Reuters Repurposes Bombed Iranian-Backed Weapons Site Into Syrian Towns

To read Reuters last week, otherwise uninformed news consumers could not be blamed for thinking that an Israeli bombing had civilians in the crosshairs with a raid targeting the Syrian towns of Hama and Tartus. The very brief, two sentence Aug. 25 article reported (“Two injured in ‘Israeli aerial aggression’ over Hama’s countryside – Syrian state media“):

Two civilians were injured after Syrian air defences intercepted what it said was an Israeli “aerial aggression” targeting the cities of Hama and Tartus, state media reported on Thursday.

The raid also led to material damage and fires breaking out in several areas, they added.

The article was published 9:57 pm GMT on Aug. 25 (and last updated on Aug. 25). More than three hours before that time, two other leading wire services — Associated Press and Agence France Presse — had already reported critical information that Reuters’ later story omitted: According to a Syrian opposition group, the targeted site was an Iranian-backed weapons cache and militia base.

AFP, for its part, refers to the Iranian-backed target already in the headline: “Israeli strikes hit Iranian positions in Syria: monitor” (Aug. 25, 6:43 pm GMT). Similarly, its opening paragraphs cite the monitoring group’s information about the Iranian-backed target:

Air strikes hit positions of Iranian-aligned militia in Syria‘s Hama region on Thursday causing “several casualties”, a war monitor said, blaming Israel for the attacks.

“Israeli strikes targeted positions and depots of arms and ammunition of Iran-affiliated militias,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based monitor, which has an extensive network of sources inside Syria, reported multiple heavy explosions that sparked fires and resulted in “several victims”.

AP’s story also cited the monitoring group’s information that about the Iranian military targeted, although lower down, in the third paragraph (“Syrian state media: 2 civilians wounded in Israeli strikes,” Aug. 25, 6:42 pm GMT):

A Syrian opposition war monitor — the Britian-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — said the airstrikes targeted Iran-backed militias’ positions and warehouses in the area.

Israel has made hundreds of strikes on targets inside government-controlled parts of Syria over the past decade of its civil war, but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations.

It has, however, acknowledged that it targets bases of Syrian president Bashar Assad’s allied, including Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group and other Iran-backed militias.

Notably, Haaretz, which published Reuters’ incomplete story, commendably added in the following essential information which Reuters had neglected to share: “According to a Syrian human rights organization, Israel struck targets belonging to a pro-Iranian militia.”

On Aug. 25 at 8:43 pm GMT, Times of Israel published more details about the reported site:

The area around Masyaf, which is thought to be used as a base for Iranian forces and pro-Iranian militias, has been repeatedly targeted in recent years in attacks widely attributed to Israel.

The area is also home to a facility belonging to the Scientific Studies and Research Center, known as CERS, which itself has been struck several times in the past.

Western officials have long associated CERS with the manufacture of chemical arms. According to the United States, sarin gas was developed at that center, a charge denied by Syrian authorities.

Times of Israel’s follow up article today reported (“Images show heavy damage to Syrian weapons base in airstrike attributed to Israel“):

Satellite images obtained by The Times of Israel on Saturday showed heavily damaged structures at a Syrian weapons base near the northwestern city of Masyaf in a Thursday airstrike attributed to Israel.

The images taken by Planet Labs PBC and provided by Aurora Intel, a network that provides news and updates based on open-source intelligence, appear to show that some buildings at the Scientific Studies and Research Center, known as CERS or SSRC, on the base were completely destroyed.

Western officials and media reports have long associated the CERS facility with the production of precision surface-to-surface missiles, including the process of casting solid rocket motors, as well as chemical weapons.  According to the United States, sarin gas was developed at that center, a charge denied by Syrian authorities.



Separately, a second Reuters story about the same airstrike was no more informative than the first (“Russia forces in Syria say Israeli jets attacked research facility – agencies,” Aug. 27):

Russia forces based in Syria on Friday said four Israeli jets had launched a total of four cruise missiles and 16 guided aerial bombs against a research facility in the city of Masyaf on Thursday, Russian agencies reported.

Syrian troops using Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons shot down two missiles and seven guided bombs, Tass and RIA said, quoting a senior Russian officer. The attacks damaged equipment at the facility, he said.

Citing only Russian officials, Reuters ignored information from American officials about the nature of the Maysaf-based Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC or CERS), the unspecified “research facility” in question. As Reuters more transparently reported back in 2018 (“U.S. sanctions hundreds of employees of Syrian research center“):

President George W. Bush first placed sanctions against the SSRC in 2005, accusing it of producing weapons of mass destruction.

Although the Syrian government promotes the SSRC as a civilian research center, “its activities focus substantively on the development of biological and chemical weapons,” U.S. officials said.

During the Obama administration, the United States in July 2016 sanctioned people and companies for supporting the SSRC, and on Jan. 12, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned six SSRC officials it said were linked to SSRC branches affiliated with chemical weapons logistics or research.

Updated on Aug. 29 to include information about Reuters’ Aug. 27 article.

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