Founded by a UK mercenary, funded by NATO and EU governments, promoted by a complacent media too hubristic or too atrophied to recognise what they are being paid to shill for, the “White Helmets” may go down as one of the most egregious deceptions in the history of western imperialism. James Corbett looks at the truth behind the lies
In November 2017, journalist Vanessa Beeley gave a groundbreaking presentation to the Swiss Press Club in Geneva on the so-called “Syria Civil Defence” (better known as the “White Helmets”), which bills itself as an impartial group of volunteer search and rescue workers working “to save lives and strengthen communities in Syria.” In her presentation, Beeley demonstrated the connections between this supposedly “neutral” organization, recognized terrorist groups operating in Syria, and the UK government.
VANESSA BEELEY: During my time working in East Aleppo, it was clear that the councils were working hand in hand with [Al] Nusra Front. Their centers in each district were always next door to Nusra Front headquarters and white helmet centres, i.e., they always formed an integrated complex.
Less than three weeks later, The Guardian released a report painting all skeptics of the White Helmets, including Beeley and other “anti-imperialist activists” as proponents of a Russian propaganda campaign directed by the Kremlin.
This is no coincidence. The White Helmets are in fact part of a coordinated propaganda campaign. But that campaign is not being directed by the Kremlin, but the western governments which have been responsible for the founding and funding of the White Helmets. And the ones promoting that propaganda are not independent journalists like Beeley, but establishment mouthpieces like The Guardian.
JOHN PILGER: In Syria they know how to intervene, they know how to manipulate the media. We had the “White Helmets,” a complete propaganda construct in Syria. They end up getting an Academy Award. They know how to intervene in in public discourse every day, and in politics every day.
The White Helmets Are A Propaganda Construct.
This is The Corbett Report.
SALMA HAYEK: And the Oscar goes to…ok…The White Helmets!
It’s quite appropriate that a propaganda documentary honouring the work of The White Helmets won an Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards. This is, after all, an organization that thrives on the magic of movie-making to make themselves into heroes. Surely any movie that could turn a group funded by the US and UK governments, associated with western intelligence operatives, and embedded with Al Qaeda terrorists into a group of crusading heroes is as worthy of an Academy Award as any similarly fictitious movie about superheroes saving the world.
It was also fitting that the leader of the group, Raed Saleh, was not at the ceremony to help accept the prize as originally planned.
NPR REPORTER: Hi, I’m wondering…um, I thought the white helmets we’re gonna be here, or the leader and the cinematographer who shot a lot of this film. What happened?
ORLANDO VON EINSIEDEL: Well, Raed Saleh, who’s the leader of the White Helmets, he couldn’t come in the end because the last couple of days in Syria the violence has really escalated and he does life-saving work[…]. Our cinematographer, I mean, you know we’re confused about this too, the last two weeks have been very difficult he had a U.S. visa he tried to board a plane and and he wasn’t able to come so we you know we’re very sad about that.
What Orlando von Einsiedel, the director of the film, neglected to mention is that this was not the first time that Raed Saleh, the leader of the White Helmets, failed to appear in the US. In April of 2016, InterAction, an alliance of NGOs, held a gala dinner in Washington where it planned to honour Saleh and the work of the White Helmets in Syria. However, Saleh was refused entry into the country when he arrived at Washington’s Dulles Airport. Declining to talk about the details of the case, a State Department spokesman merely said “the U.S. government’s system of continual vetting means that traveler records are screened against available information in real time.”
MATT LEE: You commend this group, you’re going to continue to support them, and yet you revoked the visa of their leader? I don’t…that makes zero sense to me.
MARK TONER: So a couple responses, one is unfortunately we can’t speak to individual visa cases. I think broadly speaking, though, on any visa case we are constantly looking at new information, so-called “continually vetting” travel or records, and if we do have new information that we believe an individual–let me finish–would pose a security risk, we’ll certainly act on that.
