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  August 30, 2017

The Murder of Seven White Helmets in Syria


The U.S. State Department and an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria join in condemning the killing of seven White Helmet aid workers in Idlib province. The White Helmets work with Al Qaeda, explains Max Blumenthal
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SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

On August 12th, a group of gunmen entered a White Helmets compound in Sarmin, Syria and opened fire on sleeping members of the emergency rescue group. The White Helmets is a well-known group operating in conflict areas of Syria rescuing victims from the rubble after bombings. They were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and a short documentary about them won an Oscar. Most media outlets portray the White Helmets as a humanitarian organization made up of ordinary Syrians. However, an investigation published by Max Blumenthal of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet found that the White Helmets and their associated public relations firm, The Syria Campaign, are far from politically impartial. In fact, they're seeking regime change in Syria. In spite of all of this criticism, there was a targeted killing of seven members of this group.

On to talk this with me is Max Blumenthal. He is a senior editor of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet and the award-winning author of Goliath and Republican Gomorrah. His most recent book is The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. Max, good to have you with us.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Good to be on with you.

SHARMINI PERIES: Max, you wrote that piece in AlterNet, "How the White Helmets Became International Heroes While Pushing U.S. Military Intervention and Regime Change in Syria." What do you make of these killings?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: These killings occurred in the Idlib province in northern Syria on the Turkish border. They occurred after ... First of all, the Idlib province has come under full control of a group that's called Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham, which is actually a rebranded version of al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. So essentially, al-Qaeda has its largest base of operations possibly in its history, definitely since it was operating in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan prior to 9/11. This is the legacy of billions of dollars in CIA money arming and funding the rebels, money from the UK, and of course, the Gulf allies in Turkey to support the rebels. Basically, the rebels have their main base in Idlib after losing their stronghold in five neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo.

The White Helmets are operating under the full control and coordination with al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate. That's just well-established now. And after these killings Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham, which is al-Qaeda, denounced them and said, "We're going to hunt down the killers." They said this was probably an ISIS sleeper cell, and they also said that these were heroes, these were like our heroes. And the US State Department joined al-Qaeda in declaring that the White Helmets in Idlib were heroes because the US State Department, along with the British Home Office and the monarchy of Qatar, are supporting the White Helmets. They're actually literally supporting the civil infrastructure of al-Qaeda in Idlib. Meanwhile, organizations from the US like the Syrian American Medical Society and the public relations firm that you mentioned, The Syria Campaign, are drumming up donations for more civil infrastructure including fortified underground hospitals in Idlib. So there's extensive amount of support going to the civilian apparatus of al-Qaeda's little kind of parastate in Idlib.

And then meanwhile, what you see taking place in the Idlib province is what would've happened across Syria if regime change had taken hold, if there had been a removal of the government in Damascus. It's the same scenario we saw take place in Libya. And I think a better parallel would be what we saw in the early '90s in Afghanistan after the Soviet-backed government in Kabul was toppled ... I'm sorry. After Soviet support was removed for that government of Najibullah, and then the warlords who had been backed by the CIA after taking over Kabul just basically fought with each other and destroyed the entire city with no central government.

So that's what's happening in Idlib. We've seen that happen east of Damascus where the rebels have control. They basically battle each other, slaughter each other in the streets, attack each other's aid organizations, which are often Western-backed, which is extremely embarrassing. And a kind of war of the warlords is taking place. But al-Qaeda in Idlib is really taking control, and what we've seen with these killings — gruesome, unsolved killings — is a revelation of the point that we've always been making, which is that the White Helmets are an arm of al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate and its allies and should not be supported from the United States.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Max, how exactly do the White Helmets promote intervention and regime change? Give us some examples.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: At this point, I don't really know what they're doing, but it was during the kind of manufactured freak out over the removal of rebels from eastern Aleppo back in December of last year, which was really sort of the base of the armed Syrian opposition, and the White Helmets became sort of the focus of the propaganda campaign against the Syrian government and its allies to remove these rebels who had taken by force five neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo.

So the White Helmets were basically working with a PR firm based in New York and London called The Syria Campaign, which is supported in part by a Syrian exile billionaire named Ayman Asfari who wants regime change. And they would front for a series of petitions through The Syria Campaign and other PR groups like Avaaz that would call for a no-fly zone. No-fly zone is what we saw take, as the kind of key lever for a NATO intervention in Libya, declares that Syrian jets can't fly anymore and if they do, they'll be shot down. It also would've meant that Russian jets couldn't fly anymore.

