Conspiracy claims that Syrian gas attack was 'false flag' are unproven

In this photo taken on late Tuesday, April 4, 2017 and made available Wednesday, April 5, Turkish medics check a victim of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syrian city of Idlib, at a local hospital in Reyhanli, Hatay, Turkey. (AP)
In this photo taken on late Tuesday, April 4, 2017 and made available Wednesday, April 5, Turkish medics check a victim of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syrian city of Idlib, at a local hospital in Reyhanli, Hatay, Turkey. (AP)

In the hours between this week’s chemical weapons attack in Syria and President Donald Trump’s retaliatory missile strike, conspiracy theorists worked to discredit the civilian deaths. They called it a "false flag" operation designed to trigger American involvement in the country’s civil war.

Bloggers, political leaders and even Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams all questioned the reason behind the toxic gas attack on April 4 in Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-controlled area in northwestern Syria.

The attack reportedly killed at least 86 people, and came less than a week after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was no longer a "focus" of diplomatic policy.

On the evening of April 6, Trump ordered two Navy warships to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield to retaliate against the attack, killing at least six.

So, was the chemical attack a hoax orchestrated to draw the United States into Syria’s civil war?

We found no credible evidence of it. While doubters have raised eyebrows, asked questions and offered theories, there’s little in the way of proof that their claims are anything more than speculation.

Here are the charges some are alleging.

The rebel conspiracy

Chief among the skeptics was Alex Jones’ InfoWars website, which questioned the validity of the attack in an April 5 post that blamed a group called the White Helmets for arranging the attack for nefarious reasons.

The White Helmets, officially known as Syria Civil Defence, is a group of ostensibly nonpartisan volunteers who aid civilian victims of the civil war. The group has been accused of being pro-rebel, and InfoWars contends they are an al-Qaida affiliate funded by George Soros and the British government.

The website’s story says the White Helmets have staged rescue videos as propaganda, and helped spread a false narrative of the gas attack. The site linked to a 2016 video in which rescue workers were conducting a "mannequin challenge" during a staged recovery scene, a failed PR stunt for which the group later apologized.

The BBC reported that the pro-opposition Edlib Media Center said the White Helmets may have been targeted by Syrian warplanes in the attack.

InfoWars and other sources also questioned reports by Dr. Shajul Islam, a British doctor and aid worker in Syria who documented the aftermath of the attack.

Websites pointed out Islam had been accused of kidnapping journalists in 2012 (the case was dismissed) and questioned his source of funding and equipment.  

These same sites further wondered why rescue workers in gas attack videos weren’t using what they deemed proper procedures, that they treated victims without wearing protective clothing themselves and how they had time to take video and photographs of the aftermath.

They also wondered why Islam and the White Helmets received gas masks prior to the attack.

The New York Times did report that several aid workers were sickened from exposure, and the World Health Organization issued a statement corroborating some accounts of the attack’s results.

On April 6, after Trump ordered the missile attack, InfoWars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson criticized the president, tweeting:  

Dubious critics

Former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said April 5 that the hypothesis that Assad attacked his own people with chemical weapons didn’t add up.

"It doesn’t make any sense for Assad under these conditions to all of a sudden use poison gases,"  Paul said. "I think it’s zero chance he would have done this deliberately."

He added that neoconservatives who had pushed for intervention in Syria stood to gain the most from such an attack, not Assad, who was seeing progress against both the Islamic State and opposition rebels. Attacking civilians with chemical weapons would be counterproductive. Paul’s Twitter account later tweeted out the video with the term "false flag" in all caps.

U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., also questioned who really orchestrated the attack during a CNN interview, telling CNN anchor Kate Bolduan on April 5 that he wasn’t convinced it was Assad.

"It’s hard to know exactly what’s happening in Syria right now," Massie said. "I’d like to know specifically how that release of chemical gas, if it did occur, and it looks like it did, how that occurred. Because frankly I don’t think Assad would have done that. It does not serve his interest, it would tend to draw us into that civil war even further."

Bolduan asked Massie whom he thought did commit the attack, and he reiterated that he didn’t think such an attack would serve Assad, so he continued to question who was behind it.

One site called said there was a 52 percent chance that forces opposing the Assad regime had carried out a false flag operation on civilians. Syriana Analysis, a YouTube channel run by Kevork Almassian, a Syrian living in Germany, released a video declaring the Syrian government wasn’t responsible for using chemical weapons in the attack.

Dilbert cartoonist Adams wrote on his blog April 6 that the attack had "the look of a manufactured event." He blamed the "mainstream media" for helping orchestrate an event that made it appear Assad wanted to "commit suicide-by-Trump." The attack was so heinous, Trump would have no choice but to respond, lest he be excoriated by the media for his inaction, Adams wrote.

Adams also tweeted that the calls for a swift response to the attack (citing conservative commentator Bill Kristol’s support for Trump) proved his point.

He wrote another blog post April 7 outlining why he thought Trump’s response would not lead to all-out war.

Alt-right anger

The false flag theory also was championed by far-right blogger Mike Cernovich, a Trump supporter who worried that the gas attack was coordinated to provoke a military response from Trump — which it did.

Cernovich put in hours online to convince readers the gas attack was a hoax "sponsored by deep state." Deep state is the alt-right belief in a network of government officials that secretly runs things, and in America is currently trying to bring down the Trump presidency. Cernovich alleged that the media, to which he referred as "the fake news media," is in cahoots with deep state to start World War III.

Cernovich stayed online for a multi-hour livestream starting April 6, questioning whether U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had armed ISIS with gas and saying the attack had been planned by the United States since 2013 to escalate intervention.

He also began using the hashtag #SyriaHoax, which caught on across Twitter.

On April 6, allegations started to fly that #SyriaHoax was actually started by Russian bots before Cernovich began using it.

White nationalist and blogger Richard Spencer agreed with Cernovich that the far right did not want war in Syria, tweeting on April 6 that the alt-right wants "good relations with Bashar al-Assad, and we urge Trump to halt the rush to war."

After the missile strike, Spencer tweeted out a photo of the Syrian president and his wife Alma, with the hashtag #StandWithAssad.