In reaction to a post by Tim Hayward titled “Briefing Note on the Integrity Initiative: comments and discussion,” Norman Pilon wrote,
And speaking about propaganda in relation to Syria, what should we make of this, a brief put together by Nafeez Ahmed and that, amongst other things, raises serious questions about the journalistic integrity of Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett: State Propaganda in Syria: From War Crimes to Pipelines
In particular, see the following sub-chapter: 3.5 The White Helmets and propaganda: myths (pp.46-57.)
Peter Presland, in reaction to Norman Pilon’s comment, replied:
Yes. That IS disturbing. Its style reminds me of Wikipedia articles on sensitive geo-political issues – masses of obfuscating detail referenced to ‘respectable/acceptable’ western MSM sources only and with a clear, relentless bias towards the western ‘official narratives’.
Ahmed cultivates a position of scholarly skepticism towards these ‘official narratives’, but he is careful never to go toooo far. This, as other of his output, has all the characteristics of that now somewhat cliched expression – a ‘limited hangout’. For sure, whilst ostensibly opposing western geo-political shenanigans, his output for the most part is hugely beneficial to them.
The question for me therefore becomes, to what extent might Mr Ahmed be dependent upon Western covert intel operations for his own position and place in society.
Norman Pilon to Peter Presland, replied:
Ah . . . no, actually . . .
Ahmed builds a case grounded in a series of itemized if purported ‘factual’ claims.
If you’re going to argue that he is in the business of disinformation, you must demonstrate that his factual claims are factually false or that his interpretative framework of those claims is theoretically unwarranted.
So, for instance, when he alleges that Beeley confides to a fellow pro-Assad activist that she knows that in Syria torture is standard operating procedure for the Syrian security and intelligence apparatus (pp.50-52.), but that she would never admit this publicly so as not “to give that opening to anti Syrian brigades,” then clearly Ahmed is correct to observe that this “. . . is an extraordinary admission of willingness to lie and conceal in her reporting on Syria.”
So either Beeley never made that admission, which would be the ‘fact’ disproving Ahmed’s ‘factual’ allegation, or you need to explain to me how that admission isn’t by implication an admission of a willingness to lie and conceal in her reporting on Syria. And so it goes for each and everyone(sic) of Ahmed’s ‘factual’ claims . . .
Furthermore, if one peruses the expert literature on Syria, it would appear that in 2011 there was both an articulated political and popular opposition to the Assad regime. In other words, to assert that there never was anything like an uprising in Syria in 2011 flies in the face of what appears to be a consensus, grounded in a wealth of empirical facts, among Middle East and Syrian scholars. That is a bit of a problem, no?
Norm’s note: In support of the view that the “civil war” in Syria has never been but a war waged upon that nation from without, but by the Western imperialist alliance and its Middle Eastern regional corporate vassals, the journalistic accounts of Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett are often invoked.
Personally, given what I’ve been reading in the annals of academic Middle Eastern and Syrian studies over the course of the last year or so, between, on the one hand, what Beeley and Bartlett believe and asseverate about the nature of Syrian society and, on the other, what seemingly every single scholar on Syria or the Middle East perceives it to be in its actual historical, cultural, sociological, political and economic dimensions, there is, to put it politely, a bit of a chasm.
But it isn’t only that the body of high quality research that I’ve so far been able to read — work that is anchored in a wealth of empirical findings and sophisticated theories of interpretation — strongly militates against the testimonies of Beeley and Bartlett, but that the quality of their journalism as such appears to be questionable in terms of both its “accuracy” and its “independence.” I leave it to Nafeez Ahmed to round out what may in fact be the picture in this respect:
From the ‘Executive Summary’ of Ahmed’s State Propaganda in Syria: From War Crimes to Pipelines :
The White Helmets
Conflicting narratives of the Douma attack, along with previous chemical weapons incidents, have consistently revolved around the role of the White Helmets in Syria. However, the role of the White Helmets in Douma has been widely misunderstood partly as a result of false claims made by various Russian state-backed media outlets such as RT, and others, to the effect that the initial videos and images of the Douma incident were filmed and propagated by the White Helmets. This is incorrect. The White Helmets were not responsible for those videos, and they arrived at the scene of the attacks hours later.