LEE: I’m saying that it just strikes me as a bit odd that you’re saying that this group is wonderful and does such a great job and you’re commending them for their heroism, and yet you’re doing this just 10 days after the leader of this group who was supposed to be, you know…got his visa revoked or wasn’t allowed to travel here.
TONER: Well, he’s one individual in the group and any individual—again I’m broadening my language here for specific reasons—but any individual in any group suspected of ties or relations with extremist groups, or that we have believed to be a security threat to the United States, we would act accordingly. But that does not by extension mean we condemn or would cut off ties to the group for which that works for.
So how is this possible? How could the leader of such a valiant team of crusading do-gooders himself be denied a visa to enter the United States as a potential security threat with ties to terrorists? The multi-million dollar PR campaign that surrounds the White Helmets, after all, portrays the group as being pure as the driven snow.
MARCIA BIGGS: This is the call to work for the brave members of the Syrian Civil Defence, an ad hoc, grassroots, first-reponse unit within rebel-held Syria. Nicknamed “The White Helmets,” they rush toward the scene of the bombing to save victims, many of whom are trapped under rubble. Once tailors, bakers, pharmacists, these 3,000 ordinary Syrian men, and some women, now unwitting heroes.
LAURA LING: So who are these heroic volunteers? The White Helmets is the unofficial name for the Syrian Civil Defence, a rescue organization made up entirely of volunteers who operate in opposition controlled Syria. According to their own data the group have rescued more than 58,000 people including Omran Daqneesh, who painfully reminded the world of the horrors unfolding in Syria every day.
The task of these modern-day war heroes is extremely dangerous. To date around 130 White Helmet volunteers have been killed in the country’s relentless Civil War. One of the group’s most notable losses happen in August when an airstrike killed the white helmet volunteer who miraculously rescued a baby who had been trapped under rubble for 16 hours.
SOURCE: Who Are Syria’s White Helmets?
LARA SETRAKIAN: Raed Saleh and Farouq al-Habib are joining us today from in and around Syria. They represent the Civil Defence Forces, what the Syria Campaign has come to introduce as “The White Helmets.” We often heard over the past three and a half years of covering the conflict, “Who are the good guys in Syria? It’s such a mess.” They are the good guys.
But what is always left out of these glowing mainstream media puff pieces is any actual information about the organization. Where did it come from? Who founded it? Where does it get its funding? And why does it operate exclusively in terrorist-held areas of Syria?
The first clues about the real nature of the group come from their name itself. Calling themselves the “Syria Civil Defence” is misleading in multiple ways. First, it implies that the group was founded in Syria by Syrians. It was not. The group was in fact founded in March 2013 in Turkey, by James Le Mesurier, a former British military intelligence officer then doing contract work for the US and UK governments. None of this information is even controversial. This is the story as told by Le Mesurier himself at a conference in Lisbon in 2015.
JAMES LE MESURIER: In early 2013 I had a meeting with nine local leaders that had come out from northern Aleppo, and they painted this picture of the frequency and the intensity of the bombing that was taking place. And I was delivering programs on behalf of the US and UK governments, and we were able to offer them some good governance training, some democratizing training, and a handful of sat phones.
Several days later I was very fortunate to meet the head of Turkey’s earthquake response group, a group of people called “AKUT.” And the conversation that we had was along the lines of: If they can rescue people from a building that has been flattened as a result of an earthquake, how possible is it to rescue people from a building that’s been collapsed as a result of a bomb? And this led to a series of design labs.
We brought a number of people out of Syria who brought building samples, and we sat down over several days merging the expertise of the Syrians that had come out from the ground (who knew the regime tactics) with my organization that understood operating in war zones and the expertise of this organization, AKUT, who rescue people after earthquakes.
The name “Syria Civil Defence” is also a lie because there is a real Syria Civil Defence that has been operating in the country for 65 years. The actual Syria Civil Defence, a volunteer search and rescue organization, was established in Syria in 1953. Unlike the White Helmets, the real Syria Civil Defence is a member of the International Civil Defence Organisation and (again in contrast to the White Helmets) has an emergency number (113) that can be called in Syria by those needing assistance.
