Of all the conspiracy theory/fake news memes that circulate in the virtual and physical media in this era of the hegemony of populists and anti-experts, perhaps the most preposterous and Goebbels-like has been the concerted campaign to discredit the work of and traduce the reputations of the volunteer Syrian civil defence force known as the White Knights.
Operating as they do in the parts of Syria not under the control of President Assad where they daily risk life and limb to save civilians under merciless bombardment from Assad’s forces and those of his Russian allies and, in so doing, provide stark witness testimony to the multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Assad regime.
Because they speak truth to power and bear witness to evil in these ways, they have been subjected to massive online aggression from Vladimir Putin’s troll army and a network of disparate bloggers and academics (none of whom has any expertise on Syria or wider Middle Eastern issues) who in their fawning obeisance to the Assad regime appear to have a vested interest in the survival of the Assad regime as some sort of perverse, “anti-imperialist” standard bearer. The narrative that this conglomeration of useful idiocy push is that the White Knights do the bidding of Al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups as well as that of Western powers and Zionism and fake atrocity scenes to these ends.
The White Helmets, officially known as the Syria Civil Defence, is a humanitarian organisation made up of 3,400 volunteers – former teachers, engineers, tailors and firefighters who rush to extract people from the debris created though the Assad regime’s blitzkrieg on the Syrian civilian population. They have been credited with saving thousands of civilians in the ongoing carnage of the Syrian Civil War (Solon, 2017 p.1)
They have also exposed, through first-hand video footage, war crimes including the chemical weapons attack on the Syrian town of Khan Shaykun, 4th April 2017, which killed almost 100 people and injured around 200 others; an atrocity which the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), after an exhaustive examination of competing theories interviews, laboratory tests, videos and photos, attributed in its report in October 2017 to a sarin gas attack by the Syrian government (Monbiot, 2017 p,1). Their work was the subject of an Oscar-winning Netflix documentary and the recipient of two Nobel peace prize nominations.
But despite these glowing testimonies and awards, a counter-narrative emerged around the same time as the Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict on the side of the beleaguered Assad regime in September 2015. This counter-narrative was pushed and driven by a vocal network of authors who write for a plethora of alternative news sites opposing the “MSM agenda”. Their views dovetail with the positions of Syria and Russia and have attracted huge online audiences, amplified by high-profile alt-right personalities, appearances on Russian state TV and regiments of Twitter bots (Solon, p1)
Almost immediately after the Russian entry into the Syrian war, Russian state media such as RT and Sputnik started falsely claiming that the so-called Islamic State or ISIS was the Assad’s regime only target and casting doubt on the bombings of infrastructure and civilian sites. The same propaganda behemoth absorbed fringe anti-American activists, bloggers and researchers who believe the White Helmets are terrorists, granting them a platform on state TV and disseminating their articles though social media.
The sarin gas attack on Khan Shaykun is an example of a case study within this wider case study of disinformation warfare. For almost immediately the Syrian government began to frame the atrocity as a “false-flag attack”. It started with an article published on the website Al-Masdar News, run by the Syrian government loyalist Leith Abou Fadel. It proposed that either “terrorist forces” were responsible, or chemicals stored in a missile factory had accidentally been discharged when the Syrian government bombed it (Monbiot: p.2)
The story was then “sexed up” on the infamous far-right conspiracy forum – Infowars. The Infowars article accused the White Helmets of staging the attack. It claimed that the victims were people who had been kidnapped by Al-Qaeda from a nearby city, brought to Khan Shaykun and murdered perhaps with the help of the UK and French governments, “to lay the blame on the Syrian government”. The author of this article was Assad loyalist Mimi Al-Laham alias Maram Susli, PartisanGirl, Syrian Girl and Syrian Sister who has appeared on podcasts hosted by David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. She adopts another personal: that of “expert” used by retired MIT professor Theodore :Postol who frequently disputes the Syrian regime’s complicity in chemical weapons attacks and who bases his trust in Susli’s scientific “expertise” from viewing her on Twitter and forming the impression “from her voice … that she was a trained chemist”. He made this claim when appearing with Sulsi on a podcast run by the Holocaust “revisionist” Ryan Dawson (Monbiot: p.2).