The White Helmets leadership, Raed al-Saleh, its de facto leader who's based on Turkey, has been to Washington to lobby for sanctions on the Syrian government. He's spoken at NATO and Saudi-funded think tanks like the Atlantic Council explicitly calling for regime change. He's basically a lobbyist for the Syrian opposition. He was in a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in which audio was leaked, and him and Marcell Shehwaro, another Syrian opposition activist who was running social media campaigns around Aleppo, were basically clamoring for the US to militarily intervene and basically decapitate the government in Damascus.

So this is just obvious. For anyone to deny that the White Helmets are a propaganda mechanism of the armed Syrian opposition at this point is ridiculous. And those who have said that the White Helmets are not only functioning as an arm of al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate but are participants in executions and atrocities have also been vindicated. We published at AlterNet, but it was also at Newsweek and a host of other publications, recent execution videos showing the White Helmets actually cheering and participating for the execution of individuals in rebel-held territory. You can play that clip.

And we've also seen the White Helmets work with ISIS, work hand in glove with ISIS. ISIS hostage John Cantlie, who was a British journalist, was forced, essentially with a gun to his head, to produce and appear in propaganda videos on ISIS' online channel. In one appearance, I think it was in Aleppo, he referred to the White Helmets as "ISIS' fire brigade." And there's video of that as well.

SHARMINI PERIES: Max, when I was researching to do this story with you, I could hardly find any references to these seven White Helmets that were killed. There was almost no mainstream reporting on it. Why is that? And one reference I did see to it claimed that this was orchestrated by Assad loyalist forces, and what do you make of that?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: I've seen that ISIS sleeper cells orchestrated this. I'm not sure about the claim of Assad loyalist forces, but they don't seem to be present in Idlib. Idlib is totally under the control of Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham, which is the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, so it seems kind of like an absurd claim. The reason that I think we're seeing so little about it, although the State Department decided that it would make this statement echoing al-Qaeda's statement. There's two statements from al-Qaeda in Syria and the State Department were almost identical about the White Helmets.

The reason we see so little about it is because the White Helmets are no longer a particularly effective propaganda mechanism for stimulating public support for regime change. The Syrian civil war has essentially come to an end, so we have to question why these public relations firms like The Syria Campaign are still trying to pump up the White Helmets. They've just started a petition demanding that they be awarded with a Nobel Prize in 2017, and this is after being exposed not once, not twice, at least three times for participating in executions and atrocities. There was also a recent incident of White Helmets helping to dispose of beheaded Syrian soldiers and their body parts and dangling the head of apparently executed Syrian conscripted soldiers before a camera. How is this group, which is directly affiliated with al-Qaeda, going to be nominated for a Nobel Prize?

I was pretty shocked that the Netflix propaganda vehicle for it won in Hollywood, but anything's possible with the idiot liberals or what I like to call "the id-libs" in Oslo and Hollywood. I just don't understand why at this point anyone would be promoting this group. Why don't we just let the war come to an end and start to kind of negotiate a de-escalation including in Idlib where there's civilians caught in between?

SHARMINI PERIES: Max, since you've done this investigative report on AlterNet about the White Helmets, and given that they have received so much acclaim by way of being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and also having an Oscar nomination on a film that's related to the White Helmets, I'm wondering whether since your exposé, whether you've received any inquiries, clarifications, or verifications of your own research about the article that you published?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: I just wanted to clear that up, that we see from the Alliance for Securing Democracy and all of these kind of phony organizations that are forming around Russiagate, there's been an attempt to kind of conflate any criticism of regime change in Syria or US support for far-right forces in Ukraine with Russian propaganda. And meanwhile, there's been really no discrediting of the reports that have been produced in RT or Sputnik, which are completely legitimate. Most of what I've seen is legitimate about the White Helmets.

But the response that I got is that my exposés at AlterNet, and we continue to expose Syrian regime change propaganda, is not that anyone has debunked any substantial facts, no one argues on the merits. What I had happen with these pieces is something that I've never had happen to me, including from extreme Zionists who have attempted to essentially end my career for my factual reporting on apartheid Israel, and that's that I had activists and figures attack and threaten me before publication.

I received a threatening phone call, which sounded like violent threats, I don't know how he got my number, from Idrees Ahmad, who runs a website called "Pulse" and is a journalism professor at Stirling University in Scotland. So a journalism professor is threatening a journalist to prevent publication of a piece. I received messages from Danny Postel who works at the University of Denver, someone I had been kind of friendly with in the past and helps head their Middle East Studies program, urging me not to publish the piece before its publication. I received threatening text messages apparently from a particularly deranged individual who works for Turkish state media named Oz Katerji.

