The showdown over the possible chemical attack in Syria is about the plight of Douma’s residents, and the preservation of international rules of war, and plummeting relations between Russia and the West. But it is also about the eroding basis of fact about what’s happening in Syria, and the consequences of the fake newsification of the conflict for international action to end it. All wars are foggy and narrated differently by the warring parties, but Syria’s is particularly so. As a result of the confounding complexity of the civil and proxy conflict and its expression, due to the absence of independent media or monitoring groups in much of the country, largely through unverified social-media posts and state propaganda, “there is no common agreement on what is true,” the UN expert Richard Gowan recently wrote. This, he said, makes it extremely challenging to “speak truth to power” in forums such as the United Nations.
Gowan cited the example of how Russia had opposed a proposal in the Security Council in February for a ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, which includes Douma, by dismissing reports of a brutal Syrian bombardment of the rebel enclave as “mass psychosis” that overlooked the damage Ghouta-based militants were inflicting on Damascus. “What we’ve been seeing over Ghouta is something that we’ve seen increasingly frequently in UN debates over Syria, which is [U.S. ambassador to the United Nations] Nikki Haley, the Brits, the French coming to the Council trying to shame the Russians, using the fact that we have so much horrific evidence of what’s going on on the ground … and the Russians not merely ignoring that but effectively questioning whether [it’s] fake news—implying that everything is propaganda being produced by the rebels,” Gowan told me.
Russia’s efforts to muddy the waters in Syria can be effective because there’s mud enough to churn up. Rebel fighters really did fire mortars at Damascus. It really is premature at the moment to state conclusively that chemical weapons were used in Douma, let alone who used them, though Western governments and international monitors like the World Health Organization strongly suspect that they were. But, as Peter Pomerantsev wrote in The Atlantic in 2014, these efforts are also a signature of the “new Russia,” which “doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. … We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.”
“If nothing is true,” Pomerantsev observed, “then anything is possible”—even, the Kremlin would have you believe, that those watching news out of Douma this week can’t trust their lying eyes.