This investigation does find that the conventional narrative that the White Helmets are a completely neutral force in Syria is questionable. It is a matter of record that the group does receive prominent funding from the US and British governments; that the group is broadly supportive of the Syrian opposition and opposed to Assad; and that its leadership are supportive of a ‘no fly zone’ over Syria (which could entail limited military involvement in danger of escalation). The White Helmets have also been found to have engaged in activities for which they lack training, leading to some cases of severe incompetence in responding to complex emergencies such as building collapses and chemical weapons attacks.
However, alternative narratives claiming that the White Helmets are therefore little more than a Western propaganda construct fronting for terrorist groups and, at worst, actively engaged in the ‘staging’ of chemical weapons incidents, air strikes and other military violence, cannot be substantiated. Even critical observers concede that the White Helmets have saved tens of thousands of lives from Syrian military violence and airstrikes. While there is evidence that some White Helmets members have been found to be complicit in violence and involved with Islamist terrorist groups, these members have consistently been expelled from the group when such information comes to light. The coordination between White Helmets volunteers and armed rebel groups is not unexpected given that armed groups are ubiquitous in the areas under their control, and does not amount to evidence that the White Helmets are a mere extension of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS). An interview with independent boots on the ground reporter Patrick Hilsman, who has visited Syria eight times and witnessed the White Helmets firsthand, confirms that they are a genuine civilian volunteer group.
Alternative narratives which describe the White Helmets as Islamist terrorists controlled by Western intelligence largely trace back to two journalists who admit to being partisan in their support for both the Syrian and Russian governments, Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, who often work together. Apart from openly admitting that they support Bashar al-Assad and his military actions in Syria, a stance which in itself undermines their claims to be undertaking serious journalism (in much the same way that the impartiality of Western reporters who rely uncritically on rebel sources can be questioned), compelling evidence shows that when they report from Syria they do so in a context that is entirely embedded in Syrian government and military forces. A leaked private conversation between Beeley and a fellow activist illustrates that she is willing to actively conceal and deny Syrian government war crimes including torture in order to support a Syrian military victory.
A close examination of several major examples of both Beeley’s and Bartlett’s Syria reporting reveals fundamental inconsistencies and falsehoods in their claims. We focus on their reports on the White Helmets, their denial of the bombing of the al-Quds hospital, and their denial of Syrian military violence in Aleppo more broadly. Further, neither of them have ever interviewed the White Helmets themselves or investigated them on the ground, preferring to simply cite pro-Assad sources to portray them as terrorists. Beeley in particular has gone a step further in justifying Syrian and Russian state extrajudicial assassinations of White Helmets members, describing them as “legitimate targets” unworthy of any due process because they are “terrorists,” which in short amounts to justifying war crimes. Bartlett has never disassociated herself from such statements by Beeley, despite continuing to work with her.
The White Helmets and ‘chain of custody’
A frequent claim promulgated by a number of independent journalists, commentators and experts is that the White Helmets were the sole source of sarin samples obtained by the OPCW in relation to the Khan Shaykhoun attack of April 2017. The claim is that the OPCW violated its ‘chain of custody’ procedures, and that this potentially provided the rebels, through the White Helmets, the opportunity to manipulate samples provided to the OPCW. It is presumed then that those samples can therefore not be trusted or taken seriously, and neither can the conclusion that sarin was actually confirmed to have been used.
These claims are based on selective misrepresentation and obfuscation of the OPCW’s reports on this matter. While the reports do acknowledge that for the most part the White Helmets played a major role in obtaining and supplying samples, the OPCW reports also point out that another source of the sarin samples from Khan Shaykhoun was the Syrian government itself. The reports also state that in some cases “full chain of custody” was secured by the OPCW in obtaining biomedical samples from a few bodies of victims of the attack a day after the incident.
The insistence therefore that the OPCW’s conclusion regarding the determination of sarin being used in the attack is simply false, is without foundation.
(Propaganda in Syria: From War Crimes to Pipelines , pp.12-13.)
And now for the sub-chapter of Ahmed’s study (Ahmed, Ibid., pp.46-57.) that casts serious doubts on the purported ‘accuracy and impartiality’ of Beeley’s and Bartlett’s journalism:
3.5 The White Helmets and propaganda: myths
This vindicates the importance of evaluating narratives put out by the White Helmets rather than accepting them without question. Yet the widespread belief among increasing sections of the left that the White Helmets are, effectively, a terrorist organisation; and that all or even most of their reports of violence by Syrian and Russian military forces are nothing more than sophisticated Western or rebel fabrications, goes too far.
