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Canadian William Wiley walks among the archive of 800,000 documents he and his team have collected, smuggled out of Syria, that he says prove Bashar al-Assad is personally responsible for war crimes such as systematic torture and murder in detention.

Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail

William Wiley had a problem. After years of building and maintaining an archive of evidence against Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen, he feared the location of his organization’s office had been leaked to allies of the Syrian regime, including Moscow.

The headquarters of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability – which hold hundreds of boxes of documents, smuggled out of Syria, detailing how Mr. Assad’s secret police tortured and sometimes killed the regime’s opponents – was such a closely guarded secret that The Globe and Mail had to agree not to name even the country it was in when a reporter visited in 2019. But a falling out with a former CIJA employee meant the location of the office and other information might no longer be secure.

Late last year, the Toronto-born Mr. Wiley decided he had to find out what his opponents knew about him and his team. So he set up an elaborate sting operation that confirmed some of his worst fears – CIJA now needs to find another safe place to work from – while also revealing what appears to be collaboration between a group of contrarian British academics and the Russian government.

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The episode shone a light on the increasingly personalized nature of the high-stakes information war being waged over Syria, pitting those who see Mr. al-Assad as a tyrant who should be brought to justice against those who see only a Western-backed effort at regime change.

The British academics – collectively known as the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media – have complained of entrapment. In the sting, Mr. Wiley used an alias and an encrypted e-mail account to exchange dozens of messages with Paul McKeigue, a professor of genetics at the University of Edinburgh. Believing that he was corresponding with someone named “Ivan” who worked for an unspecified Russian government agency, Prof. McKeigue sought evidence to support his theory that Mr. Wiley was a career spy and that CIJA was a tool of the CIA.

In one e-mail, Prof. McKeigue wonders if Mr. Wiley’s accent is really Canadian or if he’s an American pretending to be Canadian. “Do you have any clues that would lay a trail for us to discover?” he asks “Ivan.” Proving that Mr. Wiley is American, he writes, “will lay the basis for later discoveries.”

In other messages seen by The Globe, Prof. McKeigue gives his professedly Russian interlocutor the names of several people he suspects work for either British or U.S. intelligence agencies. He also says that members of the Working Group were in semi-regular contact with a diplomat at the Russian mission in Geneva who could help “Ivan” get in touch with Vanessa Beeley, a British blogger known for her pro-Assad writings.

In a statement, Prof. McKeigue admitted falling for what he called “a clever deception operation.” He said it proved the importance of the Working Group’s efforts: “We are viewed as a serious threat by some powerful actors.”

Mr. Wiley acknowledged that the methods he used to expose Prof. McKeigue’s agenda were unorthodox. But he said the sting “had to be done” to protect CIJA’s work.

That work includes supplying evidence to landmark court proceedings in Koblenz, Germany, that last month saw the first member of Mr. al-Assad’s feared Mukhabarat intelligence service convicted of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity.

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Such cases are vital to establishing what happened in Syria before and during the gruesome civil war, which had killed an estimated 400,000 people by 2016, when the United Nations stopped keeping count. In Mr. Wiley’s telling, the legal efforts are also the front line in an information struggle that sees Russia, which tilted the Syrian conflict in the regime’s favour with its 2015 military intervention, trying to rehabilitate Mr. al-Assad’s reputation on the international stage.

The prosecutions in Germany – and CIJA’s store of 1.3 million documents – are a barrier to that effort. As are the White Helmets, the group of Syrian volunteers who, by videotaping their rescues of civilians trapped in destroyed buildings, exposed the atrocities carried out by the regime and its Russian allies.

While the White Helmets are hailed as heroes by many in the West, Syrian and Russian state media have labelled them “terrorists” because they work in rebel-controlled parts of the country – sometimes in areas where jihadi groups hold sway. (The White Helmets say they do whatever it takes to save lives.)

The Working Group, which sees the hand of an “imperialist” West behind the uprising against Mr. al-Assad, has played a key role in the effort to discredit the White Helmets. Though none of the group’s 13 members is a Middle East or chemical weapons expert, they have publicized and published wild conspiracy theories – including an accusation that the volunteer civil defence organization was behind the 2018 chemical weapons attack in Douma, which killed at least 49 people and prompted military retaliations against Mr. al-Assad’s regime by the U.S., Britain and France.

The propaganda campaign against the White Helmets reached such a level that friends of the group’s founder, James Le Mesurier, believe it played a role in his 2019 suicide. “The Working Group was very much at the forefront of the attack on James,” Mr. Wiley said in an interview. “James read this stuff and took it to heart. They were accusing him of murdering children at a time when his [White Helmets] colleagues were getting killed.”

