The ‘Useful Idiots’: How These British Academics Helped Russia Deny War Crimes At The UN

A gaggle of British teachers has sparked “broad and severe concern” amongst diplomats after its work was utilized by Russia to accuse humanitarian staff in Syria of staging battle crimes.

A European diplomat this week joined Amnesty Worldwide in condemning the work of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM), saying its members had been both “unwittingly and naively appearing as brokers of propaganda for the Russians, or actively help[ing] Russian disinformation.”

Not one of the teachers – one in every of whom left his job final 12 months after it emerged he was a supporter of 9/11 conspiracy theories – is an professional within the Center East, Syria or chemical weapons, and the group has beforehand been accused of “whitewashing battle crimes.”

But talking on the United Nations Safety Council final week, a senior Russian official praised the “acknowledged consultants and respected scientists” of the WGSPM, citing their work as he claimed a chemical weapons assault in 2018 by no means occurred.

The identical day, one other Russian official tweeted a hyperlink to the group’s work that accuses the civilian search and rescue group the White Helmets of being “actively concerned” in murdering civilians to border the Syrian authorities.

There is no such thing as a dependable proof to help the speculation and an investigation by the globally acknowledged Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded {that a} chemical assault did happen.

Though not mandated to attribute blame, the report discovered chlorine fuel was launched from two canisters that had been dropped from the air. Syrian authorities and Russian forces are the one ones geared up with plane that means opposition forces couldn’t have carried out the assault.

It matches a well-documented sample of chemical weapons use by the Syrian authorities of Bashar al-Assad in opposition to civilian targets.

A European diplomat informed HuffPost UK: “There may be broad and severe concern in regards to the extent to which teachers within the WGSPM look like pursuing points which so carefully overlay with Russian lies and propaganda, significantly on the usage of chemical weapons in Syria.

“Russia seems to be utilizing these teachers to amplify and bolster their very own disinformation, significantly to undermine the OPCW and divert consideration from their very own actions.

“It’s unclear whether or not these teachers are unwittingly and naively appearing as brokers of propaganda for the Russians – or they actively help Russian misinformation.

“Both manner, it’s troublesome to see how their involvement with WGSPM is suitable with having any official function in academia.”


Tim Hayward teaches environmental political principle on the College of Edinburgh.

The WGSPM counts a lot of teachers amongst its members together with professors Tim Hayward and Paul McKeigue of the College of Edinburgh, Professor David Miller of the College of Bristol and Dr Tara McCormack of the College of Leicester.

It was established in 2017 by Piers Robinson, who used to show at Sheffield College however left final 12 months after HuffPost UK reported he was a supporter of 9/11 conspiracy theories.


Piers Robinson commonly seems on Kremlin-backed media channels.

Robinson informed HuffPost on the time that his “determination to depart […] was primarily based on a lot of causes regarding each skilled objectives and private circumstances,” and that he was not “criticized or pressured to depart by the college due to my analysis or public statements.”

Shadi Hamid, senior fellow and Center East professional on the Brookings Institute thinktank, informed HuffPost UK: “These teachers don’t know sufficient in regards to the Center East to have the ability to kind by way of what’s actual and what’s not actual. 

“And since these individuals don’t know rather a lot in regards to the Center East, they’re inclined to those sorts of bonkers concepts.”

The WGSPM has printed a lot of papers that every one echo Russian disinformation strains and recommend western governments or these working for them are literally accountable for occasions such because the Skripal poisoning.

How did it begin?

Some 40 individuals had been killed in a chemical weapons assault within the Syrian city of Douma in April 2018.

Shortly afterwards, the WGSPM set about attempting to show it had been staged by the White Helmets as a way of justifying the U.S., UK and French missile strikes in opposition to the Assad authorities that had adopted.

Eliot Higgins of the investigative web site Bellingcat informed HuffPost UK: “It’s a principle with none proof to help it. The ‘working group’ are simply helpful idiots.

“This type of denial of battle crimes in Syria – it’s like saying vaccines trigger autism, or that 9/11 was an inside job.

“It’s insane and the very fact their universities nonetheless make use of them is embarrassing for his or her universities.”

Why does the Working Group imagine the chemical assault didn’t occur?

The WGSPM doesn’t present any video, image or documentary proof to help its principle. As a substitute, its central argument — which it describes as “[t]he clearest proof that the White Helmets had been actively concerned in managing
a bloodbath of civilians” — rests on a separate assault in 2017 which it argues Syrian jets couldn’t have carried out due to its location. (The OPCW disagrees.)

The Working Group, at one thing of a stretch, then concludes that “the one potential various” is for the White Helmets to have been actively concerned in “managing a bloodbath.”


Professor David Miller teaches political philosophy on the College of Bristol.

