On July 7, the Russian Federal News Agency, RIA-FAN, which is part of the government broadcasting media Rossiya Segodnya and also known as an arm of the “troll factory,” published a feature piece headlined: “Expert explains why the West wants to provide a freedom of action to terrorists in Syria.” The article consists of several false and misleading claims, some of which are addressed in this fact check.
The RIA-FAN article began by referring to the statement made “these days” by the United Nations Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis Mark Cutts, accusing him of spreading disinformation.
“Once again the West’s representatives in the UN do not provide any evidence to their words,” RIA-FAN said. Why the Russian government agency targeted the UN humanitarian official’s statement remains unclear since Cutts did not mention Russia or the Syrian regime in his politically neutral remarks.
In his statement made on July 5 in Gaziantep, Turkey, Mark Cutts said, he was “horrified by the ongoing attacks on civilian areas and civilian infrastructure” in northwest Syria.
The United Nations has recorded 29 incidents involving attacks on 25 health facilities, transport and personnel, as well as 45 attacks on schools since the end of April, the statement said.
“Shelling and air strikes, including the use of barrel bombs, in Idleb, western Aleppo and northern Hama have now become a way of life for over two months. Over 300 civilians have been killed. Thousands more have been injured,” Cutts said.
The RIA-FAN article then turned to recent news coverage by the U.S. networks CBS and Fox News, claiming the American journalists of these two television networks “after arriving in Syria without obtaining accreditation from the Syrian authorities cooperated with the terrorists” from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance, who “provided the journalists with guided tours and covered their illegal activities.”
The Idlib province in northwestern Syria is not governed by the Bashar Assad’s regime and it is false to claim that reporting from these territories without the regime’s accreditation is illegal. The latest reports by CBS and Fox News do not mention interaction with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, however reportedly, Idlib is controlled by the rebel groups including the HTS.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, also referred as the Levant Liberation Committee, is a merger of several Salafist jihadi groups including the al-Nusra Front among others.
In March 2017, the United States designated HTS a terrorist organization affiliated with al Qaeda in Syria (AQS). Thus, RIA-FAN’s claim that the West is willing to provide the terrorists with freedom to act is misleading.
"Idlib is essentially the largest collection of al-Qaida affiliates in the world right now," Michael Mulroy, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said in May speaking at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
On June 30, U.S. military forces struck an al Qaeda training camp in Idlib, resulting in the deaths of several AQS leaders, who U.S. Central Command said were “plotting external attacks threatening U.S. citizens, our partners and innocent civilians.”
The RIA-FAN then quoted the head of the Plekhanov Academy’s political science and sociology department Andrei Koshkin, accusing U.S. President Donald Trump of defending the terrorists in Idlib in his current public message. That claim is also false -- the U.S. president urged to stop killing civilians.
Here is what Trump posted on Twitter: “Hearing word that Russia, Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iran, are bombing the hell out of Idlib Province in Syria, and indiscriminately killing many innocent civilians. The World is watching this butchery. What is the purpose, what will it get you? STOP!”
On July 6, Reuters reported, at least 544 civilians, including 130 children have been killed, another 2,117 people injured “in the hundreds of attacks carried out by Russian jets and the Syrian army since a Russian-led assault on the last rebel bastion in northwestern Syria began two months ago.”
On July 7, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that at least seven children were killed in “yet another airstrike” on Saturday against displaced civilians in the village of Mhambel, in the outskirts of Idlib, in northwest Syria.
On June 27, the heads of 11 global humanitarian organizations warned that the embattled rebel-held province of Idlib in Syria, “stands on the brink of disaster, with three million civilian lives at risk, including one million children.”
In an effort to bring public attention to the disaster they launched a social media campaign “IDLIB, SYRIA #TheWorldIsWatching.”
On June 3, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report detailing the use of internationally prohibited weapons by Russia and Syria in Idlib province.
“The Syrian-Russian military alliance is using a cocktail of internationally banned and indiscriminate weapons on a trapped civilian population,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. HRW specifically cites the use of “banned cluster munitions and incendiary weapons” and “barrel bombs.”
“Russia has abused its position at the UN Security Council to protect itself and its ally in Damascus, and to continue these abuses against civilians,” Fakih warned.
The abundance of verifiable data on the civilian death toll in Idlib provided by different and independent from each other groups, organizations and governments proves Koshkin’s claims to be false.