But this Syria Civil Defence does not enjoy the glitz and glamour of Oscar-winning documentaries, the constant attention of the international press, or the more than $60 million in funding by foreign governments that have been bestowed on the White Helmets.
REPORTER: Do you know who finances them, how they operate, who are they supported by, what kind of organization they have? How do you get your information?
TONER: Well, I can say we provide them…Well, I can tell you that we provide through USAID about 23 million dollars in assistance to them.
VANESSA BEELEY: Now I would like to come back to the funding of the White Helmets in a little more detail. My colleague here covered it in general, but I would like to focus on the UK Foreign Office and the use of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund to support and finance the Syrian opposition and the White Helmets. The UK regime is a primary player in the US coalition and in its operations inside Syria. Following a recent parliamentary question from Baroness Caroline Cox it has been confirmed that the UK Foreign Office has financed the Syrian opposition almost 200 million pounds over three years through this conflict fund. However, the British government has so far refused to release the names of the recipients.
During my time in East Aleppo in 2016/17 and with Syrian journalists Khaled Iskef, while searching the local council offices we found untranslated documents in Arabic that referred to two UK organizations: Adam Smith International and Integrity Global.
Both organizations are funded by the UK Foreign Office via this conflict fund to offer assistance to the Syrian opposition, and this has been achieved via a variety of outreach agents, one of whom is the Tamkeen Project, which claims to build resilience in Syrian communities and which establishes funds and supports the local councils in terrorist-held areas such as East Aleppo and Idlib.
Tamkeen was responsible for the financing and maintenance of the East Aleppo councils, according to Britta Haji Hassan, self-professed mayor of Aleppo, in an interview with The Guardian. The program provided East Aleppo City Council with eight hundred and twenty thousand pounds in May 2016.
During my time working in East Aleppo, it was clear that the councils were working hand in hand with [Al] Nusra Front. Their centers in each district were always next door to Nusra Front headquarters and white helmet centres, i.e., they always formed an integrated complex.
But even more disturbing than the unusual founding or clandestine funding of the group is the mountain of evidence demonstrating that the White Helmets, far from their official claim to political neutrality, are in fact intimately embedded with known and listed terrorist organizations in Syria.
Again, the most damning evidence in this regard is not controversial in the slightest. It comes directly from the White Helmets themselves.
Numerous videos and photos have surfaced showing the White Helmets parading on the dead bodies of Syrian government forces and flying the flags of known terrorist organizations. An in-depth report on The Syrian War Blog last year examined the social media profiles of 65 different White Helmets connected figures and found numerous posts in support of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other listed terrorist organizations. Some even posted pictures of themselves with known terrorist leaders or waving the flag of terrorist groups like ISIS, and many proudly displayed images of dead Syrian soldiers.
Most incredible of all is the footage of White Helmets attending the executions of Syrian civilians and soldiers by terrorist groups, moving in to cart the dead bodies away mere seconds after the victims are brutally slain.
Most of this evidence is explained away as “bad apples” in the organization acting on their own. Some of these “bad apples” are then castigated in public displays, like when one White Helmet was fired when footage surfaced showing him disposing the mutilated corpses of Syrian government fighters.
When a graphic video of the White Helmets overseeing the execution of a man in terrorist-occupied Daraa surfaced last year, the group actually defended the workers while acknowledging that they “did not fully uphold the strict principle of neutrality and impartiality.”
But incredibly, Le Mesurier, the former British intel officer who founded the White Helmets in 2013, defended the workers caught in one bloody video from May 2015. The Middle Ground, a Singaporean website, ran a story last year featuring Le Mesurier’s take on the incident.
