Fake News & Syria’s White Helmets

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By Phil Giraldi

The behavior of the media has been much in the news of late. It does not take any particular insight to realize that the presidency was stolen from Donald Trump due to a torrent of malicious news and opinion stories that depicted the president in the worst possible light. While much of the narrative was clearly unconvincing, it can be assumed that enough of the mud stuck to dissuade voters that constituted the margin of difference not to pull the lever for the president.

And the phenomenon of the press asserting its ability to influence rather than inform is becoming worldwide. Recently there have surfaced several instances of how the media in Britain now reflexively reinforces status quo narratives rather than questioning them. Frequent reporter on developments in the Middle East, independent journalist Vanessa Beeley has described how the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is preparing a new Radio 4 documentary on the so-called White Helmets, the terrorist front group that operates against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Only the BBC is not calling it out for what it really represents, choosing to believe that it is a “humanitarian relief” organization. It is also apparently concurrently using its media platform to discredit those observers who have been critical of the group, to include Beeley herself, myself, Canadian activist Eva Bartlett, former CIA colleague Ray McGovern, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, ex-British diplomat Craig Murray, and independent journalist Gareth Porter.

I have been a longtime fan of the BBC, going back to the 1960s when its world service was the gold standard for international news reporting. Unfortunately, that was then and now is somewhat different. Since the 1991 First Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, BBC has become one of the leading promoters of the standard Anglo-American interventionist narrative about what is going wrong in the world. It has been a cheerleader for every war that has taken place in the Middle East as well as elsewhere in Asia and Africa and has always been keen to start something new. It approves of what are undoubtedly intelligence agency covert actions and is notably uncritical of Israel’s behavior.

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BBC was set up as an independent corporation specifically to avoid political meddling with its content, but that way of thinking is currently regarded as somewhat antiquated. The documentary that is being prepared has feigned impartiality by contacting Beeley and Bartlett and presumably others for their inputs, but the line of questioning pursued in its communications makes clear that it has no interest in contesting the claimed humanitarian standing of the White Helmets.

Meanwhile, also in Britain the increasingly establishment-prone The Guardian has come up with a 6,000-word hagiographic article that “seeks to rehabilitate the life and death of the former British soldier turned ‘humanitarian,’ but cannot explain away his lavish lifestyle, missing money, and all the other financial irregularities.”

America's next big bankruptcy, StansberryThe individual being rehabilitated-by-media is one James Le Mesurier, founder of the White Helmets, who killed himself by throwing himself off the deck of his Istanbul penthouse apartment into the street below. The article, written by Middle East correspondent Martin Chulov, sees in Le Mesurier “a heroic humanitarian committed to benevolent causes who saved untold lives, tragically driven to suicide by a ‘disinformation campaign led by Russian and Syrian officials and peddled by pro-Assad bloggers, alt-right media figures and self-described anti-imperialists.’ ”

Chulov sees no Western government hand in the creation and support of the White Helmets. He observes: “There were also accusations that the group had been created by governments determined to remove Assad from power, and that the White Helmets volunteers were ‘crisis actors’ staging scenes to discredit Russia and Syria. Useful idiots promoting such conspiracy theories on YouTube, Twitter, and their own fringe websites were given profile and flattering coverage by Russian and Syrian media outlets.”

Chulov is wrong in every particular, though, to his credit, he does include how in July the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant revealed how, shortly before his death, Le Mesurier made an email confession to the White Helmets organization-in-exile in Istanbul, describing how he had committed fraud with the donations that the group had received from many international donors who had largely funded the group to the tune of hundreds of millions over the years. As a considerable part of that money was certainly provided by Israeli, British, and American intelligence, routed through cutouts to include one called Mayday Rescue, one might well be tempted to ask, “Did he fall or was he pushed?”

The White Helmets came into prominence due to a Netflix-distributed documentary describing their heroic activity that won a Hollywood Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 2017. The group was also nominated several times for a Nobel prize. The White Helmets’ alleged humanitarian mission soon earned global accolades. In 2016, Le Mesurier was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) “for the protection of civilians in Syria.” The White Helmets tale was promoted as “the story of real-life heroes and impossible hope” and that narrative plus the Oscar resulted in praise from numerous powerful supporters, including Hillary Clinton and A-list celebrities like George Clooney. It is indeed overall a very impressive piece of propaganda. The National Holocaust Museum even gave the coveted 2019 Elie Wiesel Award to the group.

The documentary, which was made by the White Helmets themselves without any external verification of what it depicts, portrays the group as “heroic,” an “impartial, life-saving rescue organization” of first responders. Excluded from the scenes of heroism under fire is the White Helmets’ relationship with the al-Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra and its participation in the torture and execution of “rebel” opponents. Indeed, the White Helmets only operate in rebel-held territory, which enables them to shape the narrative both regarding who they are and what is occurring on the ground.

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Exploiting their access to the Western media, the White Helmets have de facto become a major source of “eyewitness” news regarding what has been going on in those many parts of Syria where European and American journalists are quite rightly afraid to go. It is all part of a broader largely successful “rebel” effort to manufacture fake news that depicts the Damascus government as engaging in war crimes directed against civilians.

The White Helmets have certainly exaggerated their humanitarian role as they travel to bombing sites with their film crews trailing behind them. Once at the sites, with no independent observers, they are able to arrange or even stage what is filmed to conform to their selected narrative. They have consistently promoted tales of government atrocities against civilians to encourage outside military intervention in Syria and bring about regime change in Damascus. The White Helmets were, for example, the propagators of the totally false but propagandistically effective claims regarding the Syrian government’s use of so-called “barrel bombs” and chemical weapons against civilians.

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But perhaps the most serious charge against the White Helmets consists of the evidence that they actively participated in the atrocities, to include torture and murder, carried out by their al-Nusra hosts. There have been numerous photos of the White Helmets operating directly with armed terrorists and also celebrating over the bodies of execution victims and murdered Iraqi soldiers. The group has an excellent working relationship with a number of jihadi affiliates and is regarded by them as fellow “mujahideen” and “soldiers of the revolution.”

The White Helmets are still active in Syria in areas held by the so-called rebels. And they are still being funded by Western governments and Israel to destabilize the government of Bashar al-Assad. Sooner or later the Syrian Arab Army will drive them out, back to Turkey, or they will be extracted by air to Israel or the United States. But the real tragedy is that even though the media knows better, it persists in describing them as heroes and does not hesitate to propagate that false narrative which guarantees a malignant role by Washington and London in Syria for the foreseeable future. The result has been an illegal war that has caused death and suffering for millions of Syrian people and which has brought no benefit to Britain or the U.S.

Philip Giraldi is a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer and a columnist and television commentator. He is also the executive director of the Council for the National Interest. His other articles appear on the website of “The Unz Review.”

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