As Blumenthal acknowledges, “it would seem unfair to tar an entire group with the actions of a few scofflaws”. He notes that the White Helmets are genuinely rescuing large numbers of civilians from the impact of Syrian military aerial bombardment: “Whatever the number, there is little dispute that the White Helmets’ rank-and-file are saving lives in what seems to be an increasingly desperate situation in eastern Aleppo.” This fact – that most White Helmets rescue operations are real – is also conceded by Scott Ritter, despite his harsh scepticism of the group:51
“The danger faced by the White Helmets is not a fiction – to date, 141 first responders affiliated with the Syrian Civil Defense have been killed while performing their duty. And although their claims of having saved more than 60,000 lives are unverifiable, there can be no doubt that many lives have, in fact, been saved as a result of their work.”
Earlier this year, The Guardian produced a story on how the White Helmets had been falsely associated with al-Qaeda by an online campaign backed by Russia. The story was not particularly well-investigated. Its blanket dismissal of all concerns about the credibility and impartiality of the White Helmets was poor journalism. But the piece noted rightly that the two most widely-cited ‘independent’ critics of the White Helmets, who describe the network as little more than a ‘Western propaganda construct’ designed to mask Islamist terrorist activity, have direct ties with both Russia and Assad.
A vast amount of information construing the White Helmets as a ‘propaganda construct’ and front for terrorist groups, originates from Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, both of whom describe themselves as “independent” journalists, but who have consistently aligned themselves with the Syrian government.
All rebel and opposition forces in Syria, they claim, are simply Islamist terrorists – and the White Helmets serve to provide largely fake rescue operations to prove to the world that Syrians are being killed by Assad’s violence. The implication is that Assad is not in fact committing atrocities.
But Beeley and Bartlett are not independent or impartial sources of information on the Syrian conflict, but quite openly support the Assad government. The Guardian noted:52 “In 2016, Beeley had a two-hour meeting with Assad in Damascus as part of a US Peace Council delegation, which she described on Facebook as her ‘proudest moment’. She was also invited to Moscow to report on the ‘dirty war in Syria’; there, she met senior Russian officials including the deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, and Maria Zakharova, director of information and press at Russia’s foreign ministry.”
As for Bartlett, she is also open about her support for Assad. She became especially well-known after a YouTube clip of her talk at a UN event went viral. The event was a small press conference hosted by the Permanent Mission of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations – in other words, organised by Assad’s government (at Bartlett’s request).
The Guardian article ignores other legitimate lines of inquiry about the White Helmets, but this is one sound criticism that neither Bartlett nor Beeley have satisfactorily answered. From a journalistic perspective, such ties are fundamentally unethical, and compromise their reporting.
Both Beeley and Bartlett routinely criticise traditional media outlets for reporting in contexts which are embedded with rebel groups and opposition forces, challenging their credibility and impartiality. Yet by the same standards, given that they report consistently from Syria in a context controlled by Assad’s forces, neither of them can be reasonably described as independent voices. They are vehemently pro-Assad.
Several other cases illustrate how this fundamentally compromises the integrity of their reporting. In 2016, Swedish journalist Cecilia Udden embarked on a regime-approved reporting trip to Syria. But she was subsequently thrown out of the country by Assad’s government for circulating “false information”, after she tweeted photos and witness accounts from people in besieged Eastern Aleppo because she had been denied access there.53
In March 2017, popular pro-Assad journalist Reda al-Pasha was banned from working in Syria by the Ministry of Information. Al-Pasha had committed the crime of publicly criticising pro-government militia leaders for engaging in widespread looting, kidnappings and killings in areas re-taken from the rebels. The Syrian government is still preventing journalists from entering Eastern Aleppo – except when they toe a pro-Assad line.54
Journalists that are seen to be at risk of criticising Assad tend to be excluded by his government – meaning that those who receive access are, usually, granted it under the expectation of aligning with the government and avoiding criticism.
