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19/04/2018 07:04 BST | Updated 24/04/2018 11:11 BST

'Whitewashing War Crimes': How UK Academics Promote Pro-Assad Conspiracy Theories About Syria

Critics claim the academics are ignoring the crimes of Assad's regime; they say they are "truth-seeking".

Alaa Faqir / Reuters
Smoke rises in Busra al-Harir town, near Deraa, Syria in March.

Academics at some of the UK’s top universities pushing pro-Assad propaganda have been accused by parts of the Syrian community of “peddling conspiracy theories” and “whitewashing” war crimes.

The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WG) has been set up by a number of left-wing professors to examine the “role of both media and propaganda” and provide “reliable, informed and timely analysis for journalists, publics and policymakers”.

Although in its infancy, the group’s published material as well as public posts by its members have already drawn accusations of circulating Islamophobic tropes and “wilfully ignoring the depravity of the regime”.

LATEST: Pro-Assad Academics Blame Criticism On Conspiracy

Two of the academics in particular, Professor Tim Hayward of Edinburgh University and Professor Piers Robinson of the University of Sheffield, promote the work of a fringe group of bloggers and activists who have been accused of spreading false information about the Syrian civil war, which is now in its eighth year. 

As part of an ongoing series on propaganda and disinformation in the Syria conflict, HuffPost UK has analysed some of the material published by the academics, including an open letter to the Guardian newspaper. The survey reveals a number of problematic areas and false claims, and illuminates the murky world of online pro-regime activism the academics are promoting.

The Chemical Attack In Douma

Piers Robinson appeared on Sky News last week to discuss the recent chemical attack in Douma, and claimed: “the Syrian Red Crescent (SRC) and the UN agency in Damascus are reporting that they’re not finding any evidence of a chemical attack”.

When asked by HuffPost UK to back up the claims, Robinson did not respond. The SRC incident the academic was referring to actually happened in January, and the identity of the “UN agency” is unclear - international inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were still en route to Douma when Robinson was speaking.

Leila Shami, a British Syrian and co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, said: ”[They see] what’s happening in Syria as a geo-political chess game, in which Assad is fighting an imaginary war against US imperialism instead of against his own people; those who wanted freedom, democracy and social justice.

“In such an analysis, Syrians themselves are denied all agency and are merely pawns for outside powers – the white men who are capable of making history.”

She added: “As the left whitewashes the regime of its crimes, it also works to slander any opposition to Assad as ‘head-chopping jihadis’ using the worst kind of Orientalist and Islamophobic tropes and adopting whole-heartedly the ‘War on Terror’ discourse.

“[These people] often peddle in conspiracy theories in support of its claims.”

In a statement, Robinson, speaking on behalf of the group, said:

“You can rest assured that our claims and discussions follow academic norms with respect to rigour and truth seeking and we strongly encourage your readers to follow our media appearances, publications and briefings as we believe they will play a vital role with respect to initiating open and honest public scrutiny with respect to the multiple wars we have experienced over the last 15 years.”

The WG’s Open Letter On The White Helmets

This insistence on framing the Syrian conflict through an anti-imperialist lens leads to a number of problematic areas in their writing which, when raised to the two academics in an email, were dismissed.

The points below were based on an open letter published by the working group in January, which states it is “seeking the truth about the White Helmets” and questions the legitimacy of the group as an “impartial humanitarian organisation”.

It appeared after the Guardian published a piece detailing the Russian-backed disinformation campaign to discredit the White Helmets, the Syrian search and rescue NGO who rescue people in the wake of airstrikes and bombings.

1) The Funding Of The White Helmets

Two of the five paragraphs of the open letter detail the funding sources of the White Helmets, information which is available publicly online.

It’s claimed that because they 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.

According to the CSSF’s 2016/17 annual report, the UK Government has also funded a range of other projects, including negotiating a deal between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government; helping to reduce cattle-raiding in South Sudan; and rehabilitating 20 Soviet-era irrigation projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. 

When it was noted that these are all detailed in the same 2016/17 report the WG links to, they did not raise issue with any of these other projects despite being from the same funding source. 

There has been controversy regarding the CSSF, as details of some of the projects it funds are secret and even senior MPs are not told what they are.

But the White Helmets, along with the projects listed above, are among those that are public and highlighted by the UK Government.

Ibrahim Olabi, founder of the Syrian Legal Development Programme which trains the White Helmets in international law, explained that this is how some of the biggest international NGOs are funded.

He said: “The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), the most impartial organisation that exists on planet Earth, is funded by states.

“The funding per se isn’t a breach of independence because the largest humanitarian organisations are funded by taxpayer money channeled through states.” 

