Newsmaker: The White Helmets

The Syrian organisation was this week nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its work saving lives in the war-torn country, but dissenters have suggested that not all is as it seems.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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At first glance, the nomination of the brave men and women of Syria Civil Defence, aka the White Helmets, for a Nobel Peace Prize seems a no-brainer.

Since its formation in 2013, the group of “former tailors, bakers, teachers and other ordinary Syrians who have banded together to save lives from the rubble of bombardment”, says it has saved 60,000 lives in the war-torn country. They now have 3,000 members and operate from 120 centres across Syria, “neutrally, impartially and for all Syrians”, and they have suffered losses – 141 killed and more than 400 injured.

They are up against stiff competition for the peace prize from a record 376 nominees, including Angela Merkel and the Greek islanders, both nominated for their attempts to ease the plight of refugees.

The White Helmets have nevertheless received the support of a raft of organisations and high-profile western artists, politicians and actors, including George Clooney and Daniel Craig, the latter of whom is a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

But it would take all the ingenuity of a 007 to get to the bottom of a vitriolic propaganda war being waged to ensure that the White Helmets are not the recipients of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

There are two versions of the birth of the White Helmets and which you favour depends on which side you take in the Syrian conflict. One says they are a spontaneous coming-together of ordinary Syrians motivated only by humanitarianism. The other says they are agents of western governments.

Whatever the truth, the facts of the foundation and funding of the organisation at the very least poses questions about the overlapping interests of NGOs and the governments that fund them.

A petition on calling on the Norwegian Nobel Committee not to give the prize to the White Helmets says the award “would prolong the suffering of the Syrian people and reward the White Helmets for being US and UK government-funded and trained agents of ‘regime change’”.

The petition is by the Syria Solidarity Movement, part of a network of pro-regime support organisations that have the White Helmets in their sights. The White Helmets, it says, are “Al Qaeda with a facelift ... terrorism and neocolonialism under the umbrella of humanitarianism”.

According to 21st Century Wire, “a North American and European-based, grass-roots, independent blog offering geopolitical news”, widely used photographs of White Helmets volunteers rescuing children from under rubble are the work of “a highly organised, western-centric propaganda ring”.

Despite the name, Syria Civil Defence “was not created by Syrians nor does it serve Syria”, according to an article last year in Dissident Voice, “a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice”. Rather, “it was created by the UK and USA in 2013 [when] civilians from rebel controlled territory were paid to go to Turkey to receive some training in rescue operations”, the “primary function” of which was “propaganda”.

Despite the extreme nature of some of this material, it does contain some uncomfortable truths. For example, the White Helmets are funded by the American government, through USAID, to the tune of US$23 million (Dh84m). There’s also no doubt that the US and British governments were involved with the creation of Syria Civil Defence. From the outset, the Syrian volunteers were trained and supported by Analysis, Research and Knowledge (Ark), a private company, headquartered in Dubai, that describes itself as “a research, conflict transformation and stabilisation consultancy”. In Syria “Ark has been at the forefront of the response to the conflict ... for the past five years”.

Propaganda from pro-regime groups about the White Helmets is fuelled by the fact that five of the seven “clients” listed on the Ark website are western governments or their agencies, including the US Department of State and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

According to a speech he gave to a conference in Lisbon last year, in early 2013, Ark employee and former British army officer James Gustaf Edward Le Mesurier met with community leaders who had crossed into Turkey from northern Aleppo and spoke movingly of “the frequency and the intensity of the bombing [of civilians by the regime] that was taking place”. At the time, said Le Mesurier, Ark was “delivering programmes on behalf of the US and UK governments and we were able to offer them some ... training”. With input from Turkey’s earthquake response group, AKUT, and “a number of people out of Syria who ... knew the regime tactics”, in March 2013, Ark ran a seven-day course training a team of 20 “ordinary members of the Syrian civilian community” to become rescue workers. By June last year, he said, Ark had trained 2,600 Syrian volunteers, who were formed into 105 teams who had rescued a total of 18,000 people. In June this year, Le Mesurier was awarded an OBE by the British government, “for services to Syria Civil Defence and the protection of civilians in Syria”.

Groups supportive of the Assad regime point to Le Mesurier’s involvement as evidence that, in the words of the Syria Solidarity Movement, the White Helmets are “trained agents” of the British and US governments, whose true agenda is regime change in Syria.

Le Mesurier certainly has the sort of CV that invites interpretation by conspiracy theorists. He has spent the past 20 years “working in fragile states as a United Nations staff member, a consultant for private companies and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and as a British Army Officer”, while “much of his experience has involved delivering stabilisation activities through security sector and democratisation programmes”.

He told The National that “the effort to posit me as the founder of the White Helmets is an effort to undermine the credibility of SCD ... and is vigorously refuted”. Yet his own CV adds that “since 2012, James has been working on the Syria crisis where he started the Syrian White Helmets programme in March 2013”.

At the end of 2013, Le Mesurier left Ark to set up a non-profit organisation called Mayday Rescue. In terms of mission and funding, Mayday has not fallen far from the Ark tree: it has “donors” instead of “clients”, but these are also western governments, including Britain and Germany. Its “flagship” operation is its BATAL programme, which “provides support to Syria Civil Defence, the White Helmets”. And according to a recent article by Le Mesurier in the journal Crisis Response, he remains Ark’s director of strategy.

This week, Le Mesurier told The National that when Ark began training Syrian search-and-rescue volunteers in March 2013, “the intent was not to create a national organisation – conditions [then] were very different and we didn’t expect the civil war would last”. By the end of 2013, however, “it became clear that it would endure. I had seen that training, equipping and supporting volunteer rescue workers was hugely impactful, so quit my job and started Mayday Rescue”, continuing to work with team leaders to help them to create Syria Civil Defence.

The organisation was formally born in October 25, 2014, with 69 team leaders signing a “statement of principles”. “I do not claim to have formed SCD, therefore,” says Le Mesurier, “but me and my organisation have acted as advisers and mentors to them over the past three years and are immensely proud of what they have achieved.”

Fundamentally, he says, “Syria Civil Defence is 100 per cent Syrian; they are now managed by a leadership council of 11 who are elected by a general assembly made up of representatives from the 121 teams and 3,000 members”.

The head of that council is Raed Saleh, a 33-year-old Syrian, who before the uprising was an electrical supplies salesman. In an article for The Washington Post in March last year, he wrote movingly of the effect of bombings, especially of barrel bombs. “After the bombs rain down, we rush in to dig for survivors,” he wrote. “Our motto, ‘To save one life is to save all humanity’, is what drives us on. But for every life we save, countless more are lost.”

Le Mesurier says the widespread propaganda war against the White Helmets is being waged by the Syrian and Russian governments through “online proxies ... a small group of networked activists [who] have mounted a concerted campaign since 2015 to discredit the White Helmets”.

But on April 18 this year, those activists were handed a gift when Saleh, invited to Washington to receive a humanitarian award from an alliance of international aid agencies, was turned back to Istanbul by immigration officials at Dulles airport. No explanation was given.

Whatever the reason, it was embarrassing for Saleh and the White Helmets, and an unexpected boost for those trying to bring them down. Whether it will have had any effect on the deliberations of the five-member Nobel committee may never be known, whoever is announced as the recipient of this year’s Peace Prize in Oslo next Friday.

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