The persistent efforts by Russia and its ally the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to accuse the Syria Civil Defence of planning to stage chemical attacks in Syria are yet another example of the Kremlin's malign influence campaigns abroad.
Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defence, or White Helmets, is a humanitarian organisation, saving those wounded in attacks on rebel zones.
Russia was denounced at the United Nations October 11 after describing the Syrian rescue volunteers known as the White Helmets as a "threat" and demanding their removal from the war-torn country, diplomats told AFP.
"[The] presence of White Helmets is a source of threat," the Russian representative said in a closed meeting of the UN Security Council called by Moscow, according to a diplomat present at the talks.
"We call on Western countries to move the White Helmets from Syria. Terrorists should be removed. [It's] not a good idea to have them in civilised society," the diplomat quoted the Russian envoy as saying.
The United States condemned the "outrageous and false accusations of Russia. The White Helmets are a humanitarian organisation. Russia continues to spread false information," according to the sources.
Britain meanwhile called on the Russians to "stop wasting the council's time" while France said it was "surprised and dismayed," adding that the group has "saved hundreds of people."
A long-running disinformation campaign
The Kremlin's long-running smear campaign against the White Helmets could be a potential cover-up for a real chemical attack the regime is preparing against civilians in the region, say observers.
Russia claimed earlier on September 11 that Syrian opposition fighters and the White Helmets had begun working on footage that would be presented to the world as the aftermath of an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian army, AFP reported.
The Russian Defence Ministry, citing Idlib residents, said film crews from several Middle Eastern TV channels -- as well as "a regional branch of a leading US news channel" -- had arrived for the shoot.
"By the end of the day", all the footage would be handed over to TV channels that would release it through social media, the ministry claimed.
According to the "scenario", White Helmets activists would help local residents after the alleged use of barrel bombs by the Syrian army, it said, adding that real chemicals would be used to make the footage appear more authentic and also to facilitate samples of allegedly contaminated soil from the scene.
The same claim was echoed in a doctored video published by the Kremlin-controlled website Russkaya Vesna (Russian Spring) on September 6 in an attempt to dupe Russian speakers.
The 8-minute video shows a blindfolded and tied-up man being interrogated by unseen individuals. Mistranslations of his forced confession claim that the United States trained "Islamic State" (IS) terrorists and that members had been "sent toward Idlib to shoot a provocative video of chemical attacks so that the Syrian Arab Army would be blamed".
A serious threat
The West has warned President Bashar al-Assad that his regime would face serious consequences if he used chemical weapons in Idlib.
The accusations from Russia and the Syrian regime that the White Helmets are preparing for a "theatrical stunt" involving chemical weapons pose a serious threat to the areas outside the regime's control, said Syria Civil Defence spokesperson Khaled al-Khatib.
These accusations heighten concerns that these areas might soon come under bombardment with chemical weapons by Russia and the regime and that the White Helmets will be defamed in the process, he said.
Russia and the Syrian regime have been harping on the possibility of a staged chemical attack in order to accuse opposition factions and civil defence teams of possessing internationally prohibited chemical weapons, said Syrian lawyer Bashir al-Bassam.
The aim is to "divert attention from the massacres they [Russia and the regime] are committing or are about to commit during the assault on Idlib", he said, adding it provides cover for the regime and Russia if the usage of such weapons does occur.
Another objective is to portray moderate opposition groups and the White Helmets as "terrorists who must be taken out at any price", he added.
Using similar tactics to those seen in Central Asia, Moscow is attempting to achieve its aims though false information.
Such efforts involve hybrid warfare techniques, including political coercion, conventional and unconventional warfare, cyber warfare and influence campaigns.
Media outlets affiliated with Russia and the regime are focusing their coverage on strategic areas in Syria where, once controlled, Russia and the Syrian regime would have fire control over almost the entire Idlib region.
Activist Haisam al-Idlibi said that the focus on specific towns, such as Jisr al-Shughur, is due to the fact that it can be targeted with short- and medium-range missiles similar to those possessed by opposition factions.
These missiles "can be outfitted with chemical agents and used to strike the region, only for [Russia and the regime] to later accuse opposition groups and the White Helmets", he said.