2) ‘Independent Journalists’

The open letter also states:

In a context in which both the US and UK governments have been actively supporting attempts to overthrow the Syrian government for many years, this material casts doubt on the status of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organisation. It is therefore essential that investigators such as Vanessa Beeley, who raise substantive questions about the White Helmets, are engaged with in a serious and intellectually honest fashion. 

Vanessa Beeley is a British blogger who has written extensively about the White Helmets, which she describes as “al-Qaeda Civil Defence” and calls “legitimate targets” for military strikes – in direct contravention of international humanitarian law.

She is the daughter of the late British diplomat Sir Harold Beeley, and worked in various sales and management roles before turning to activism in 2012, writing about Gaza.

As well as attacking the White Helmets, she has also said she believes the attack of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was a staged operation, that al-Qaeda wasn’t behind the 9/11 attacks, and that NATO has “sleeper cells” living in suburban America who have infiltrated the anti-war movement. She has appeared onstage alongside holocaust deniers and has been interviewed for far-right German magazines.

Her reports on the ground from Syria are often produced under the supervision of Syrian MPs and the Syrian Army and the official regime line, Assad is fighting and killing terrorists, is uncritically repeated and then promoted by members of the WG.

Pat Hilsman, a freelance journalist who reported from Syria from 2012 to 2015, said: “When they say ‘we’re on the ground’, what they actually mean is they’ve been escorted to government-held zones.

“Their entire thing is to appeal to a low-information audience. They’ll say ‘we’re on the ground and no one’s ever heard of the White Helmets’ but then they’ll say ‘we’re on the ground, everyone who’s heard of the White Helmets say they’re thieves’.

“It’s things that are completely contradictory but so long as they’re negative and are arranged in this collage of lunacy it doesn’t matter to them.”

Fares Shehabi, Syrian MP for Aleppo, is a particularly big fan.

Vanessa Beeley has also described meeting Bashar al-Assad as her “proudest moment”, and lauds his wife, Asma. 

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She has also secured the tacit backing of the Russian government: in May of last year Russia presented a document detailing allegations that the White Helmets were terrorists.

This document consisted entirely of a presentation Beeley had given at a talk in London earlier in the year.

Despite this, the WG, founded by Professor Piers Robinson who also runs the Organisation for Propaganda Studies, insists Beeley is a credible source on which to base upcoming research.

Beeley has refused to be interviewed on a number of occasions.

3) The ‘Real’ Syria Civil Defence

First, the ‘Syria Civil Defence’, the ‘official title’ given to the White Helmets, is supported by US and UK funding. Here it is important to note that the real Syria Civil Defence already exists and is the only such agency recognised by the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO).

What the WG refers to here as the “real” Syria Civil Defence is an official force also referred to as “self-protection squads”.

They are part of the Syrian Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence, are trained by Syrian Army and operate only in government-held areas of Syria. They often act as a fire brigade and residents call 113 if they are needed.

There are no such forces in rebel-held areas.

James Le Mesurier, the founder of the NGO that trains the White Helmets, told HuffPost UK: ”[This idea] asks readers to somehow believe that following a bombing from the Government, that the Government would then send its fire brigade to these areas to rescue the civilians that they’ve just bombed” – which is exactly why the White Helmets were founded.

The Fringe Anti-Imperialists

Robinson and Hayward have spoken at events alongside Beeley, sharing a stage with, amongst others:

  • Eva Bartlett - a blogger who went on a regime-sponsored trip of North Korea and has since written that western media is conspiring to present the country as a “nest of iniquity and oppression” - despite thousands of testimonies of escapees.
  • Robert Stuart - a man who has suggested that the BBC faked the aftermath of an attack in Syria. 
BBC
A man pointing.

Together they form a small but incredibly vocal group of fringe anti-imperialist campaigners who deny or downplay atrocities committed by Assad despite the extensive evidence to the contrary, arguing the president is simply fighting terrorism.

Instead, they focus on crimes committed by opposition forces and extremists groups. The vast majority of civilian deaths in the conflict as well as the documented cases of major chemical attacks have been perpetrated by the Syrian regime, according to UN war crimes investigators and Human Rights Watch

Hassan Akkad, a Syrian who was imprisoned and tortured by the regime in 2011 for the crime he describes as “the audacity to go on the streets and yell ‘freedom’”. 

He added: “That argument that Assad is fighting terrorism - it’s bollocks. Assad was funnelling jihadists to Iraq to fight the Americans, it was Assad that pardoned terrorists who had leading positions in ISIS in 2012, it was Assad who colluded with ISIS who sold him oil.

“They are blinded by anti-imperialism and sadly the war in Iraq and what happened in Libya gives these people even more motives to voice their opinions on this matter as if Syria is Iraq.

A Contradictory Ideology 

Others say this anti-imperialism fringe infuriates the people it purports to be fighting for. 