At worst, dissident journalists are killed, as happened with the late Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin. She had crossed over into Syria by motorcycle in February 2012 at a time when Assad was preventing access to Syria by foreign journalists. This was her eyewitness account of Syrian government bombardment from Homs: “The Syrians are not allowing civilians to leave… anyone who gets on the street is hit by a shell. If they are not hit by a shell they are hit by snipers. There are snipers all around on the high buildings. I think the sickening thing is the complete merciless nature. They are hitting the civilian buildings absolutely mercilessly and without caring and the scale of it is just shocking.”55 She was killed along with French photographer Rémi Ochlik shortly after issuing this report. The Syrian government claimed that its autopsy of her body proved she had been killed by an IED filled with nails planted by rebel “terrorists”. But her colleague photographer Paul Conroy, who survived the attack, confirmed that they had been shelled by Syrian Army artillery fire. Syrian government files obtained by Abdel Majid Barakat, a former data manager of Assad’s war cabinet known as the ‘Central Crisis Management Cell’, show that senior military officials around the time were actively tracking journalistic activity and ordering special forces units to take “necessary measures.”56
An even more resounding indictment of Beeley and Bartlett’s journalism came from within the ranks of the ‘alt-left’ news scene, via Newsbud, run by FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds.57 While there are flaws in Newsbud’s investigation of Beeley and Bartlett, their report fleshed out their connections with Assad’s government, and proved beyond any doubt that these connections meant they had misrepresented facts on the ground:
1. A number of sources in the alternative news scene who knew Beeley and Bartlett confirmed that both journalists routinely tour Syria with funding and protection from the Assad government, contrary to their denials of this. This has included being put up by Assad’s government at five star hotels far from actual conflict zones. Visits to conflict zones have invariably been done with the support, presence and consent of Assad’s security forces, not independently.
2. Beeley and Bartlett have made grandiose claims of fact which are demonstrably false. Bartlett was, for instance, caught out by Channel 4 for claiming falsely that the same Syrian girl was ‘recycled’ by the White Helmets in fake rescue videos.58Among the most egregious is the whitewashing and denial of the Syrian military’s violence in East Aleppo. They denied, for instance, that the al-Quds hospital in East Aleppo had been bombed by government forces. This was partly helped by an initial MSF press release saying the hospital had been reduced “to rubble.” As later investigations showed, the entire hospital had not in fact been totally destroyed, but key parts of the building – including the emergency ward – had indeed been reduced to rubble. The Newsbud report collates a range of unequivocal open source photographic, video and eyewitness evidence confirming that it was indeed bombed.59 CBS News has posted up the video of the aftermath of the bombing.60The evidence of Syrian military bombing was extensively documented by Medecins San Frontiers.61 Beeley had essentially repeated the claims of the Russian Ministry of Defence, which had released a satellite image purporting to show that the hospital did not suffer any new damage on 28th April 2016, compared to as far back as October 2015. Verify Syria, a project run by Syrian journalists which debunks fake news from both pro-rebel and pro-Assad sources, examined the Russian satellite imagery along with photographs of the site, clearly demonstrating the appearance of new damage to the front and back of the building.62
Fig7 – Damage to al-Quds hospital (Source: Verify Syria)
An analysis by the Geospatial Technologies Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) examined satellite imagery of the site from the 25th and 29th April, concluding that between those dates “a large debris apron appeared in the street in front of Al-Quds Hospital… Debris aprons often indicate the presence of damage to the façade of a building that cannot be directly observed via satellite imagery. In addition, the top floors of building immediately adjacent to the hospital were severely damaged during the same time period. These findings are consistent with reports of the hospital being struck by large ordnance.”63
Fig8 – Satellite imagery analysed by AAAS
3. Beeley’s and Bartlett’s claim that the entirety of the White Helmets rank and file are al-Qaeda operatives is unproven. While there are reprehensible cases of some particular members having direct ties with armed groups, the mere fact that the White Helmets operate in opposition areas inevitably means that they will end up associating with the rebels in those areas. This does not justify equating all White Helmets volunteers – who are in fact civilians recruited from local Syrian populations – with al-Qaeda.
