A lot has changed for the White Helmets since the success of an Academy Award-winning documentary that followed the volunteers through their humanitarian mission to extract residents from the airstrike induced ruins of eastern Aleppo. The city has since fallen, or been liberated depending on your source, and the political landscape has shifted heavily to favor the regime. Times are not easy for the White Helmets, a civilian organization that does not carry arms or engage in combat, and this has been made all the worse by an online campaign that has rallied against the organization with wide-ranging, and often inconsistent accusations that intend to sully the credibility of the first responders. A cursory glance over their English language Facebook page will reveal a wave of attacks and vicious accusations that have assailed many posts. Charges that civilians are forced by the White Helmets to act like airstrike victims are common, as are claims that the White Helmets are themselves an armed terrorist group. One comment referred to them as the Al Qaeda’s Medical Brigade. Reviews for the organization are similarly polarized, with some thanking the White Helmets for the work they do, while others describe them as pawns of the US, CIA, UK, Israel, Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Zionists, or even George Soros. While one may be tempted to discredit these attacks as misinformed minorities, there is much more to these accusations than lone conspiracy theories. There is a network of such ideas, being supported and encouraged by a series of individuals and news sites that claim to know the truth. These accusations come with citations and sources, but always from the same places.
The White Helmets
The White Helmets, known formally as the Syrian Civil Defense, began in early 2013 as informal groups of volunteers who ran to the scene of Regime airstrikes to dig their neighbors from the rubble. These groups became more formally organized as the war continued, and in 2013 they received their first aid package from the US and UK. In 2014, their first national meeting was held and the Syrian Civil Defense Organization became one cohesive whole. They have also received formal training in Turkey, from Turkish based volunteer search and rescue organization AKUT and Mayday Rescue, an organization founded by former British army officer James Le Mesurier. Currently, they receive funding from the governments of the UK, Holland, Denmark, Germany, Canada, and New Zealand. While previously providing around a third of the White Helmets monetary support, US assistance has been in doubt since March when the Trump administration froze over $200 million in funds previously promised for recovery efforts in Syria. These funds are delivered through third party organizations Chemonics and Mayday Rescue, though they also take direct donations from individuals. These funds are used to finance training and equipment. The group consists of roughly 3,400 members and credit themselves with saving over 114,431 lives. Due to the nature of carrying out rescue operations in an active war zone, the White Helmets have documented many war crimes in Syria. Their documentation has worked to corroborate the stories provided by citizens to NGO’s like Amnesty International and the Syrian Justice and Accountability Center. Using helmet cams and handheld cameras, the White Helmets have provided hundreds of hours of video that shows both airstrikes and the damage done by them to the people of Aleppo. The chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens was recorded by the White Helmets. These events were confirmed by a UN probe, and the OPCW’s Joint Investigation Mechanism confirmed the regime was responsible.
In the flurry of negative comments that assail most articles that portray the White Helmets positively, certain names make consistent appearances. Twitter users, with accounts wrapped in the guise of anti-war and non-partisan journalism, push a constant stream of stories countering what they describe as the hegemonic and imperialistic propaganda of Western media. Most notably are people like Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, who identify as independent journalists operating in Syria. Their Twitter feeds are covered with pictures and writings that support the Assad government, and the White Helmets have been consistent targets, subjected to accusations that they operate as an arm of rebel forces: faking chemical attacks, stealing from citizens, and even covering up opposition war crimes. For these journalists, their outward appearance exudes an air of legitimacy and their presence on other media platforms can strengthen their apparent authority on the realities of the Syrian war. A closer look reveals their credentials to be questionable. For instance, Beeley met Bashar Al-Assad in 2016 while accompanying a fact-finding mission in Syria completed by the US Peace Council. The US Peace Council is not as nonpartisan as the name suggests, taking a hard-line stance against Western involvement in Syria, referring to all rebel groups as foreign mercenaries, claiming it is not a civil war, and blaming Israel for the conflict.
