Validating news stories: Syrian oil

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My latest news validation adventure started because my wife overheard a show on Russian TV explaining the “real” reasons behind the Syrian civil war. The argument appeared to be balanced by explaining how various foreign forces have a hidden agenda in the conflict — including Russia which needs to prevent the Quatar-Turkey pipeline from happening. And what’s in for US? According to that show, vast amounts of oil were discovered in Syria and the US were looking for ways to exploit those. Such an easy and simple explanation for a very complex conflict seemed suspicious and so I decided to look into it.

First of all, I wasn’t aware of Syria being one of the top oil producing countries. Wikipedia appears to confirm that by stating that Syrian oil production has been on decline for a while already and that the reserves might be depleted soon. I searched a bit and immediately hit this German-language article on NeoPresse.com claiming that huge oil fields were discovered in Syria shortly before the war — exactly the story that my wife heard. And the source? RF-SMI, a Russian-language news site. And that seems to be the original source already, it doesn’t go any further. All other articles appear to have taken their information from either the NeoPresse or RF-SMI article. Funny enough, even some Russian-language sites appear to have picked up the news from NeoPresse and translated it back to Russian.

Ok, now that we know what this is about, to the substance. The article is based on a statement of an expert: Dr. Imad Fausi Shuajbi, head of the Centre of Strategic Studies in Damaskus. Should be a well-known man but isn’t, a search for his name brings up only this very article and references to it. The other strange fact: the RF-SMI article was published in October 2015, yet Dr. Imad Fausi Shuajbi supposedly issued his statement in April 2013. Why did it take more than two years for this information to be noticed? What changed? The article doesn’t explain it. Btw, the author of the RF-SMI article is supposedly some Nureddin Sassi from Beirut and — you guess it — this name can also only be found in the context of this one article.

Let’s try a different route. What about the Norwegian company Ancis that supposedly discovered the oil fields? Quite remarkably, this company doesn’t appear to exist on the web either. However, searching for its name brings up an article of the Russian news agency TASS. That article is older (March 2014) and shows some remarkable similarities. It also quotes the head of the Centre of Strategic Studies, only that the guy’s name is Imad Fawzi al-Shueibi now — and that name can be found on the web. So it appears that everybody quoting “Imad Fausi Shuajbi” took the Cyrillic RF-SMI article and transliterated the name without caring that it would come out wrong.

The TASS article also talks about a Norwegian company Ancis that found the oil fields, and here Imad Fawzi al-Shueibi also gets to say how much oil Syria might be able to produce in future. What’s missing is the entire anti-US spin: no mention of the information being sold to US corporations and further dark affairs. In fact, the TASS article is very positive: a Russian company got permission for oil exploration and in five years or so it should tell us whether the production figures claimed by Imad Fawzi al-Shueibi are realistic.

What seems to have happened here: somebody wanted to show the US motives in Syria. Obviously, US involvement in Middle East is always about oil. What oil? Oh, there is that old TASS article — lots of oil. Ripped some key facts out of the original article to give the story some authenticity, added some claims not supported by any sources — done.

Russian propaganda is remarkably successful with that approach. There is no point claiming that Russia’s involvement in Syria is driven by humanitarian interest, nobody would believe that. But one can always claim that everybody else has the same hidden goals, so why is everybody only bashing Russia? Clearly because of the Western anti-Russian agenda. And even though here the story about the US goals is clearly made up, nobody can prove it to be entirely wrong. After all, do you know why US felt necessary to interfere in Syria? I don’t.

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