Despite denying the bombing of the al-Quds hospital, Beeley and Bartlett implicitly justified Assad’s indiscriminate bombing of East Aleppo and its hospitals by claiming that they had all been overrun by the former al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). The entirety of East Aleppo, they alleged, was controlled by al-Qaeda. The implication was that whatever bombing did occur was entirely justified as it was targeting terrorists. In reality, out of the 8,000 rebel fighters in East Aleppo at the time, there were a maximum of some 900 al-Nusra fighters in the district.64 This particular case is worth highlighting because it demonstrates how Beeley and Bartlett selectively use photos and video footage to deny real violence by Assad’s forces, and to cast suspicion on medical and rescue workers as being nothing more than extensions of al-Qaeda.
The selective nature of their politicised reporting is evident from a leaked private conversation Beeley had with a fellow pro-Assad activist, in which she is outed for covering up torture by Assad’s government, because revealing it would undermine the anti-imperialist resistance. She admits that “torture happened” in Syria, but that she is “never going to say it publicly… but it happened.” Her excuse is not that Assad is eliminating torture, but that “Under Bashar Al Assad it was being brought under control” [emphasis added]. She further admits that Assad is actively engaged in torture today, but justifies it as being perpetrated against terrorists: “… the creatures in Sadnaya were monsters, mostly hardcore Al Qaeda.” She goes on to say she has “been to Syria and knows what went on. and I don’t say it publicly… even Govt members dont deny it btw.” When her colleague tells her that they don’t “buy” the “idea of systemic torture” by the Assad government, Beeley responds with: “ok. that is your opinion, and I respect it but I don’t agree with it. torture did happen… it happens globally… I don’t turn a blind eye to it but at same time it is largely irrelevant to the bigger picture which is protesting against illegal intervention and supporting the Syrian Govt, Army and people.”65
Fig 9 – Screenshot of conversation between Vanessa Beeley and Scott Gaulke ([Source: WWWWL blog])
Fig 10 – Screenshot of conversation between Vanessa Beeley and Scott Gaulke([Source: WWWWL blog])
This is an extraordinary admission of willingness to lie and conceal in her reporting on Syria. These comments make absolutely clear that Beeley, and her colleague Bartlett with whom she frequently travels to Syria, have no interest in reporting impartially on the Syrian conflict, or ever acknowledging crimes and human rights violations by Assad’s government.
This stance leads inevitably to systematic bias, manifested in efforts to conceal Syrian government violence while fabricating opposition violence. Two salient examples demonstrate the misleading reporting methodology they use.
In one case, Bartlett interviewed doctors from the Aleppo Medical Association who told her that claims about hospitals being bombed by the Syrian Air Force were false.66 The problem is that the Association is an openly pro-Assad, Syrian government-funded entity that was based in an area of Aleppo controlled by Syrian government forces. Its Facebook page carries photos of the Association’s members at its office, standing beside photographs of Assad and making collective ‘roman salutes’ in respect.67
Fig11 – Aleppo Medical Association (AMA) members (Source: AMA Facebook page)
Fig12 – Aleppo Medical Association (AMA) members (Source: AMA Facebook page)
Among the absurdities of the article was Bartlett’s claim that media reports of “the last paediatrician” in Aleppo being killed in the airstrike on the al-Quds hospital were lies due the fact that 180 paediatricians were working in government-controlled Aleppo. In fact, Bartlett simply refuted a straw-man by misrepresenting mainstream stories. The BBC, for instance, reporting the tragic death of Muhammad Waseem Moaz in the al-Quds hospital bombing, described him as “one of the last remaining paediatricians in rebel-held Aleppo.”68 Regarding Moaz, Bartlett disingenuously quotes the chairman of the Aleppo Medication Association saying, “We checked the name of the doctor and didn’t find him registered in Aleppo Medical Association records.” Of course, the murdered Moaz would not have been registered there, as the Association operated solely in government-held territory.