Robin Yassin-Kassab, a British Syrian and co-author of Burning Country, said: “It’s shocking - the very people in society you’d expect to be supporting the democratic struggle of the Syrian people are the ones slandering it in the most Islamophobic terms.”

“If a Zionist or an American official describes all Palestinian resistance to Israel as ‘they’re all jihadist terrorists’ left wing people are rightly outraged by that but they’re doing exactly the same thing in Syria.”

Syrian writer, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, has written extensively on this topic. The following is a quote from a longer piece

“Annexation is a fundamental aspect of imperialism, and the anti-imperialist activists who deny the autonomy of our struggle and supplement it to their pseudo-struggle are no different from imperialist powers. The two parties find common cause in the denial of our struggle, our political agency, and our right to self-representation.

“Practically, they are telling us that they are the ones who can define which struggles are in the right; and that we are not worthy of either revolutions or the production of knowledge. But isn’t that a wonderful definition of imperialism?

The Palestinian Issue

Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett began their blogging careers in Gaza, writing about the plight of Palestinians under Israeli rule. They then appear to have made the transition to defending Assad despite the regime brutally cracking down on Palestinian refugees in Syria and killing far more than have been killed by Israel since 2011 with thousands more languishing in Syrian jails.

Another element that connects Palestinians in Gaza and Assad is the belief both are fighting the forces of Western imperialism. 

Joey Ayoub, a Lebanese/Palestinian activist, said: “It was a wake up call for many Palestinians in Palestine that these people weren’t actually on their side and they took advantage of them.

“There’s an element of ‘white saviour-ism’ - it’s completely selective, it’s an opportunistic way of seeing things. They know that most of their followers won’t look that deeply into checking things.”

Torture

The torture of civilian detainees by the Syrian regime is extensively documented.

Abdel-Samed*, a business owner from rural Daraa, recalls just one of the thousands of cases, that of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib in 2011, whose death helped spark the Syrian revolution.

He said: “Later they returned the body of Hamza al-Khatib. He’s a cousin of mine and looks just like my son. He’d been tortured. They didn’t leave any spot on his body without cigarette burns. His body was full of stab marks and his neck was broken. They’d cut off his genitals.

“I’ve heard that in some countries the Government only arrests the wanted person himself, not his brother or mother or sister. In Syria, the entire family and the entire neighbourhood is accused and targeted.”

The biggest trove of evidence is the so-called Caesar Photos - 28,000 photos of deaths in government custody that were smuggled out of Syria.

Again, Hayward has questioned the validity of the reports in a piece entitled How We Were Misled About Syria: Amnesty International saying “the evidence has not been credibly certified, and I for one do not expect it will be”.

Mounir, a Syrian man who can’t be identified due to security concerns, said: “Hayward simply has no idea of Assadland.

“He wilfully ignores the depravity of the regime.”

Additionally, Assad’s assistance in the rendition and torture of detainees such as Maher Arar by the CIA in America’s War on Terror, is completely ignored – as is their role in 1991 as part of the US-led coalition in the first Gulf War.

International NGOs

The fringe anti-imperialist narrative asserts that NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are all part of the wider conspiracy to promote regime change in Syria.

Vanessa Beeley has described Amnesty International as “pernicious liars and Empire’s little helpers” and Prof Piers Robinson has written how NGOs engage in “propaganda activities” that contain “obfuscation and exaggeration”.

What is ignored is that these very same NGOs write extensively on abuses carried out by Israel and those that occur in Yemen, both causes championed by these activists.

The Silencing Of Syrians

Notably, there are no Syrians among this fringe group, and numerous Syrian individuals have said that they have been shut down or blocked on social media when they have tried to engage with them.

One such person, Maher Barotchi, lives in Sheffield and was forced out of Syria by the regime 30 years ago when he discovered he’d been blacklisted whilst studying in the UK.

He said: “It makes me angry to see people who are supposedly educated supporting Assad. You don’t expect people to have posts at universities and still... these people... their so-called principles are more important than the suffering and the human rights.

“These so-called anti-imperialists, anything that’s anti-Western, even if it’s a mass murderer, they will defend them and find excuses for them.

“How can you be an educated person living in the West, enjoying the freedom of speech which the countries you defend don’t have and don’t allow?”

Last year at an event at which Beeley, Hayward and Robinson were speaking, a Syrian protesting the talk was dragged outside for voicing her opinion and told by an unidentified man from the audience that “her people control the media”.

Asked who “her people” were, he replied: “Of course, the Pentagon. Israel.”

This is the first part in a series on propaganda and disinformation in the Syria conflict. Part 2 can be read here - How An Obscure British Blogger Became Russia’s Key Witness Against The White Helmets

*Adapted from the book, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria. Copyright © 2017 by Wendy Pearlman. Reprinted with permission of Custom House Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.