“But what about the damning video, from May 6, 2015?” the article reads. “White Helmet volunteers were caught on tape running in to clear a body seconds after a gunman executed a man. It turns out that the deceased was tried and sentenced to death in a local Sharia court, said Mr Mesurier. When his father found out about the time of execution, he called the White Helmets to help him conduct a proper burial. Besides, the gunman was clad in a balaclava, not a white helmet. Accusing the White Helmets of this act would be akin to accusing Joseph of Arimathea of crucifying Jesus.”
In opposition to the deafening mainstream media silence over this incredible mountain of evidence against the White Helmets stand only a handful of independent researchers, universally ignored, castigated or marginalized from the mainstream discussion on the issue.
These independent researchers include Vanessa Beeley, a British researcher who has been one of the few journalists to report extensively on the ground in areas like East Aleppo over the last two years, and Eva Bartlett, a Canadian blogger who has gained notoriety for using her own on-the-ground reporting from Syria to speak out against the mainstream narrative about the White Helmets.
BEELEY: And the majority of the evidence against the White Helmets comes from the White Helmets themselves, from their own videos. Their own videos of them participating in the executions of both civilians and Syrian Arab Army prisoners of war—for which crimes they are sacked, by the way. You know, none of their sponsors at that point are held accountable for their crimes against the Syrian people and against the Syrian army that is defending the Syrian people and that comes from the Syrian people.
BARTLETT: So Raed Saleh, who is the White Helmets leader, isn’t allowed in the US. He was denied entry to the US for his questionable ties to extremists and that’s actually from the State Department’s Mark Toner. And then the white helmets leader in Idlib, Muawiya Hassan Agha, he was somebody that is a “rogue element” and he was apparently involved in an execution or he was there at an execution of two prisoners of war in Aleppo, and he was supposedly fired from the Helmets. But then he later reappeared with the White Helmets.
So he’s a leader, you know. And so these are not “rogue agents.” There’s a number of people that have compiled photos showing over 60 White Helmets members’ social media posts, with them either with black flags, Al Qaeda flags, ISIS flags, holding weapons, or them even in White Helmets uniforms holding weapons, and them in uniforms at Al Qaeda cheering rallies with black flags flying all over the place. So these are clearly not “rogue.”
Given that there are so few voices speaking up against the White Helmets, it should c
ome as no surprise that when The Guardian finally deigned to address what they termed the “conspiracy theories” about the organization, they turned their attention on these very researchers.
In “How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine,” The Guardian turned to Olivia Solon to dismiss all opposition to the White Helmets as the work of “anti-imperialist activists,” “conspiracy theorists” and “trolls with the support of the Russian government.”
The choice of Solon to report on this story is especially odd; a “technology reporter” in San Francisco, Solon has no background of any sort in geopolitics or combat zone reporting and, as far as can be determined, has never set foot in Syria. Instead, she relied exclusively on sources such as the murky PR lobbying firm, The Syria Campaign, to praise the White Helmets and castigate their detractors.
Bizarrely, the report devotes a great deal of attention to the White Helmets’ Mannequin Challenge video, footage of an admittedly fake and staged “rescue” operation released by the group in an attempt to cash in on a viral internet video trend taking place at the time.
The inference of the video is obvious: that the group is perfectly capable of staging incredibly realistic and completely fake “rescue” operations at any time. These fake videos, stripped of their context, would be uncritically promoted as authentic by mainstream outlets like The Guardian in the exact same way that the completely fictitious video of a “Syrian” boy rescuing his sister under sniper fire was uncritically accepted by the mainstream media…until it was admitted to be a fake video produced in Malta by a Norwegian film crew “to see how the media would respond to such a video.”
The Guardian’s headline when the fake Norwegian film production was released?
Strangely, Solon’s report does not mention that incident.
The majority of The Guardian’s report focuses on why the innocent and virtuous White Helmets would be so viciously attacked by independent journalists and how all opposition to the group is connected to the Kremlin. This is supposedly demonstrated in an utterly meaningless “infographic” of colored dots showing precisely nothing of substance.
Unsurprisingly, Solon’s contact with the reporters whose work she was set to impugn displayed her biases from the very start.
