Syria’s White Helmets

Stigmatising saviours

As mass murder takes place in Syria before the eyes of the world, civilian volunteers – such as the Syrian White Helmets – continue to be the subject of an extraordinary propaganda campaign. Instead of facts, this is dominated by fake news and a large dose of inhumanity. By Emran Feroz

There seems to be no end to the horrific reports coming out of the Syrian town of Ghouta. For people in the besieged rebel enclave, Assad’s unceasing hail of bombs is now part and parcel of daily life. Day after day, innocent people are dying once more. Everyone and anyone is a target: women, children, journalists, doctors and other civilians.

The accounts coming out of the hospitals could not be more harrowing. Every day, parents search for their dead children; or children for their dead parents. As the world looks the other way, Ghouta is being annihilated. This is all the Assad regime wants. Some observers are already comparing this colossal crime against humanity to Spain’s Guernica or Bosnia’s Srebrenica.

There are nevertheless also people in Ghouta who are doing what they can to alleviate the suffering. Day after day, members of the Syria Civil Defence organisation are saving lives. They issue warnings, conduct evacuations, salvage people from ruined buildings and provide the first aid that is otherwise barely available. In all cases, they are risking their own lives. Many White Helmets have already been killed in the bombing raids.

Most people have now heard of this civil protection organisation, which is active in Syria’s rebel-held areas. There have been films and prizes, including an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination – and although these things have done little or nothing to change Syria’s reality, one thing is at least clear: the White Helmets are admired for their engagement and bravery by many – but not by all.

Denounced as "terrorists"

Many rumours, lies and conspiracy theories concerning the White Helmets have been circulating since the emergence of the organisation. The emergency workers are obviously a thorn in the side of many actors in this conflict. For example, one of the most popular rumours is that the White Helmets are "terrorists", in league with al-Qaida, IS or some other extremist group.

White Helmet volunteer in East Ghouta on 23 February 2018 (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
"Hell on earth": the colossal crime against humanity unfolding in East Ghouta has already been compared by some observers to Spain’s Guernica or Bosnia’s Srebrenica. Despite the agreed ceasefire, the UN has confirmed that fighting continues in the rebel-held area of Syria. Some 400,000 people are all but cut off from the outside world. According to aid workers the humanitarian situation is dramatic, particularly since aid convoys have been unable to penetrate the area for months. The Syrian opposition has accused Assad of trying to starve out East Ghouta

This claim is not only regularly disseminated by dictator Bashar al-Assad and his supporters in Moscow and Tehran, but also by many alternative news sites in English- and German-speaking countries.

Many media outlets that identify themselves as "left wing" or "anti-Imperialist" also take aim at the White Helmets. Instead of reporting on the crimes of Assad, they choose to cast doubt on information coming from the rescue teams on the ground – which has now grown to a substantial amount.

After all, in the regions attacked by Assad’s army and its allies, the White Helmets were one of the few organisations to document the atrocities. That someone is on hand, not only to save lives, but also to disclose the war crimes of the Russian military, is a source of great irritation for the Kremlin in particular. For this reason, the Russian state media outlet RT (“Russia Today”) was from the outset part of the media Goliath taking a stand against the White Helmets and airing regular defamatory reports about the organisation.

A video by the blogger Eva Bartlett attained particular notoriety. Aired during a UN media conference, it presented purported facts with a slightly rhetorical twist. But these facts were basically nothing other than the official narrative of the Damascus regime. This is unsurprising when one considers Bartlett’s "career". She has appeared several times in recent years in regime-held territory, where she posed alongside soldiers and made no secret of her admiration for Assad’s power apparatus.

Fake news a la Bartlett, Beeley & co.

Bartlett’s video, which went "viral" on RT, has now been deconstructed several times. But the lies she circulated are still out there. Even now, as all hell breaks loose in Ghouta, many Facebook users are referring to Bartlett’s statements in comments under articles and videos published on reputable news sites. Regardless of whether the reports are by CNN, Der Spiegel or Al Jazeera – they are all spreading "fake news". Only Assad and RT are in the right, they claim.

Still from Russia Today TV interview with Vanessa Beeley
Feeding Assadʹs propaganda machine: these days, Beeley, a regular contributor to the conspiracy portal "21st Century Wire", is one of the best-known "critics" of the White Helmets. As she recently opined once again, bomb attacks on the aid workers are legitimate because these people are "terrorists". She regularly accuses journalists and established media outlets of spreading "regime-change propaganda"

Arguably the most prominent figure in this campaign is Vanessa Beeley, another propagandist operating within the Assad sphere of influence. Beeley, a regular contributor to the conspiracy portal "21st Century Wire", is now one of the best-known "critics" of the White Helmets. As she recently opined once again, bomb attacks on the aid workers are legitimate because these people are "terrorists". She regularly accuses journalists and established media outlets of spreading "regime-change propaganda".

Anyone reading Beeley’s words might almost think that all those Syrians who have been maltreated and tortured in recent years are actually Assad’s most enthusiastic supporters. Instead, all the blame for the conflict lies squarely with the Gulf states, Turkey, Israel and western nations. Assad’s death squads, militias funded by Tehran, Russian bombs – in the confused heads of figures like Beeley, this all appears to be nothing more than a fairy tale consistently lied about, or not spoken about at all.

Hybrid warfare

Data research carried out by British newspaper The Guardian in late 2017 clearly showed that almost all Internet propaganda against the White Helmets can be traced back to Beeley and Bartlett. In this context, observers are talking about "hybrid warfare" being systematically waged by Russian state media against the aid workers. The fact that the White Helmets, who are persistently accused of being "western agents", have also uncovered war crimes perpetrated by the U.S. military, is deliberately ignored.

Instead, the accusations are also tinged with Islamophobia. Many of the White Helmets have full beards, the women often wear headscarves. For these self-styled critics, this is enough to label the rescue workers as "extremists" and pigeon-hole them with al-Qaida & co.. The rest takes on the shadow of the post-factual age.

All serious reports on the organisation are kept hidden away and always regarded as incorrect per se. Instead, behind every White Helmet one sees western cash, unscrupulous Gulf sheikhs, the CIA, George Soros or other wealthy Jews or – as the Russian embassy in the UK did - Osama bin Laden. When a documentary film about the White Helmets won an Oscar last year, the embassy shared a caricature of Bin Laden wearing a white helmet on its Twitter account.

It would certainly not be wrong to assume that an aid organisation that has saved thousands of human lives has never before been denigrated in such a way. Even during the world wars of the past century, aid workers were perceived as aid workers and were for the most part left alone. But the Syrian war has also changed that and – as in the case of so many other things – revealed man’s capacity for cruelty. 

Emran Feroz

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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