Postol’s claims were two-fold. First, the crater from which the sarin in Karin Shaykhun was most likely not caused by a bomb dropped from the air but by an explosive device on the ground (a hypothesis examined and completely disproved by the OPCW report). Second, there was “no evidence to support” the theory that sarin had been released from the air and that there was strong evidence that the mass poisoning resulted from bomb explosion at a rebel weapons depot. This theory was in turn thoroughly debunked by a visit by The Guardian (the only news organisation in the world to do so) to Khan Shaykhun in the wake of the attack. It established that there had been no weapons depot near to the scene of the contamination. The contamination had emerged from a hole in the road from where the remains of a projectile protruded (Monbiot: p.2).
But still the counter-narrative would not go away. Infowars described as an “Al-Qaeda affiliated group funded by George Soros." The White Helmets have never received any Soros funding. Critics of the OPCW investigation include the blogger Vanessa Beeley, the daughter of a former British diplomat who visited Syria for the first time in July 2016; and who believes that the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was staged, Al-Qaeda was not behind the 9/11 attacks and that “Zionists rule France” a University of Sydney senior lecturer, Timothy Anderson, who described the Khan Shaykhun attack as a “hoax” and Eva Bartlett, a Canadian writer and activist who said that the White Helmets staged rescues using recycled victims (Solon: p.3).
Arguably the most influential of these conspiracist and false information merchants is Beeley. In April 2017, she gave a talk at a conference alongside ministers in Assad’s cabinet (who spoke via video conference) titled “White Helmets: Fact or Fantasy?”. Her briefing paper and slides on the topic were then submitted by the Russian government as “evidence” against the “White Helmets”. After refusing The Guardian’s requests for comments, Beeley appeared on a 40-minute long YouTube programme in which she discussed these comment requests and criticised The Guardian’s coverage of Syria, alleging “faux reporting” based on footage provided by “al-Qaeda affiliates” the White Helmets. Beeley asserted that the “majority consensus” was that the White Helmets were a fraudulent terrorist organisation. (Solon: p.5)
The Syrian regime was then given cover by outstanding investigative journalists and commentators of the past/turned conspiracy theorists of the present. John Pilger, on the website Consortium News, praised Postol as “the distinguished MIT professor" and suggested that the Syrian government could not have carried out the attack – as he claimed it had destroyed its chemical arsenal and maintained that jihadists in Khan Shaykhun “have been playing with nerve gases and sarin … for some time. On 26 April 2017 Noam Chomsky, interviewed on Democracy Now, claimed that Postol, whom he described as “a highly regarded strategic analyst and intelligence analyst”, had produced a “pretty devastating critique” of a White House report that maintained that the Syrian government was responsible (Monbiot: pp.2-3)
In June 2017 Seymour Hersh published an article in the German newspaper Die Welt, based on information from a “senior adviser to the US intelligence community who maintained that there had been no sarin strike on Khan Shaykhun. Rather, they Syrian Air Force, with Russian support and the “full” knowledge of Washington, had bombed a meeting of jihadists in “a two-story cinder-block building” and that the mass poisoning could have been caused by fertilisers and disinfectants in the basement of the building. Again, this possibility was completely debunked by the OPCW (Monbiot: p.3).
So how precisely has the online conversation about the White Helmets been shaped by the Russians and why has it been so successful? By gaming the social media algorithms with a flood of content, boosted by bots, sock puppet accounts and a network of agitators, Russian propagandists have been able to construct a Chomsykian-in-reverse “manufactured consensus” that legitimises fringe views. (Solon: p.3).
What have been the mechanics of this huge fake news operation? A search for “White Helmets” on the tool Hoaxy, developed by Indiana computer science professor Fil Menczer1 maps the proliferation on online misinformation, reveals a handful of sources produced hundreds of stories about the organisation. The same small cohort of “experts” are cited in articles that are repackaged and interlinked to generate a corpus of content whose conspiracy claims gain a, albeit spurious, semblance of legitimacy (Solon: p.4)
In research commissioned by the human rights group, the Syria Campaign, the analytics firm Graphika found that the patterns in the online network of the 14,000 Twitter users discussing the White Helmets appeared “very similar” and included many known pro-Kremlin troll accounts, some of which were closed down as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the US Presidential election of 2016. Graphika also found evidence of synchronicity of timing and messaging around key events in the news cycle relating to the White Helmets. (Solon: pp.4-5).