BARTLETT: In early October I received an email—I don’t think I noticed it right away. But anyway, when I did, essentially it was an email from this Olivia Solon—who contributes to The Guardian and is based in San Francisco, California—saying that she’d love to interview me for a story she was doing “imminently.” And, as I said, I didn’t see the email right away, so she sent another email within the next day or so again asking some questions about my stance on the white helmets. If I believe they were actors, I can pull up the exact email, and I think you’ve seen a rebuttal I did on Global Research which actually includes screenshots of our conversation.
Anyway, though, the questions she posed to me indicated that she didn’t have an honest intent in investigating the White Helmets. And in fact, given that she contributes to The Guardian—albeit from California, not from Syria—but the Guardian itself has consistently spewed war propaganda on Syria. Just that factor alone would make one pause and think, “What’s the objective of this article?”
But then the questions: “Have I received any gifts from Assad or from Syria and Russia or North Korea?” She noticed with interest that I had been to North Korea recently. “How is it possible to go to Syria and North Korea given that they’re both so darn controlled,” you know? And when I get those kind of claims I refer back to a blog post I very quickly like typed out last year or so: “Those Who Transmit Syrian Voices Are Russian Propagandists?”
Anyway, this is a segue, but the whole point being anybody can apply for a visa at the Syrian embassy in Beirut. You do have to wait a while. I’ve had to wait over a month on many occasions, and you pay a fee and then you go to Syria. You arrange your transportation. And in fact, had I been reporting for The Guardian I would assume that all my expenses and all that would have been taken care of by that corporate institution.
Anyway, so her questions were very leading. She had a predetermined “story”as she called it, and I wonder if her use of the word “story” was to kind of take away from the fact that she wasn’t actually gonna insert any truth and it was just a story. And so basically after seeing her questions I just replied to her something like “I’m not interested in participating in your article, your pre-determined script.”
You know, my colleague Vanessa Beeley received a similar email around the same time with similar questions, some slightly catered to Vanessa’s own background and she did reply more in-depth.
BEELEY: Olivia Solon contacted myself and Eva Bartlett pretty much at the same time and she sent a list, from memory, of about 20 questions, all of which were basically asking myself and Eva to defend our position and the evidence that we’d collected over, you know, a couple of years. For me, certainly, three years, or now four years investigating the White Helmets organization, both remotely and inside Syria on the ground.
And so it was it was very much an attempt to put us in a position of having to defend ourselves. And I think both of us quite rightly took the position that, “Look, we’re not here to defend ourselves. You should be defending the evidence against this organization instead of providing a blanket promotional report on this organization,” which is what The Guardian has specifically done, of course, since the creation of this organization.
In 2016 it lobbied, effectively, for the White Helmets to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and when it was inundated with negative comments it simply closed comments.
So, you know, The Guardian, which itself is embedded in the corporate neo-colonialist structure in the UK—I mean, it’s owned by Scott Trust Limited, it gets most of its ad revenue from HSBC. That is, not only the Swiss banking part of HSBC that has been basically prosecuted for fraud, but also has been found guilty of fraud against consumers in the UK.
So, you know, this is already a sort of an interesting background to The Guardian and hardly surprising, then, of course, that they’re supporting the sort of ‘humanitarian war’ concept that is always the driver behind particularly UK Foreign Office policy in the region.
So when Solon approached us with these questions we both went back and basically said we have no interest in defending ourselves and then of course she went out to fundamentally all of those entities, organizations, and individuals who support fund finance and do the PR for the White Helmets, such as The Syria Campaign, which incidentally two days later produced a 46 page report in which again I’m described as “The Queen of Disinformation.” And even in that 46 pages they do not address one element of the evidence against the White Helmets.
Researchers like Beeley, Bartlett and Professor Tim Anderson, also mentioned in Solon’s report, are easy enough targets for The Guardian. Independent journalists taking it upon themselves to counter the Syria narrative, they would never be taken seriously be establishment media circles in the first place. Curiously omitted from The Guardian article, however, are the award-winning, internationally respected journalists who have similarly expressed skepticism about the White Helmets, their backers, and the PR campaign that surrounds them.