The WGSPM’s declare that the OPCW report is flawed eschews consultants and as an alternative depends closely on a lot of doubtful sources, many who the lecturers got here throughout by way of Twitter, together with:

When requested by HuffPost UK in regards to the sources the WGSPM has utilized in its analysis, Robinson stood by all of them, including: “We don’t ‘depend on’ these sources: in every of the situations you checklist, we’ve got examined the unique materials and drawn our personal conclusions.”

The leaks

The group’s conspiracy principle was given an obvious increase final 12 months by a leaked inner report penned by an OPCW employee that appeared to forged doubt on the extensively held perception {that a} chemical weapons assault had certainly taken place.

However a supply near the OPCW informed HuffPost UK that the doc given to the Working Group was primarily based on incorrect assumptions and ignored essential proof on which the OPCW investigation’s ultimate conclusions had been primarily based – simply one of many causes it was not mirrored within the eventual public report.

An extra supply cited by the lecturers was a sequence of leaked nameless emails apparently written by a distinct OPCW staffer questioning the group’s work. HuffPost UK, nonetheless, has discovered that a lot of the OPCW’s investigation was performed after the whistleblower, self-styled as “Alex,” left the group.

The OPCW has stood by its conclusion {that a} chemical assault utilizing chlorine as a weapon did occur.

Why is Russia ?

Russia intervened in Syria in 2015 in help of President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crushing of a preferred revolution.

It has subsequently sought to discredit and veto OPCW investigations which have instantly accused its ally of a lot of chemical weapons assaults.


The Kremlin’s model of what occurred in Douma has modified quite a few instances, from “no assault occurred in any respect” to “British spies did it” to “the White Helmets did it” and numerous theories in between. 

Kate Starbird, an professional in on-line disinformation networks on the College of Washington, informed HuffPost UK: “It has all the weather of ‘throw as many alternative conspiracy theories on the wall till we discover one which sticks.’

“It’s taken a couple of years for them to search out one which sticks however the methods are so just like what we’ve seen in different occasions just like the [downing of flight] MH17 and the Skripal poisoning.”

In November final 12 months Russia’s personal OPCW consultant addressed The Hague and praised the “dozens of consultants, recognised and revered individuals, with exceptional worldwide reputations, led by Professor Robinson” because it made its case that the OPCW had been hijacked by western nations with the intention to body the Syrian authorities.

Russian state media channels have been working laborious to advertise the narrative, and RT – previously Russia Right this moment – offered Robinson and McCormack with a platform to air their views. 

Caroline Orr, a behavioural scientist who specialises in disinformation networks on social media, informed HuffPost UK the paper was “the newest in an extended line of deceptive and defamatory claims from the ‘working group.’”

“It’s accomplished for the aim of making confusion about what’s happening in Syria,” she mentioned, “to make individuals doubt the details and, in the end, to bury proof of among the most heinous atrocities and battle crimes in trendy historical past.

“In case you take a look at the techniques they use, they’re straight out of a propaganda handbook.”

Undeterred, Russia has caught to the speculation and final week reiterated the declare on the UN. 

Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty Worldwide UK’s Syria marketing campaign supervisor, informed HuffPost UK: “Discrediting the White Helmets is partly about discrediting battle crimes proof.

“The White Helmets’ filming at assault websites has meant they’ve constructed up a major physique of proof of potential battle crimes by pro-Assad and Russian forces – one thing neither Damascus nor Moscow views kindly.

“The thousands and thousands of Syrians whose lives have been devastated by years of barrel bombing, chemical weapons assaults, imprisonment, torture and killing deserve real reality and justice, not this squalid propaganda.”

The thousands and thousands of Syrians whose lives have been devastated by years of barrel bombing, chemical weapons assaults, imprisonment, torture and killing deserve real reality and justice, not this squalid propaganda.Kristyan Benedict, Amnesty Worldwide UK’s Syria marketing campaign supervisor

Two days after Russia spoke on the UN, Robinson and Miller appeared at a briefing in parliament sponsored by Labour’s shadow peace and disarmament minister, Fabian Hamilton.

Hamilton has insisted he was unaware of who could be talking when his workplace agreed to e-book a room for an anti-war collective “to debate the OPCW report.” Hamilton’s spokesperson added that the shadow minister “doesn’t help [the speakers’] offensive and factually incorrect views”.

His spokesperson informed HuffPost UK: “Fabian totally helps the OPCW’s conclusions into the vile chemical assaults that befell in Douma in 2018.

“Any suggestion that Fabian by some means helps the ridiculous conspiracy theories held by among the attendees at this occasion are ludicrous.”

Responding to questions from HuffPost UK, Robinson maintained that the OPCW report “can moderately be described as fraudulent by the requirements utilized to scientific reporting.”

He added: “So far as we all know, nobody is denying that the Douma incident and different alleged chemical assaults in Syria had been battle crimes.

“We’re investigating these crimes, and making some progress in figuring out the perpetrators and people within the media who collude with them.”

(Infographics provided by Statista)

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