Their findings also correlate with work done by Kate Starbird from the University of Washington in Seattle who asserts that Beeley and the alternative news site 21st Century Wire that she edits and which was set up by a former Infowars editor Patrick Henningsen dominated the Twitter conversation about White Helmets in 2016-17 along with Sputnik and RT.com. The apogee of Ms Beeley’s career was arguably the two-hour meeting with Assad in 2016 as part of a US Peace Council delegation in Damascus, which she described on Facebook as her “proudest moment”. (Solon: p.5).
In sinking to the occasion thus, Vanessa Beeley finds herself in the same league of sycophancy as the notorious Stalin apologist of the 1930s, Walter Duranty of the New York Times and the so-called US Peace Council hawks its conscience around the world in the manner of the Jeremy Corbyn figure of his era, George Lansbury and its 1930s analogue the Peace Pledge Union who averted their gaze from the global threat of fascism and its steamrolling over the Spanish Republic. Just as in the 1930s the isolationist right saw Franco as a bulwark against “communism” in Spain; so, in this age the far right sees Assad as the guy to back against radical Islamism and the “anti-imperialist” left views Assad as a force of resistance to the West and “Zionism”. Both past “the son-of-a-bitch but our son-of-a-bitch” test.
The main allegations against the White Helmets are that they are ‘embedded’ and ‘work with’ terrorists; they are not the ‘real’ Syria Civil Defence; they are funded by the US and UK governments and therefore serve a nefarious purpose and that their late founder James Le Mesurier was a spy. These components of the White Helmets fairy tale can be dismissed as follows.
On the allegation that the White Helmets work with terrorists, the reality is that in order to carry out humanitarian work in any part of the world, an NGO must negotiate with whoever is in charge in order to gain access and permission to operate. In Syria’s multi-dimensional conflict this inevitably means communicating with and then operating in areas the control of Islamist groups such as ISIS, Al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam. Likewise, hundreds of NGOs operate in areas controlled by groups and regimes designated by the West as terrorist or human rights abusers e.g. the Red Cross conducts numerous operations including sending teams of surgeons during outbreaks of conflict in Hamas-controlled and numerous NGOs operate in Taliban controlled areas of Afghanistan, risking kidnap and death to provide services. It should also be borne in mind that the only authority in Syria to have officially banned NGOs from its territory is the Syrian government itself. (Huff Post,)
On the canard that the White Helmets are not the ‘real’ Syria Civil Defence; the latter entity is an official government force also referred to as “self-protection squads.” They are part of the Syrian Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence, are trained by the Syrian Army and operate only in government-held areas of Syria. So, is it really plausible that, in the words of James Le Mesurier in HuffPost UK, "the government would send its fire brigade to these areas to rescue the civilians they’ve just bombed?"
On the surface, the most persuasive charge made against the White Helmets are that because they are an NGO funded by the UK, which has also previously called for Assad to step down, they are automatically part of a regime change plot against the Syrian government. This exercise in “two-plus-two-equals-five” deductive logic is most vocally advocated by the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM). This thinktank was established by a number of academics previously accused of “whitewashing” Assad’s war crimes. The WGSPM’s reasoning is that because the White Helmets are funded through the UK Government’s £1bn Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), they have a ‘potential dual use” as.
… first, as a means of supporting and lending credibility to opposition structures within Syria; second, as an apparently impartial organisation that can corroborate UK accusations against the Russian state.
Granted that the online documentation of indiscriminate attacks on Syrian civilians from the air gathered by the White Helmets is proving invaluable evidence sources for Syrian and international human rights organisations as well as future ICC prosecutors, it does not automatically follow that the UK government is pursuing a similar agenda (indeed the UK House of Commons vote in August 2013 not to take military action against the Assad regime after the Eastern Gouta sarin gas atrocity of that month would suggest that UK legislators at any rate have an opposite agenda). According to the CSSF’s 2016-17 annual report, the UK government funded a rage of other projects such as negotiating a deal between FARC rebels and the Colombian government; helping reduce cattle-raiding in South Sudan; and rehabilitating 20 Soviet-era irrigation projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan none of which attracted the ire of the WGSPM when asked by HuffPost UK to comment. (HuffPost UK). But more pertinently, who should fund groups rescuing civilians in areas from which the Syrian government has disengaged? Or in the words of James Le Mesurier how does “rescuing people from under the rubble secure regime change”?