There is Gareth Porter, the award-winning journalist who has contributed to Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The Nation, Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, Alternet and countless other outlets, who wrote “How a Syrian White Helmets Leader Played Western Media” in November 2016.
There is Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer who wrote “The Fraud of the White Helmets” in July of 2017.
There is Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times correspondent and, ironically, current contributor to The Guardian, who tweeted his congratulations to “al-Qaeda and Syrian jihadists” when the film about “their PR outfit, the White Helmets,” won the Oscar.
And, of course, there is John Pilger, one of the most respected and celebrated journalists and documentarians of the past half-century:
JOHN PILGER: In Syria they know how to intervene, they know how to manipulate the media. We had the “White Helmets,” a complete propaganda construct in Syria. They end up getting an Academy Award. They know how to intervene in in public discourse every day, and in politics every day.
It is unclear whether Solon and The Guardian believe Porter, Giraldi, Kinzer and Pilger to be “anti-imperialist activists,” “conspiracy theorists,” or “trolls with the support of the Russian government.”
But the issue here is not merely one of PR and propaganda, as appalling as the uncritical reporting about the White Helmets has been. What is worrying is that the so-called Syrian Civil Defence is, as we have seen, not Syrian at all. Founded, funded and promoted by foreign governments, foreign contractors and foreign lobbyists and PR agencies, the White Helmets are not a spontaneous Syrian search-and-rescue operation, but a template. A template that, if successful, can and will be employed anywhere and everywhere that those same foreign powers want to destabilize targeted governments in the future.
BEELEY: But I think what is interesting, why is this organization being protected to such an extent? I think it’s because the imperialist apparatus is defending the concept. We’ve already seen [White Helmets founder] James Le Mesurier recruiting in Brazil. We know that the White Helmets have appeared in Malaysia and in Venezuela, and in the Philippines. So you know, because this went through my head so many times, these are only 3,000 criminals and thugs that have emerged from the terrorist ranks or the Free Syrian Army “moderate extremist” ranks to become the White Helmets in order to continue to get paid doing the same job but under a different auspice.
Why are they being so heavily protected? But I think it’s more to do with the concept. It’s more to do with the importance of this concept going forward. As James Le Mesurier said very recently, who would you trust more than the fire brigade or a first response NGO? There you have it. That’s the key to why this group is so important.
In the end, the point is no more that we should uncritically accept every statement made in opposition to the White Helmets than that we should uncritically accept every statement made in their favour. The point is that in a world where people were concerned about the real truth of the matter we would not be forced to rely on the on-the-ground reports of Beeley, Bartlett and the handful of other independent journalists who actually bother to visit Syria and talk to actual Syrians about what is happening in their country. In such a world, there would be many different journalists, researchers and citizens all trying to get to the bottom of what was really happening in the country.
But we do not live in such a world, and one thing is perfectly clear: we cannot rely on outlets like The Guardian and their fellow travellers like BBC News, Channel 4, CNN and other mainstream establishment outlets to report the truth on these matters.
BARTLETT: So I wasn’t really aware of Olivia Solon prior to her having contacted me, so I wasn’t following her on Twitter. However, after the article came out I realize I found that first her Twitter account was closed to comments, and then it was opened but people like myself were blocked from commenting. And she was seemingly outraged at one point that we went ahead and made our own statements and rebuttals without having the courtesy of sending her an email, even though we were the subject of her smear piece.
And the other thing is that The Guardian comments section is closed except on social media. I don’t look at The Guardian that much except when I want to prove how they’re lying, so I’m not aware if that’s been their policy for a while, if that’s a new thing. I do notice that at the bottom of many of their articles there’s a plea for donations for honest investigative journalism, and I say, “Yes! Definitely support honest investigative journalism! But you won’t find it on The Guardian.