In the video above, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reports, uncritically, on a Russian television story that claims the April 7 chemical attack in Douma, Syria was staged. Citing a Russian source, the “White Helmets [a Syrian volunteer organization] used food to lure children into participating in its fake videos,” the news anchor says.
This news clip was posted to Sina Weibo on Friday and has been shared 1,571 times, eliciting nearly 3,000 comments.
“Hundred-some years ago, America, England, France invaded China, burned down Yuanmingyuan,” reads the top-rated comment by @要cool. “Today, they invade Syria. Imperialism’s overpowering instinct for plunder has not changed.”
“Luckily, children have not been killed,” reads the second-most upvoted comment, even though children are among the 40-plus casualties from that day. (The World Health Organization estimates about 500 total people were affected.)
Douma is the last town in the Eastern Ghouta region held by Syrian rebels. Leaders in many Western nations have accused Syrian president Bashar al-Assad of ordering the suspected attack (not for the first time), though there remains doubt. “I still look at the attack and say al-Assad either must be the dumbest dictator on the planet, or maybe he didn’t do it,” U.S. Sen. Paul Rand (R-Ky.) said on CNN.
There’s a lot we don’t know, so with that as the caveat, let’s operate exclusively in facts. Here’s what we do know:
1. Shortly after the suspected attack, footage circulated of children being tended to in a medical facility:
2. Russian state television tracked down the boy in the above image. He is identified as 11-year-old Hassan Diab.
“We heard a cry outside, shouting ‘go to the hospital,'” the boy says in this Russian-24 interview with correspondent Evgeny Poddubnyy, filmed “at a Syrian army facility where Russian military advisers were present,” according to The Intercept.
“We ran to the hospital and as soon as I entered, they grabbed me and started pouring water on me,” Hassan says.
3. Hassan’s father, who was working construction, says he didn’t hear about any chemical attack. Here are his words from the video:
“I was doing construction jobs at the local stadium. When I found out that my family was in the hospital, I almost went crazy. I left work and returned to our district. I didn’t see anyone. I didn’t hear anything about the chemical attack. I smoked outside and felt nothing. I entered the hospital and asked about my family. I saw that water had been poured in the room and saw some children. They shouted: ‘Hello!’ I went upstairs and saw my wife and children. I asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ They answered: ‘Someone shouted outside that they started to smell something, so we ran here. After that we were given dates and cookies.’ Praise Be to Allah, the children were fine.”
4. Here is how Russia’s ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, interpreted those words, in a video currently hosted on the YouTube page of China’s CCTV+:
“In the British government, the facts presented by the Syrian government and Russia to show that the incident had been deliberately staged, have been ignored. We have a lot of this kind of footage from the Russian television, and of course, from the international one. This is the story about the boy, his name is Hassan Diab and he is 11 years old. So basically what happened that day when the whole so-called chemical attack was staged, he was called by the White Helmets to the hospital, he was offered some sweets, cookies or something, and he was part of the staging of all the so-called chemical attack.”
Possibly biased author observation: An interview in which a father, expressing concern and relief for his family’s wellbeing, is being used by Russian diplomats as proof that the entire attack was staged.
5. The White Helmets is a volunteer organization, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense, whose credo is “Whoever saves one life, saves all of humanity” (from the Quran). This is not the first time it’s been accused of staging chemical attacks (or of terrorist links).
6. On April 13, Russia’s defense ministry accused Britain of being “directly involved in organizing this provocation.”
7. Britain’s UN Ambassador Karen Pierce replied: “This is grotesque, it is a blatant lie, it is the worst piece of fake news we’ve yet seen from the Russian propaganda machine.”
8. CCTV does not care about facts.