Two-plus-two-equals-five is also the best that detractors of the White Helmets can come up with when trying to prove that its late founder James Le Mesurier was a spy something for which Russian authorities have never provided any proof of. Instead they only repeat unsubstantiated claims made by sources such as 21st Century Wire (whose biggest claim to infamy is its claim that the “alleged Sandy Hook “massacre” of 20 schoolchildren “smells like a cover-up”) ... An article on the White Helmets from 2015 claims (via discussion of 9/11 and George Soros) that Le Mesurier is linked to the CIA because a company he once worked for (Olive Group) merged with another company (Constellis Holdings) that also owns another company (Academi) which used to be known as Blackwater which was once used by the CIA to carry out black operations including assassinations. The author even concedes that Le Mesurier left Olive Group but claims this is sufficient to “give a degree of valuable insight into the elite intelligence and Pentagon circles that Le Mesurier moved in.”
This linking of the tangential, circumstantial, coincidental and the fantastic is the classic recipe of all conspiracy theories. Just as 9/11 ‘truthers’ seize upon routine actions such as requests by insurance companies to their clients in the World Trade Centre a fortnight before the Al-Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers or the coincidental presence of Israeli nationals near them around the day of the attacks as evidence of a “false flag” attack by the US government or Mossad conspiracy and just as Al-Jazeera spun an entire fantasy about the interference of the Israeli Embassy in British politics on the basis of a casual remark by a junior Embassy staffer about “taking down” certain politicians so those seeking to ‘take down’ the White Helmets weave the most incredulous stories about them which, unfortunately, appeal to a growing constituency whose anathema to the “mainstream media”, “elites”, “the establishment” and “experts” makes them ready consumers for this grotesque type of agitprop.
Isolated incidents such as the former White Helmet who was fired after being filmed helping armed militants disposing of the mutilated corpses of pro-regime fighters and the mannequin challenge when the rescue group filmed themselves in a staged rescue and posted the video on social media in November 2016 (Solon: p.5) were in the manner of afore-mentioned elaborate conspiracy theories seized upon by propagandists to extrapolate a story of unremitting bad actors from such occasional infractions.
The wider context of the White Helmets disinformation campaign is of course the conduct of the Assad regime and its Russian (and Iranian and other Shia militia forces) allies. Russian forces killed 5,233 civilians, including 417 children between September 2015 and September 2017 according to the Syrian Network of Human Rights (SNHR). In the same period, they also attacked 143 educational facilities and 119 medical facilities. Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, Russia has used its UN Security Council veto six times to prevent any attempt to curtail Assad’s tactics which by 2018 had cost the lives of 192,793 civilians according to SNHR; 90.6% of those killed during the conflict. (Syria Campaign, 2018).
Since the concerted campaign to malign the work of the Syrian White Knights is so much a part of the wider story of the proliferation of false content on social media and the threats it carries for genuine independent journalism and the genuine free flow of information; it is instructive to look at the role of one academic especially in this disinformation network – Professor Piers Robinson.
Professor Piers Robinson was the chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the University of Sheffield, specialising in ‘contemporary propaganda with a particular focus on the current war in Syria” until his departure in April 2019. He was also co-director of the University’s Organisation for Propaganda Studies, which aims to conduct ‘rigorous academic research and analysis of propaganda. He left after academic colleagues described his work as “conspiracy-theory driven”, “completely insulting” and of having “no interest in truth or justice”. (Huffington Post, 5 January 2019).
As mentioned earlier, Piers Robinson was active in the WGSPM network active in discrediting the work of the White Helmets. His lectures and public appearances are heavily critical of Western governments and media. During an interview with Sputnik in March 2018, Robinson suggested Russia was being “demonised” over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in order to distract from the West’s “aggressive regime change strategy” in the Middle East. (Huffington Post)
His views on Syria were laid out in his inaugural lecture to students in October 2017 which was based on a paper he published around the same time, titled “Learning from the Chilcot report: Propaganda, Deception and the ‘War on Terror’." The paper argues that the ongoing Syrian conflict is not the result of the Arab Spring of 2011, but is actually the “consequence “of policies made by former leaders George W. Bush and Tony Blair in response to the 9/11 attacks. He cherry picks quotes from Chilcot and other sources, to make the case that the current Syrian conflict is part of a regime-change plot by Western governments, bolstered by an extensive propaganda campaign aimed at the public. For example he quotes Blair as saying “the Middle East is set for catastrophe as “indicative evidence” that the former UK PM knew the region would be embroiled in “big and significant” western-backed conflict a decade later; disregarding what appears on the next page of the Chilcott Report which shows Blair was actually offering Iran and Syria ‘help and support in building a new partnership with the West.. In the process, he, in the words of Dr Yasser Munif, a Lebanese expert on Middle Eastern Politics and Society at Emerson College, Boston, “denies the agency of the Arab population” and “perceives anything happening in the region as a from of conspiracy.” (Huffington Post).