The platform for both Beeley and Bartlett’s articles is also of dubious character. The 21stCenturyWire, linked directly to Beeley’s Twitter page, is a conspiracy site famed for its 9/11 truther stance. The site has a section devoted exclusively to White Helmets news, and Beeley is a consistent contributor. 21stCenturyWire’s creator, former InfoWars contributor Patrick Henningsen, has himself accompanied Beeley on a fact-finding mission to Syria sponsored by his news site. The pair appeared on Syrian national TV praising the Syrian people for their unity and support of Assad, dismissing the bleak portrait of Syria painted by Western media. In the clip available on Patrick Henningsen’s personal website, Beeley denied the existence of a civil war in Syria, describing it as a war run by NATO, the EU, the Gulf States, New Zealand, Australia, and Israel. Bartlett’s claims have been similar in nature. During a press conference held by the Syrian delegation at the United Nations, she alleged that the “corporate media” was controlling the narrative of events in Syria, described the White Helmets as a “compromised” organization that fakes rescue operations on camera, and claimed that no person in eastern Aleppo that she interviewed had heard of the White Helmets. The clip was shared by the viral video channel In The Now, a media outlet that describes itself as, “…a social-first video platform for the smartphone generation. We feature real-talk politics, in-your-face opinions, gripping social issues and shareable human stories.” While no references are made on their Facebook or Twitter profiles, In The Now is a spinoff of an RT show by the same name, hosted by Anissa Naouai a journalist for RT America. Though the page maintains a generally light-hearted atmosphere with memes and references to trending internet humor, the articles and videos are biased to harshly criticize the West and support Russian policies.
It isn’t just journalists who weigh into the anti-White Helmet propaganda, but also self-titled Geo-political commenters and analysts. Individuals like Maram Susli, who often goes by her Twitter handle “PartisanGirl,” and Sarah Abdallah have had a strong presence online, garnering a comparable number of Twitter followers as some mainstream news broadcasters (Though it should be noted that these number may be inflated by bot accounts). As members of the Syrian diaspora, they have taken a strong pro-regime stance that acts to counter what they call the Western narrative on Syria, as well as disseminating conspiratorial theories about the causes of the war in Syria and unrest in the Middle East. What separates these Twitter activists from common users is the legitimacy given to them by larger (though not necessarily popular or mainstream) news agencies. This has resulted in their stories and articles being published in both alt-right news sites and Russian news agencies. When BBC and The Guardian published articles that discussed the White Helmets conspiracy and called into question the legitimacy of PartisanGirl and Abdallah, Russian media responded with their own articles. Russia Insider and Russia Today interviewed Abdallah and PartisanGirl respectively and used the opportunity to discuss the alleged link between the White Helmets organizations and chemical attacks carried out in Syria.
Russian news agencies have been at the forefront of providing a platform for these Twitter activists. An opinion article on Sputnik even went so far as to cite statements made by Beeley in an article linking the presence of White Helmets to a pattern of chemical attacks. This legitimizing role is not only played by some Russian sources but also alternative and conspiracy sites from the US. Under the name Mimi Al-Laham, PartisanGirl contributed an article to infamous conspiracy website InfoWars. Many may know it as the platform developed by alt-right personality Alex Jones. Guardian columnist George Monbiot also reports that PartisanGirl’s connection with the radical right may run deeper, appearing once in a podcast managed by former head of the KKK David Duke. The video linked in Monbiot’s article has since been removed from Youtube for violating their policy on harassment and bullying. We were able to uncover an audio video of the conversation uploaded to YouTube by a white supremacist channel, but that has since been removed as well.
Truth in Healing
The implication of these accounts has wide-reaching consequences for not only the work of the White Helmets in Syria but also the reconciliation process that Aleppo must go through regardless of who holds the city when the fighting stops. Crimes and events must be accounted for, so that the victims and their families can properly mourn and reconcile what has occurred around them for these eight long years. Justice requires access to the truth, and the de-legitimization of an organization that plays an important role in documenting the many traumas of the Syrian conflict will only work to muddy the waters on whose suffering we accept as true. The reports provided by people like Beeley, Bartlett, and Henningsen, along with the narratives disseminated by Twitter users like PartisanGirl and Abdallah, all play well into the overarching strategy of Moscow to not just counter Western propaganda, but to raise doubt about the nature of truth itself. To confuse the facts so thoroughly that the reader gives up in frustration, resigning themselves to a nihilistic conclusion that it isn’t possible to know anything. The false narratives being pushed by these online personalities and the media organizations that support them do not only work to attack and discredit the White Helmets, but in doing so also call into question the validity of any human rights violations that are levied against Assad’s regime and his allies. For Aleppo to find peace, and for the citizens to come to terms with this violent period, it is important that all crimes by all belligerents be reported. When we allow those doing the reporting to be demonized, a peace that is whole won’t be within reach.
* Photo: Member of the Civil Defense with an infant he pulled out alive from under the rubble after airstrikes. Still from a field report by Moaz al-Shami. September 29, 2016, Idlib.