And I can go down the line with the threats I received before and after, and there was just a giant freak out, and no one, absolutely no one has been about to poke any holes in the substantial facts that I or other journalists have been reporting about the White Helmets. In fact, one of the most absurd things I saw was, I think on PolitiFact or one of these kind of fact-check mafia sites, that actually explicitly denied or declared unproven that the White Helmets had worked with al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate. That's just so well-established now that I think what we've seen with this campaign to insulate the White Helmets is a sort of total discrediting of supporters and activists for the Syrian opposition, and really the mask has been lifted on them and we've seen their methods. Their methods extend all the way to violent threats but generally are neo-McCarthyite in nature. They've lost every debate. We've shattered their entire narrative and poked holes in every single propaganda piece that they've rolled out. And at this point, they've lost the argument, and all they have left are more threats and insults and personal attacks.

To your question about the State Department, no, of course they haven't reached out to me. Of course they don't want an honest assessment of what they've been funding because this is one of the greatest scandals of our time, that the United States has spent billions of dollars and helped created the largest affiliate of al-Qaeda since 9/11 and had really helped ISIS gain territory, and to take that territory back has required the destruction of entire cities. This is one of the biggest scandals of our time, and it's been completely buried, and we continue to get attacked for being one of the few places ... There are many others who've done this. Credit's due there. But we're one of the few places along with The Real News that continue to expose it.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Max, it's interesting that you say that before you publish certain stories, you are getting threats because we recently did a story about Mexico government's use of Israeli spyware in order to spy on activists and lawyers who were working on the disappearances of the students a couple of years ago in Mexico and how this software is now being used by states. So I was wondering in terms of your whereabouts and what you're working on whether your computer and cell phone and other things are also being surveilled. Otherwise, how would you be getting these kinds of threats prior to publishing something?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: I always operate under the assumption that just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, but I have no evidence of any surveillance. I operate as if every email I send is public, and that's the way everyone else should operate. I have no evidence that I'm being surveilled.

What is notable, and Asa Winstanley at Electronic Intifada wrote an important piece basically raising questions about how Israel knows whether supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign are entering the frontiers it controls because they've been denying entry and deporting record numbers of Americans, including Jewish Americans like Rabbi Alissa Wise, who were attempting to fly into Tel Aviv airport, Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv or enter Israel through Jordan. A friend of mine was just detained at Allenby Bridge and deported who is an American on his way to teach a skateboarding program in the occupied West Bank.

How do they know that these figures ... They've enacted laws about keeping out BDS activists and also punishing Israelis who support BDS. How do they know? We have to assume that they're monitoring Facebook pages, that they are monitoring people's social media, and that they may have even gone further than that. And they're certainly surveilling airline manifests, including from airlines based in the United States and Europe before passengers can even take off. And we've seen passengers detained at their home airports before they even get to Israel.

Then, just on a separate point about surveillance, I was going back through broadcasts on CNN about Russiagate for a project I'm working on, and I saw an interesting segment on Jake Tapper's The Lead. Jake Tapper is the State Department's favorite marionette at CNN. He's just one of the most reliable promoters of regime change against the Axis of Evil, even as he's hailed as this kind of adversarial journalist because he takes on Trump, which is now sort of the morally easiest thing to do.

This month, Tapper hosted two CNN correspondents to talk about a story basically that had been fed to them by the FBI. The FBI had been trolling and surveilling the Facebook pages of Americans in search of "fake news," and the CNN correspondents alleged that the fake news might've been Russian-inspired or placed there by Russian bots, and the FBI said that this fake news might've influence the election results in favor of Trump. They never said what the fake news was, never showed the Russian connection, but what was inadvertently revealed through this report is that the FBI was surveilling American voters and going on their Facebook pages in this bizarre and truly paranoid hysteria to filch out evidence of fake news. And I think that should disturb everyone, and we should wonder where this kind of grand narrative about Russian interference is going to lead. I think it'll just lead to a further hardening and expansion of the surveillance state.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Max, also just to say that Rabbi Alissa Wise, a story you were just referring to, not only her, entire delegation was placed on the, I guess the no-fly list to Israel because of their BDS involvement. So it wasn't just her as a very high-profile activist in this area, but it was the entire delegation going with her.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yes, an inter-faith delegation.

SHARMINI PERIES: Exactly. All right, Max, I thank you so much for joining us. And as always, very enlightening. Thank you so much.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.



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