Similarly, Beeley claimed that the White Helmets were not a real rescue service by interviewing members of what she described as “the REAL Syrian civil defence”, a network which operates solely in government-controlled areas and headquartered in Damascus. She quotes an anonymous “Colonel” of the organisation’s Damascus HQ claiming that the White Helmets are merely “acting, performing for the camera… it is not real.” The implication that the White Helmets do not operate in government-held territory is portrayed as a major journalistic revelation: “It is therefore not surprising that the majority of Syrians living in the heavily populated areas of Syria have never heard of the White Helmets. A fact, that might shock White Helmet supporters in the UK, EU and US who have been deceived into believing that these ‘saviours of all humanity’ are omnipresent in Syria and responsible for the bulk of the humanitarian work being provided to the beleaguered Syrian population.”69
Of course, the White Helmets have only ever claimed to operate in opposition-held territory. The Syrian government’s ‘civil defence’ service, according to Beeley herself has been withdrawn from operating in recent years from opposition areas (hence explaining the need for a service like the White Helmets in those areas). It is not surprising, though, that Beeley’s source in the “REAL Syrian civil defence” is a “Colonel.” Contrary to Beeley’s claim that Assad’s ‘Syrian Civil Defence Force’ as it is called comprises a benignly unarmed rescue network, they are actually a network of armed militias recruited from local populations, also known as ‘self-protection squads’.70According to Patrick Seale in his book Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, in Syria they are known as ‘The People’s Army’. Self-protection squads consist of volunteers who receive military and combat training “to back up the Syrian army and armed forces in fighting terrorism, and to protect the areas decontaminated from terrorists”, according to the Syrian government’s news service. The reality puts into context Beeley’s claims that the network has been attacked by rebels.71
Other independent freelance journalists who have witnessed White Helmets activities first-hand disagree with Beeley’s characterisations. Patrick Hilsman, who visited opposition-held areas eight times as an independent freelance journalist, laughed when journalist CJ Werlemen asked him about Beeley/Bartlett’s claims against the group:
“I first encountered them by simply asking my driver what the building to our right was, and he said ‘It’s civil defense.’ We then walked in unannounced and encountered people without weapons, hard at the unglamorous work of digging a well… I wasn’t helped by any think tank, no one told me what to say, no one warned the rescuers to start acting for the freelancers with their crappy cameras.”72
I asked Hilsman myself about his firsthand experiences of seeing the White Helmets at work, and he was explicit that whenever he encountered the group, he had done so unprompted and unscripted, consistently finding the volunteers engaged in genuine humanitarian work, clearing wreckage from bombing raids and assisting civilians to meet their basic needs. “I have been on the ground with the White Helmets in Syria,” he told me. “They are an organisation that offers a civilian alternative in a cataclysmic war that has swept up a massive percentage of the young men into violence. I showed up to their Azaz facility unannounced. And I saw them clearing wreckage in Aleppo proper in the summer of 2014.”
On that trip, Hilsman had planned to visit the White Helmets to interview them, but his actual visit had not been expected. “Like any organisation that works without using violence in a war zone, there have been failures, which unlike any government organisation in Syria, the White Helmets have immediately fired the people who were involved in misdeeds such as disrespecting a body or attending an execution,” he said. Hilsman also refuted other memes about the group that are widely circulated online – one being that the White Helmets once beheaded a child. The false claim, he remarked, “is based on footage of Zenki fighters who once met a photographer who had once photographed a child who was rescued by Civil Defence in Aleppo. Only the Zenki fighters were aware of the killing.”
The grandiose theory put forward by Beeley and Bartlett painting the White Helmets wholesale as terrorists is therefore an unreliably biased narrative that fits neatly with Syrian and Russian war strategy. In fact, their arguments against the group suffer from a fundamental incoherence which inadvertently confirms that the White Helmets are indeed routinely targeted by Assad’s forces.
The confirmation is implicit in multiple tweets where Beeley has equated the White Helmets wholesale with al-Qaeda terrorists in order to label them as “legitimate targets” of Assad’s air attacks.73 She reiterated this view of White Helmets volunteers being “legitimate targets” in an interview in February 2018, demonstrating her belief in extrajudicial assassinations as long as they carried out by states opposed to the West.74
Fig13 – Tweet by Vanessa Beeley
Yet Beeley simultaneously claims that the White Helmets routinely fabricate entire photo and video sequences depicting the violent impact of aerial bombardment. But if the White Helmets are “legitimate targets” of Assad’s air attacks, then Beeley is inadvertently confirming the veracity of the reports and video evidence they put out documenting the impacts of these very same air attacks. She can’t have it both ways. Either the violence is wholly staged, or it is real and in Beeley’s moral universe, “legitimate.” (As an aside, it also difficult to square the idea that the White Helmets are using Hollywood-style techniques with covert British state backing to ‘stage’ super-convincing footage of rescues and air attacks, while also producing footage openly displaying blatantly egregious errors in procedures for complex emergencies like certain types of building rescues and chemical sampling; one would expect a professional covert propaganda construct to have avoided such obvious errors – suggesting that a more coherent explanation is that most footage is authentic and therefore unwittingly captures real instances of dangerous incompetence).
