The ultra conservative One America News Network (OANN), which frequently runs pro-Trump propaganda, claimed in a video report this week that it had found no evidence of an alleged chemical attack on the Syrian town of Douma — the latest in a series of claims by right-wing media and far-right individuals who claim the attack was faked.
The April 7 attack left at least 70 people dead and around 500 others exposed to deadly nerve agents. The Syrian Army is suspected to be behind the attack, which targeted rebel forces who had recently agreed to hand over the territory to the government. Syria, along with key allies Iran and Russia, all initially denied the attack took place, calling it “bogus.” Russian officials took things one step further on Friday, blaming the attack on the U.K.
U.S., U.K., and French authorities all ignored those claims, launching a coordinated strike on targets associated with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities on Friday evening.
“We went to Douma today — we got exclusive access — and we were brought into… the town where the alleged chemical attack happened,” OANN correspondent Pearson Sharp stated Monday afternoon, later adding that he was able to visit the town square where the attack was alleged to have happened.
“We were brought in with a government escort and shown the areas where the chemical attack allegedly happened and we got to speak with residents in the area. We were even able to visit the hospital where [volunteer-run rescue group] the White Helmets showed the video of the people being hosed down,” Sharp said. “Not one of the people that I spoke to in that neighborhood said they had seen or heard anything about a chemical attack on that day. …There are concerns that the residents being interviewed [by other reporters] are plants — Russian operatives, or they’re staged interviews.”
Sharp also claimed that the attack had been staged by Jaysh al-Islam, a rebel group, in order to alleviate some of the pressure imposed by government forces.
— One America News (@OANN) April 16, 2018
“[The residents] told me…the rebels were desperate and they needed a ploy to help get the Syrian Army off their backs, so they can escape,” he said. “The residents told me — and again, I’m using that phrase a lot, because I want it to be clear that this is not an opinion, this is not propaganda, as some have accused. This is simply facts that we found on the ground when we were in the town. Things that we saw first-hand.”
OANN and Sharp’s reporting falls short in many respects, but perhaps most glaring is its apparent inability to provide concrete evidence to support any of its wild claims.
Despite stating that his report is “not propaganda,” for instance, much of what Sharp relays is based on information passed to him during a visit arranged by Syrian government forces, which have traditionally relied on mass disinformation campaigns in the wake of deadly attacks to twist the narrative in their favor. Sharp also states that he was able to visit the site of the actual attack, something international inspectors have not been able to do.
At no point does OANN try to mask the pro-Assad language peppering the report. At one point, Sharp even goes so far as to say that “the [residents say they] were incredibly grateful that President Assad had liberated the town; they were completely in support of President Assad.”
The Pentagon itself has warned against trusting pro-regime forces in recent months. Both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other top Pentagon officials stated on Friday and over the weekend that Syria and Russia — a key ally of Assad — had begun spreading misinformation about the attack in the hours immediately after it reportedly took place, with Russian trolls swarming social media platforms like Twitter to circulate pro-Assad propaganda.
“We can all see that a Russia disinformation campaign is in full force this morning, but [its] desperate attempts at deflection cannot change the facts,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Saturday, at a U.N. Security Council meeting.
Additionally, inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who were sent to investigate the site of the suspected chemical attack told reporters on Monday that they had been blocked from accessing the area by Syrian and Russian forces. Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov initially claimed that the inspectors were blocked because authorities were waiting for authorization from the U.N. Department of Safety and Security. U.N. officials pushed back, saying no such approval was necessary.
The OANN report is only the latest instance of conservative media and right-wing figures in the United States pushing a conspiracy theory popular among far-right groups, who believe Russian and pro-Assad claims that the attack never happened, and that so-called “Deep State” actors faked the incident to force President Trump to retaliate.
On April 8, one day after the attack, conservative conspiracy theorist and InfoWars host Alex Jones posted a video claiming the attack had actually been a “false flag event” carried out by “globalists [who] openly want to keep” troops in Syria. He claimed the incident had been staged after Trump expressed a desire earlier in April to immediately withdraw U.S. forces from the region, comments he later walked back after military officials stated they needed more time to complete their mission, according to The New York Times.
“This is a big, big deal,” Jones said. “The motive is for the ISIS-Al Qaeda affiliated rebels there to want to stage a chemical attack against a civilian population as a pretext to then keep the United States and other powers in the area.”
Jones has also excoriated Trump over the coordinated U.S., French, and U.K. strikes, launching into a vulgar tirade on his show Friday night in which he criticized the president for failing his staunchest supporters and falling victim to the so-called “False Flag” operation.
“He was doing good, and that’s what makes it so bad,” Jones said toward the end of the segment, openly weeping.
As Haaretz noted last week, Far-right figures such as white supremacist Richard Spencer, British far-right politician Nick Griffin, and former KKK grand wizard David Duke, have all pushed pro-Assad talking points in the wake of the April 7 chemical attack as well, claiming that it was a false flag incident conducted by the Deep State, and in the latter case, arguing that the Syrian leader should be applauded for protecting Christians and other minorities from Muslim rebels.
In September of last year, U.N. investigators announced they had found evidence that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons on civilians at least two dozen times over the course of the war, deploying weaponized gases like sarin and chlorine during attacks that left scores of innocent people, including children, dead. The report notes that the use of chemical weapons is a direct violation of international humanitarian law.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based organization monitoring the Syrian Civil War, at least 85 percent of the 511,000 people killed in that conflict were killed by Assad’s forces. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, also based in the U.K., places that number even higher, at around 92.2 percent.
This article has been updated to clarify that Sharp visited ground zero, where the reported attack took place. The original story stated that he had visited a town a block and a half away.