence in building a case for airstrikes.

“I can’t think of any other examples where so quickly online footage has been used as one of the main justifications for military action,” says Ben Nimmo, who studies disinformation as a fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The heavy reliance of President Donald Trump’s administration on publicly available information marks a shift from his predecessor’s, which insisted on obtaining physical evidence of chemical weapons use with an established chain of custody before considering the use of force. It also highlights the difficulties Western intelligence agencies have faced in obtaining such evidence — blood, hair, or soil samples — from the Damascus suburb of Douma in the days following the April 7 chemical weapons attack that left nearly 50 dead and hundreds wounded.

Access to the battlefield in Syria has become increasingly difficult to obtain over the past year, particularly in areas under the control of Syrian, Russian, and Iranian forces, according to diplomatic sources.

“In general, access has become more restrictive over the past year as the Syrian government has intensified its military campaign on the ground,” one U.N. Security Council diplomat says. “There is less access and less information than there used to be.”

That has left Western policymakers relying on open-source material to make the case for Syrian culpability. The White House hinted that it may have obtained intercepts or possibly satellite imagery documenting Syrian planning of the operation. But the administration’s publicly released justification rested heavily on social media, press reports, and local and international organizations, including the World Health Organization and a local NGO whose aircraft spotters detected Mi-8 helicopters circling Douma during the attack.

The U.S. conclusion, according to a White House assessment issued after the airstrikes, is largely based on a review of news sources, public reports detailing victims’ symptoms, and video and photographs showing two barrel bombs allegedly used in the attack. The accounts are buttressed by unspecified “reliable information indicating coordination between Syrian military officials before the attack.” All together, the evidence “points to the regime using chlorine in its bombardment of Duma.”

U.S. authorities also obtained some unspecified information that “points to the regime also using the nerve agent sarin,” the assessment says.

A separate assessment by the French government notes that it has yet to analyze any chemical samples in its laboratories: “The French services analysed the testimonies, photos and videos that spontaneously appeared on specialized websites, in the press and on social media in the hours and days following the attack. Testimonies obtained by the French services were also analysed. After examining the videos and images of victims published online, they were able to conclude with a high degree of confidence that the vast majority are recent and not fabricated.”

In an address to the British Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia was currently backing a “wider operation to conceal the facts” of what happened in Douma and cited reports that Syrian authorities have been “searching evacuees from Douma to ensure samples are not being smuggled from this area.”

But she also acknowledged that Britain’s case against Syria was built on open-source reports — including videos and photographs — that were reviewed by British medical and scientific experts, as well as firsthand accounts by NGOs and aid workers. “The World Health Organization has received reports that hundreds of patients arrived at Syrian health facilities on Saturday night with ‘signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals,’” she said. “Based on our assessment, we do not think that these reports could be falsified on this scale.”

These assessments, which acknowledge the limits of Western intelligence agencies’ knowledge, represent a departure from previous decision-making on military action in Syria, where U.S. policymakers have typically sought to obtain physical evidence of chemical weapons use before launching a retaliatory strike.

When the United States last year fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base in retaliation for its role in an April 4, 2017, sarin attack against the rebel-controlled town of Khan Sheikhoun, Western officials had begun to amass a wealth of evidence tying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to the attack.

Within days of that attack, Western operatives had obtained soil samples containing the nerve agent sarin, according to Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons expert. “The British had samples of the agent itself,” he says.

Later that month, the French government declassified a report claiming it had also analyzed soil samples indicating that a strain of the nerve agent sarin developed by Syrian scientists had been used in the attack.

Syrian victims, meanwhile, slipped across the nearby border with Turkey, where foreign doctors were able to take blood samples of those exposed to the chemical agent. U.N. inspectors subsequently confirmed that Syrian forces had attacked Khan Sheikhoun and three other towns with chemical weapons.

Following the latest chemical attack, Ahmet Uzumcu, the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, deployed a fact-finding mission to Syria over the weekend to look into allegations of chemical weapons use. But Russian and Syrian authorities on Monday blocked the inspectors’ access to Douma, citing “pending security issues.” Instead, they offered to bus victims into Damascus to be interviewed by the inspectors.

Syria and Russia’s monthslong siege of Douma has complicated the challenge of obtaining proof.

“Douma has been completely surrounded by the Syrian government and has been subject to intensive bombardment as part of the regime offensive since February,” says Gregory Koblentz, the director of the biodefense graduate program in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “The problem is that the territory is now occupied by the Syrian government and the crime scene is no longer secure.”

“It doesn’t lend itself to a credible investigation,” he adds. “It’s like the criminals came back to the scene of the crime and they can do whatever they want with the evidence before the cops show up.”

Still, the lack of hard physical evidence has contributed to an air of uncertainty over precisely what kind of nerve agent was used in the attack. U.S., British, and French officials claimed with confidence that Syria dropped chlorine bombs on Douma; they were less sure about the use of a nerve agent in the attack.

Before the U.S. airstrikes, NBC News cited two unidentified officials claiming Washington has obtained smuggled blood and urine samples from a victim in Douma that show traces of poisoning by chlorine and a nerve agent.

But the U.S. assessment, released immediately after the U.S.-led missile strikes, did not include that specific claim, citing only unspecified information indicating that sarin may have been used.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, meanwhile, voiced uncertainty during his Friday press briefing over the use of sarin, saying, “We are not clear on that yet.”

“We’re very confident that chlorine was used,” he added. “We are not ruling out sarin right now.”

The Trump administration’s willingness to embrace the allegations of chemical weapons use contrasts sharply to that of President Barack Obama’s administration, according to François Heisbourg, a French security expert who frequently advises the French government on security matters.

The Obama White House, Heisbourg says, had initially expressed deep caution after French officials shared the results of blood, hair, and urine samples collected by French reporters. The administration at the time insisted on establishing the chain of custody of such samples, something that was virtually impossible without on-the-ground inspections by international inspectors.

Obama, Heisbourg says, was reluctant to cross the “red line” he had previously drawn in threatening a military response to the use of toxic agents.

“We literally had to shove the samples in the face of the Americans,” he adds. “The response from Washington was, ‘No, we need more proof.’ But the proof was there.”

This time around, if the Russian or Syrian authorities cleaned up the crime scene, the inspectors should be able to detect tampering and report it, according to Heisbourg.

“Will everybody accept it? Of course not,” he says. “The Russians can pretend that this was done by a band of Swedish clowns, and some people will believe it.”

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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