The images broadcast from the Syrian city of Aleppo during the government's final push for control last year seemed to tell a clear story:
A little boy in an ambulance, caked in dust and too stunned to cry.
After months of crippling siege, more than 100,000 people were trapped in the city's rebel-held east during the final months of last year as government bombs rained down on homes and hospitals and troops moved in after four years of trying. The government's victory in Aleppo dealt the heaviest blow yet to Syria's rebels and marked the start of an endgame for the country's bitter war.
Recounting his last days in the enclave before the evacuation of all who remained, an AFP photographer, Karam al-Masri, described a picture of hell. “I was dominated by fear. I wouldn’t dare venture into the street to take pictures. There were massacres.
“I was haunted by a single idea: that I would die in my house or on my street.”
But all the while, another battle was raging, this one on the airwaves and across the Internet, to prove this was all a Western media fabrication.
According to a report on the recapture of Aleppo, released Monday by researchers at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, it amounted to “nothing less than a war on objective facts.”
Where Western media reported that pro-government forces had unleashed chemical, incendiary and cluster munitions on residential neighborhoods and hospitals, Russian press briefings and media denied the incidents had ever taken place, depicting rescue workers as jihadist militants and doctors as propagandist purveyors of “fake news.”
Russia is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's staunchest backers and was a key force in the fight for Aleppo.
Online, bloggers with Russian backing insisted that harrowing rescue videos had been staged.
Most widely shared was the claim of Eva Bartlett, a Canadian “independent writer and rights activist” who blogs for the state-funded Russian media outlet Russia Today. A fact-check by Britain's Channel 4 television network found her claim that the same child had been filmed in three separate attacks to be “almost certainly nonsense.” The only similarity between the children in each video was that they were young girls covered in dust.
According to the Atlantic Council, all these threads tied together to form a broader strategy:
“This was aimed less at convincing than at confusing and disorienting rivals, sapping confidence, sowing disunity, and making truth entirely subjective, such that one party’s lie became just as good as another’s fact,” the report said. The report drew on satellite images, security camera videos, social media and even footage from the Kremlin-backed Russian television network to challenge those claims.
As the dust settles on one of the bloodiest battles of Syria's war, human rights groups say they have documented widespread arrests of civilians after government forces swept through the last districts under rebel control.
The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, a nonprofit, have also recorded executions of rebel fighters and civilians. In a separate report released Monday, Human Rights Watch said chlorine gas attacks had paved the way for Syrian forces as they advanced into rebel-held portions of east Aleppo during the final months of the fight.
Neither report released Monday mentioned attacks by rebel forces, although opposition militants had also been accused of indiscriminate shelling that hit residential neighborhoods, places of worship and at least one school in the government-held west end of the city.
When east Aleppo's evacuation buses finally arrived in the neighboring province of Idlib during late December, waiting doctors with decades of experience were profoundly shocked at the sight that greeted them.
“They looked like hollow shells of people,” said Mounir Hakimi, a surgeon and founder of the Syria Relief aid group.
“As they climbed off the buses they were exhausted, they were broken. I saw people with bones sticking out because they had no medical care in those final weeks,” he said.
“Everyone knew it would be bad. But not like this. On that day we saw Aleppo's living dead.”