And so, when Prof. McKeigue e-mailed Mr. Wiley in December and stated that he and his colleagues were investigating CIJA, Mr. Wiley decided to push back rather than allow what he saw as a disinformation campaign to gain any momentum. He said he saw the Working Group as “useful idiots” who wittingly or unwittingly serve the Kremlin’s interests.

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In the e-mails, Prof. McKeigue asks “Ivan” for help digging up evidence proving the Working Group’s theories about Mr. Le Mesurier and the White Helmets. “Any more information that you might have about JLM’s role in staging chemical attacks or that he was diverting money from donors would be helpful to us,” he wrote in December, more than a year after Mr. Le Mesurier’s death.

“The objective [of the disinformation] is not to convince the layperson, the objective is to sow doubt. And it worked with James and Mayday,” Mr. Wiley said. Mayday Rescue was Mr. Le Mesurier’s non-governmental organization, which received grants from governments, including Canada’s, then used that money to support the White Helmets.

“James, the White Helmets, Mayday Rescue shone light on the nature of the Syrian and Russian operations, so they attacked the messenger. Those are the same reasons they’re attacking CIJA.”

The weak point, for both Mayday Rescue and CIJA, has been their bookkeeping. Mr. Le Mesurier’s habit of leaping into action, then sorting out the details later, led to internal questions about US$50,000 in cash that he took out of a safe to cover expenses related to the Canadian-led rescue of 422 people – White Helmets members and their families – from southern Syria in the summer of 2018.

He spent only US$9,200 of the money but didn’t put the remaining US$40,800 back in the safe when he returned to Istanbul. His widow, Emma Le Mesurier, told The Globe that he came home from the rescue operation “elated but exhausted” and lost track of the cash. Though he repaid the money by docking it from his own pay, the paper trail was messy. Auditors got involved, and soon donors started to pull away from Mayday Rescue and the White Helmets.

CIJA has also found itself under investigation, by the European Union’s anti-fraud office – known by its French acronym, OLAF – which has said it discovered “possible offences of fraud and forgery” related to a €2-million contract CIJA received in 2013.

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Ms. Le Mesurier, who is carrying on with human-rights work related to Syria, says CIJA’s troubles remind her “100 per cent” of what happened to Mayday Rescue and the White Helmets. “What they’re trying to do is create enough skulduggery around the organization to discredit them, with the hope of discrediting the evidence that CIJA has gathered and the evidence the White Helmets have gathered as well. It’s part of the overall campaign to discredit us.”

No charges have been laid, and CIJA is appealing the OLAF finding, but Mr. Wiley said Russian state media have already used the suggestion of financial impropriety to raise questions about the evidence CIJA has assembled against the Assad regime.

“We call it the Al Capone tactic: Even if we can’t bring them down over war crimes, we may be able to get them over fraud,” Prof. McKeigue wrote in his correspondence.

Grantly Franklin, a spokesman for Global Affairs Canada, said the Canadian government has provided the CIJA with more than $13-million in funding since 2015. Despite the OLAF report, Mr. Franklin said Canada “continues to have confidence in CIJA’s capacity to advance justice and accountability in accordance with international criminal law standards and procedures.”

Christopher Black, a Toronto-based international lawyer who is cited in the e-mails as sharing Prof. McKeigue’s doubts about Mr. Wiley and CIJA, said the fact the organization has received funding from Western governments – including Canada, the United States and Britain – suggests it has an agenda that calls into question the work it does. “They are funded by the very powers that want to overthrow the Syrian government, [as a] prelude to an attack on Iran,” Mr. Black said in an exchange of messages with The Globe.

But other experts in international justice said the sources of CIJA’s funding have no bearing on the evidence it has gathered against the Assad regime. “If people are out to get Assad, that’s one thing. But if there’s overwhelming evidence against his regime, one cannot absolve him of responsibility because funding by certain governments has allegedly tainted the evidence,” said Payam Akhavan, a professor of international law and a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College who has worked on multiple international war-crimes cases.

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CIJA’s evidence was ruled admissible by the court in Koblenz, which last month sentenced intelligence officer Eyad al-Gharib to 4½ years in prison While Mr. al-Gharib was a low-level figure in the regime, the CIJA evidence is also key to a parallel trial still under way in Koblenz against his boss, Anwar Raslan. Mr. Raslan was the head of investigations at a feared branch of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, where torture and violent sexual abuse were used to punish those who opposed Mr. al-Assad.

Mr. Wiley said Mr. al-Gharib’s conviction was a “really big moment” for CIJA and the effort to see some justice done in Syria. He said it also crystallized why the organization is now under such ferocious attack.

“The constant drip of prosecutions in Europe is a problem for the Russians,” he said. “If [CIJA] goes, it basically imperils the justice effort in Syria, and there’s no one to pick up the slack – and these guys know that.”

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