Just weeks before the Douma incident, targeted Syrian government air strikes bombed the home of White Helmets volunteer Sobhiya Alsa’ad, just south of Idlib. The strike also reportedly killed members of her family.75 This was among the latest incidents in a policy that had emerged some years ago whereby Syria and Russia had begun directly targeting White Helmets centres in Syria on the pretext that they “had links” to al-Qaeda.76 In another case, seven White Helmets volunteers were executed in their operations centre by unknown gunmen – while many locals speculated that Assad’s forces must have perpetrated the crime, the possibility that the volunteers were targeted by extremists among the armed rebels cannot be ruled out.77
Patrick Hilsman dismissed Beeley’s and Bartlett’s claims against the group based on his on-the-ground experience: “I challenge you to find a single journalist who interviewed White Helmets in the war zone who backs up the completely fake claims that they fabricate incidents. I was in Syria in 2013 right before the White Helmets were founded and somehow real people kept getting injured in real airstrikes and real shelling.” In 2013, Hilsman shot video footage of what happened when a Syrian government shell hit an apartment.78 Notably, neither Beeley nor Bartlett have ever interviewed the White Helmets themselves.
The reality of indiscriminate Syrian military violence against civilians in opposition areas has been documented by other independent journalists. Independent blogger Christian Payne, for instance, self-financed a trip to Syria in 2013 and travelled to opposition-held areas. The series of stories he produced from this trip provide a compelling insight into the experiences of rebels and civilians in opposition areas, confirming the violence of the Syrian military, and the severe lack of medical, food, fuel and other critical resources.79
It is ironic that Beeley and Bartlett would cheer on such violence against Syrians labelled by Assad and his backers as “terrorists” on the pretext of resisting Western imperialism, while their anti-war supporters simultaneously campaign against US drone strikes from Yemen to Pakistan. Both grotesque forms of violence that largely kill innocent civilians.
So what do these facts demonstrate? The White Helmets are clearly not ‘neutral’ – at least in the sense that they are aligned with the Syrian opposition. That alignment means that they are also aligned with Western governments who are aligned with the Syrian opposition – for reasons that are largely self-interested and short-sighted, as we will see later on. A number of observers – like Ritter, Dalati and Ropcke – are convinced that some pro-rebel activists have engaged in propaganda and theatrics. And the extent to which the White Helmets might be vulnerable to infiltration or manipulation by extremists, given the other cases that have been proven, is not an invalid concern – but equally not sufficient to justify the sweeping conclusion that the outfit is nothing more than a motley crew of al-Qaeda terrorists.
These facts raise important questions that much traditional journalism has refused to engage with. They raise the possibility of unreliability in the way information from opposition areas in Syria is transmitted outside – and they show that the US and British governments have played a direct role in augmenting pro-rebel propaganda.
But they also show that the bulk of criticisms against the White Helmets are coming from openly biased sources which are not just embedded in pro-Assad contexts, but willing to lie about Assad’s crimes. Hilsman told me that the most common criticisms of the White Helmets are “very much like right wing Likudnik criticism of the peaceful protestors in Gaza down to the most minute details. Yes, some of the Gaza protestors may be Hamas sympathisers; yes, many of the medics who treat wounded demonstrators are probably Hamas voters; yes, the slain Gazan journalist Yaser Murtaja was applying to receive a USAID grant, exactly the same way the White Helmets got USAID grants. Yes, one Gaza protestor flew a Nazi flag. But the moral arch of non-violence in the struggle of the Gaza land day protestors and the White Helmets is clear.”