Professor Robinson further validated his conspiracist credentials by writing an enthusiastic review of a book titled 9/11 Unmasked by David Ray Griffin a leading figure in the self-styled 9/11 truther movement. The book rejects the accepted narrative that 19 al- Qaeda operatives highjacked four planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers and Pentagon (the fourth White House bound one crashed in Pennsylvania after a passenger revolt) and suggests that explosives were used to bring down the towers, and questioning whether the planes were even hijacked by Islamist suicide-mass murderers. Many of these claims were demolished by The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the US Government science laboratory. (Huffington Post, January 2019)
Robinson also claims not to “have seen any compelling analysis or evidence to show that there was any significant propaganda campaign to influence the 2016 US Presidential election.”. He has also recommended a number of other academics whose work would allow readers to get up to speed with geo-politics and the current dynamics of the international systems, one of whom was Kees van der Pijl, an emeritus professor at the University of Sussex who in January 2019 tweeted: “Not Saudis, Israelis blew up Twin Towers with help from Zionists in US govt” (Huffington Post, January 2019).
The departure of this conspiracist, fake news evangelist must surely have been a relief for university authorities as its Journalist Studies Department is one of the most prestigious in the UK and has twice (at the time of writing) been placed top in the Guardian’s rankings in the subject and on its advisory board are a range of high-profile media figures including BBC Sports and Breakfast TV anchor Dan Walker, Yorkshire Post Editor James Mitchinson and Nina Bhagwat, Channel 4’s Diversity Executive. (Huffington Post, January 2019).
To conclude, as President Assad rubs his hands in glee at the prospect of “rubbing the noses of rebels” in the dust of Idlib, the calumnies told by his assorted allies, useful idiots and criminal associates in relation to the White Knights serve as accessories to the multiple crimes of the 21st century second mass murderer. The false witness that they have borne is a cautionary tale for those who celebrate the emancipatory potential of the Internet and for cynics of the frequently derided mainstream media. Just like the 9/11 truthers, the Holocaust deniers, the anti-vaxxers, the Illuminati and Rothschilds chroniclers (whose pernicious enterprises so frequently overlap) they speak lies to power. Healthy scepticism of authority and received wisdom is always an asset for writers and journalists but those who play fast and loose with the truth and manipulate and doctor primary evidence to underpin their paranoid beliefs prostitute whatever scholarly or writing profession they claim to operate in the name of. Those of us who rightly critique aspects of Western foreign policy,
consumerism and globalisation have a duty to do so using the tools of critical thinking and enquiry that the Enlightenment has bequeathed us. Especially in the era of authoritarian populist democracy in which we live where the telling of bare-faced lies and the weaponising of prejudice and myth making are now pathways to power.
Olivia Solon "How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine." Guardian 18th December 2017.
George Monbiot, "A lesson from Syria: it’s crucial not to fuel far-right conspiracy theories." Guardian 15th November 2017.
Chris Hunt, "Professor Piers Robinson Teaches Journalism at a top UK University. He is also a 9/11 Truther." Huffington Post 5th January 2019.
Chris York and Ewan Somerville, "Professor Piers Robinson leaves Sheffield University Post after accusations of promoting conspiracy theories." Huffington Post 17th April 2019.
Syria Campaign Killing the Truth. How Russia is fuelling a disinformation campaign to cover up war crimes in Syria. 2018.
This is why James Le Measurier’s White Knights are targets of a Russian disinformation campaign, Huffington Post.
➽ Barry Gilheany is the author of a PhD thesis Post-Eighth Abortion Politics in the Republic of Ireland from Essex University, Department of Government. He is also the author of The Discursive Construction of Abortion in Georgina Waylen & Vicky Randall (Eds) Gender, The State and Politics Routledge, 1998.