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But first, before getting to some excerpts from Ahmed’s ‘revelations,’ a short preamble to everything that is to follow, illustrating the meaning of the phrase ‘ideological blindness:’

 

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 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.”

[Endnotes:]

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

73 https://twitter.com/vanessabeeley/status/660159072457637888

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/

78 https://youtu.be/8zUaENzxtWo

79 Christian Payne, ‘Revisiting Syria’, Documentally blog (20 October 2013)  http://documentally.com/2013/10/20/revisiting-syria/