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Social Media & Chemical Weapons: A Story of Russia in Syria

After an alleged chemical weapons strike on April 7th in the Syrian city of Douma, Russian forces will finally permit inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to visit the site of attack this week. After online claims and confusion surrounding possible fabrication and staging, the delay in admittance aroused international concern that this time lapse alludes to possible Russian tampering and interference with the scene of the incident.

The cause for delay cited by both Russian and Syrian officials is said to be ambiguous, “‘pending security issues,’” and the site is purported to have been untouched by Russian officials according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia has since taken to the internet and social media to denounce the video evidence of the chemical weapons attack as a media staging by the West, particularly at the behest of British forces in the area. The Syrian government has further bolstered such a Russian stance by denying any accusations of having used chemical weapons on its city of Douma.

   
  
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     Portraits of Putin and Assad in Syria. Credit: (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Portraits of Putin and Assad in Syria. Credit: (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has had a subtle hand in the proceedings thus far, allowing only a select handful of reporters into the closed site who in turn disclosed that it appeared as if no attack had occurred and that civilian claims of chemical side-effects were mistaken. However, Western counterarguments are surfacing dubiously as a large part of the American and Western campaigns against Russian activity in Syria have been built upon news sourcing from social media and open-source materials, as direct access to ground sites in Syria have become increasingly restricted and difficult to reach. Nevertheless, the Western consensus in response to the Douma attack has been that chlorine and potentially sarin nerve agents were used against the population after physical evidence was allegedly obtained and analyzed by various Western sources including French and American officials.

   
  
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     A child victim is treated in Douma following the alleged attack. Credit: BBC

A child victim is treated in Douma following the alleged attack. Credit: BBC

According to the World Health Organization, an influx of hundreds of Syrian civilian victims has inundated Syrian health facilities in the wake of the supposed incident, leading Western officials to extend more certain liability on Russian and Syrian leaders for the attack. Yet, Russian online agents continue to build a defensive propaganda campaign asserting Russian innocence and thereby shifting the locus of scrutiny off of itself. Thus, until the scene is fully open to international investigators there lacks a source of credible and physical evidence to which accusations and claims can be fully attributed.

Further confounding developments include recent statements made by the Trump White House. After an announcement by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley on Sunday, April 15th that new U.S. sanctions would be rolled out against Russia in response to it's speculated responsibility in the assault, President Trump has since recoiled from taking decisive action. In a statement by the White House Press Secretary, President Trump disapproved of the additional measures against Russia to be initiated by Ms. Haley. President Trump’s move once again signals discord and lack of cohesion in his administration’s policy towards Russia, allowing the Russians to go forth unscathed in light of the recent events. Russia continues to maintain its online presence by propagating and inciting debate around its involvement in Syria, creating public confusion and suspicion over whether or not evidence uncovered is concrete or liable to fabrication. Developments are to come as investigators are permitted entry into the attack site.