51 Ritter, ‘The “White Helmets” and the Inherent Contradiction of America’s Syria Policy’, Truthdig (5 October 2016) https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-white-helmets-and-the-inherent-contradiction-of-americas-syria-policy/
52 Olivia Solon, ‘How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine’, The Guardian (18 December 2017) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/18/syria-white-helmets-conspiracy-theories
53 CPJ (15 December 2016) https://cpj.org/2016/12/swedish-journalist-expelled-from-syria.php
54 IRIN (12 April 2017) https://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2017/04/12/eastern-aleppo-under-al-assad
55 Roy Greenslade, ‘Marie Colvin obituary’, Guardian (22 February 2012) https://www.theguardian.com/media/2012/feb/22/marie-colvin
56 Anne Barnard, ‘Syrian forces aimed to kill journalists, US court is told’, New York Times (9 April 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/09/world/middleeast/syria-marie-colvin-death.html
57 Sibel Edmonds, ‘Syria under siege: guarding against wolves in sheep’s clothing’, Newsbud (21 March 2018) https://www.newsbud.com/2018/03/21/newsbud-exclusive-report-syria-under-siege-guarding-against-wolves-in-sheeps-clothing/
58 Patrick Worral, ‘Eva Bartlett’s claims about Syrian children’, Channel 4 News (20 December 2016) https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-eva-bartletts-claims-about-syrian-children
59 Harriet Sinclair, ‘Footage shows one of Aleppo’s last paediatricians moments before deadly Al Quds air strike’, Independent (30 April 2016) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-conflict-footage-aleppo-paediatrician-al-quds-air-strike-a7008596.html
60 CBS News (28 April 2016) https://www.cbsnews.com/news/syria-airstrike-al-quds-hospital-rebel-held-aleppo-doctor-cease-fire/
61 MSF, Review of Attack on Al Quds hospital in Aleppo City (September 2016) https://www.msf.org/sites/msf.org/files/al_quds_report.pdf
62 Verify Syria (5 May 2016) https://www.verify-sy.com/ViewArticle/234/en
63 Geospatial Technologies Project, ‘Assessing the status of medical facilities in Syria Al-Quds Hospital’, American Association for the Advancement of Science (April 2016) https://mcmprodaaas.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/reports/Syria_Hospitals_AlQuds_05102016.pdf
64 Reuters, ‘Aleppo’s Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters far fewer than U.N. says: sources’ (14 October 2016) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-nusra/aleppos-jabhat-fateh-al-sham-fighters-far-fewer-than-u-n-says-sources-idUSKBN12E0R6
65 We Write What We Like (9 July 2017) https://wewritewhatwelike.com/2017/09/07/beeley-admits-even-assad-doesnt-deny-torture-spy-vs-spy-a-pro-assadist-comedy/
66 The problem is that the Association is an openly pro-Assad, Syrian government-funded entity that was based in an area of Aleppo controlled by Syrian government forces. Its Facebook page carries photos of the Association’s members at its office, standing beside photographs of Assad and making collective ‘roman salutes’ in respect.
67 Fig11 – Aleppo Medical Association (AMA) members (Source: AMA Facebook page)
68 BBC News (29 April 2016) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36169170
69 Beeley, ‘The REAL Syria Civil Defence, Saving Real Syrians, NOT Oscar Winning White Helmets, Saving Al Qaeda’, 21st Century Wire (2 April 2017) http://21stcenturywire.com/2017/04/02/the-real-syria-civil-defence-saving-real-syrians-not-oscar-winning-white-helmets-saving-al-qaeda/
70 SANA archive tagged ‘self-protection squads’, https://sana.sy/en/?tag=self-protection-squads
71 SANA (27 August 2017) http://sananews.sy/en/?p=1397
72 CJ Werlemen, ‘Syrians explain how pro-Assad conspiracy theories are hurting them’, TRTWorld (21 February 2018) https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/syrians-explain-how-pro-assad-conspiracy-theories-are-hurting-them-15380
74 Beeley interview on The Corbett Report (8 February 2018) https://www.corbettreport.com/interview-1342-vanessa-beeley-exposes-the-white-helmets/
75 Rachel Burford, ‘First female White Helmets volunteer killed in aerial bombardment in Syria along with family members’, The Mirror (10March 2018) https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/first-female-white-helmets-volunteer-12164741
76 CBS News (23 September 2016) https://www.cbsnews.com/news/syria-bashar-assad-airstrikes-aleppo-white-helmets-civil-defense-force-first-responders/
77 Raf Sanchez, ‘Seven members of Syria’s White Helmets shot dead by unknown gunmen’, Telegraph (12 August 2017) https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/12/seven-members-syrias-white-helmets-shot-dead-unknown-gunmen/
79 Christian Payne, ‘Revisiting Syria’, Documentally blog (20 October 2013) http://documentally.com/2013/10/20/revisiting-syria/