‘Neutral’ First Aid Responders in Syria Promoting Regime Change
Journalist Max Blumenthal shares his latest investigation into the public relations firm Syria Campaign and the USAID-backed White Helmets, both of which are calling for a no-fly zone in Syria
DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News, I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore. A group of rescue workers, known as the White Helmets, is receiving wide acclaim for its work in Syria. They’ve won a 2016 Right Livelihood Award, which is widely known as the alternative Nobel peace prize. They’re also the subject of a new Netflix documentary. Most media outlets portray the White Helmets as a humanitarian organization made up of ordinary Syrians who have no political agenda but that of peace in Syria. But a new investigation published by the Grayzone Project at AlterNet has found that the White Helmets, as well as an associated public relations firm, the Syria Campaign, are far from impartial, in fact, they’re seeking regime change in Syria.
Joining us to discuss his investigation is Max Blumenthal. Max is a senior editor of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet. His most recent book is The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. Thanks for joining us, Max.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me on.
NOOR: Max, the White Helmets are being represented by lots of media as nonpartisan — as neutral. They’re depicted as just a group that wants peace and nothing else. You argue, based on your investigation, that they’re not neutral, at all. You found that they’re specifically linked to a regime change agenda. Tell us what you found and how you found it.
BLUMENTHAL: I think that the White Helmets, like first responders anywhere, including in West Aleppo, and in the government areas of Syria and in Yemen, Palestine – anywhere in the world – deserve a lot of praise for rescuing people in an impossible situation. But this is a particularly unusual first responder organization that’s also going to Washington. Just in Washington this week, at the Atlantic Council alongside former Defense Department and State Department official, Frederic Hof, to push for some kind of missile strikes on Syria from the US. This was a shocking event and it’s of a part with the overall agenda of this organization.
The White Helmets were created in 2013 with funding from western governments in training for the British mercenary named James la Mercier. Who was operating formerly as a mercenary protecting gas fields in the UAE. He moves in to southern Turkey with money from the State Department and the British Foreign Office to train up a group of first responders. The money that his group started to receive, first in the hundreds of thousands and then in the millions, came through the USAID, the United States Agency for International Development’s office of Transitional Initiatives. This is, as Jake Johnston, at the Center for Economic Policy and Research demonstrates, the political arm of USAID, the arm that has promoted regime change and political subversion around the globe. And the point of funding the White Helmets was not necessarily humanitarian.
The, at least, twenty-three million that this group has received was, according to the State Department official overseeing some of the grants, Mark Ward, aimed at shoring up the civil and governing entities in what he called liberated territory, which is actually rebel hell territory. So, basically, to promote a civil and government structure in areas that have been taken from the Syrian government, in order to make way and prepare for the eventual removal of the Syrian government and replace it with some kind of government like we’ve seen in Iraq and Libya. Which didn’t exactly work out very well. Now, the White Helmets make no secret about their desire to ratchet up military intervention in Syria.
They’re calling for a no-fly zone. Which sounds pretty good if you’re a complete dupe and you don’t actually interrogate the meaning of a no-fly zone. Which even Hillary Clinton is now pulling away from. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, recently testified at the Senate Arms Committee, that imposing a no-fly zone over Syria would, in his words, “require us to go to war against Syria and Russia, that’s a pretty fundamental decision that I’m not going to make.” In other words, it would require a World War III. According to a 2012 Pentagon assessment, a no-fly zone in Syria requires seventy thousand US troops to implement, via wild scale attacks on Syrian military and government installations. This would, of course, mean more civilian casualties. And we’ve never seen a no-fly zone, imposed anywhere, whether its Iraq, Libya, or the former Yugoslavia, where it didn’t lead to regime change. So, if you’re calling for a no-fly zone, you’re calling for regime change and you have to be able to tell me, what’s gonna come the day after this government collapses. It hasn’t been a very good scenario before so I think there needs to be a serious debate about the consequences of regime change.
The public relations firm which is handling the White Helmets, and is entirely responsible for the general public knowing about the White Helmets, for the sensation around them–
NOOR: Here, you’re talking about the PR firm, the Syria Campaign?
BLUMENTHAL: Yes. So, the Syria Campaign is an opposition funded, public relations firm. It’s a private company, registered among ninety-one other companies, doesn’t really have an office. It was actually created by a public relations firm called, Purpose, which itself was spun out of a vase. A vase being the international online click-to-this organization that promoted a no-fly zone in Syria and the Syria Campaign is devoted to rallying public opinion to a no-fly zone in Syria. Which means regime change. And I don’t think that’s a very good scenario. And again, that should be debated.
What I did with these two stories was, I think, demonstrate that the White Helmets are one of the major public relations instruments in a lobbying push to rally public opinion, cultivate western opinion in support of a no-fly zone or some kind of increased western military intervention which would topple the Syrian government.
NOOR: So, how did the Syria Campaign build its public image as a neutral organization to protect Syrians? If you’re saying, in fact, it’s not neutral, at all, its strongly in support of regime change?
BLUMENTHAL: Well, if you think that a no-fly zone will protect Syrians, then you should cop to that and you should cop to your support for regime change. But this group understands how to use language, particularly liberal, friendly, humanitarian-sounding language and now appeals to solidarity as cover for pushing for heightened military intervention. The Syria Campaign, as I’ve said was spun out of a public relations firm, called Purpose, which is based in New York City and London. Its represented clients like, the ACLU, and Campaign Zero, and gay rights organizations. It claims credit for effecting perception change. But in this case, when it started its Voices project, and began hiring people around the west who are public relations professionals to do story-telling and public mobilization, that’s when the Syria Campaign began pushing for regime change. Purpose began pushing for regime change. This was when the Syria Campaign was born.
This organization is funded by Ayman Asfari who is the chairman and CEO of Petrofac, it’s a petroleum services company. Asfari is a Syrian-British ex-patriot billionaire who is determined to succeed in the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government and its replacement with a government chosen by his Syrian national counsel. Now, I should mention that the majority of Syrians, according to a 2015 poll, find that the Syrian opposition coalition, and by the way this is a poll by Opinion Research Business taken in July 2015, find that the Syrian opposition coalition is more harmful to Syria than the current Syrian government and its almost as unpopular as ISIS, amongst Syrians who have been polled across Syria. But this is the agenda that Asfari is seeking to oppose, from the outside. This is a close ally and funder of the Tory Conservative Party in the UK. A close ally of former Prime Minister David Cameron and he has funded the Syria Campaign with one-hundred and eighty thousand dollars, this year, out of its eight-hundred thousand dollar budget. He is also a major supporter of the White Helmets who’s website and entire public presence has been built by the Syria Campaign.
That’s what this is about, it’s not just about the noble cause of rescuing people from rubble, under Syrian and Russian bombing in East Aleppo. Its about defining, first of all, everything that happens in East Aleppo as something that’s happening in all of Syria; ignoring the whole picture of what’s happening across Syria. Its about working media contacts to promote and cultivate the public with an interventionist narrative, the Syria Campaign has been very effective at that, as I’ve demonstrated. And its about, ultimately, moving public opinion for its eventual regime change.
NOOR: Can you talk a bit more about how the Syria Campaign has done that, specifically, how they’ve affected reporting on the Syrian conflict, itself?
BLUMENTHAL: One incident was really telling and this was the incident of the famous Omran photo. This photo is really touching. It shows a five-year old boy, Omran Daqneesh, who’s been taken out of a building that had been bombed, probably by Syrian war planes in Eastern Aleppo, or perhaps Russian airplanes. He’s positioned inside an ambulance with his face caked in ash and blood to be photographed and videotaped. That video and those photographs were immediately relayed to western media. One of the organizations that captured the video first was the Aleppo Media Centre, which is also run from outside Syria by the Syrian ex-patriots network. One of the first reporters to reproduce it was Sophie McNeill from the Australian Broadcast Corporation. And the image of Omran went viral.
Next we saw the Syria Campaign furnish quotes by the videographer and photographer who took that video, Mahmoud Raslan, who is from the Aleppo Media Centre. So, there’s a clear connection here to the Syria Campaign, furnishing that video and those photographs to western media. Sophie McNeill takes to Facebook and says, “A lot of people are wondering what they can do. It’s not just enough to cry over the photo of Omran. What you have to do is listen to James Sadri.” Who happens to be the strategy director of the Syria Campaign. And in listening to James Sadri, you basically have to call for a no-fly zone. Which is what Sadri called for in his interview with Sophie McNeill. McNeill was essentially a mainstream, supposedly, objective reporter, endorsing a no-fly zone. Which, as I’ve explained, means regime change. This led to this photograph of a boy, being used as fodder for a very politicized campaign for moving the Syrian government. Many people might want that but the agenda needs to be out in the open.
After this photograph came out, The Canary, which is a left-wing, British website, revealed photographs of Mahmoud Raslan taking selfies of himself with the Nour al-Din al-Zenki rebel group. These were selfies where he’s posing, sort of, triumphantly with various commanders. Two of the commanders he appeared with, in one of those photos, had beheaded an adolescent boy, a Palestinian boy, who may have been a fighter for a pro-Syrian government militia faction. They beheaded him on video. Raslan, had also taken photographs of himself where he’s praising, in his words, the suicide fighters of the al-Zenki battalion as they prepared to break the siege of East Aleppo. He was clearly someone who is a partisan, in support of these rebel factions which are anything but savory. And are basically in control of Eastern Aleppo.
This really presented an embarrassing situation for the Syria Campaign. So, what did they do? They go back and furnish new quotes from Raslan. Which go straight to Sophie McNeill who, dutifully, publishes it on Twitter. I think what this highlights is the cozy relationship so many reporters, I mean McNeill is far from alone, enjoy what this public relations firm, which is funded by a billionaire who helps, really command, the exile-led opposition. And which is really not painting a totally accurate picture of what’s going on in the whole of Syria but they’re dominating the narrative through their media contacts. I think its telling to see the reaction to my piece from a lot of mainstream reporters who cover the Syrian crisis. They’re very upset about it and its because many of them enjoy cozy relationships with the Syria Campaign and they’re not happy to see someone actually scrutinize the public relations firm that’s providing them with their stories and feeding the public on an interventionist narrative.
NOOR: Max Blumenthal’s two latest articles for the Grayzone Project on Alternet are: “Inside the Shadowy PR Firm That’s Lobbying for Regime Change in Syria” and “How the White Helmets Became International Heroes While Pushing U.S. Military Intervention and Regime Change in Syria.” Thanks for joining us, Max. We hope to talk to you soon.
BLUMENTHAL: Thanks for having me.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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