The death of a former British Army officer in Istanbul has once again shone a spotlight on Russian disinformation campaigns and the Kremlin’s apparent attempts to smear those it deems a threat to its interests abroad.
James Le Mesurier, co-founder of the White Helmets civil defence group, was found dead near his home in the Turkish city on Monday after falling from a balcony.
Although Turkish police have said they do not suspect foul play, comments last week from a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry prompted Amnesty International to call for an “exhaustive” investigation.
Just days before his death Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused Le Mesurier of being a former British agent, saying he had “been spotted all around the world, including in the Balkans and the Middle East”.
The allegation – denied by the British government – is the latest in a long propaganda campaign directed against Le Mesurier and the White Helmets.
Who Are The White Helmets And Why Are They So Famous?
The White Helmets are a civilian search and rescue group that save people caught up in Russian and Syrian airstrikes. They are just one of hundreds of NGOs that operate in opposition areas of Syria still not under the control of the Syrian government after eight years of civil war.
Syrian activist Muzna Duried of the Syrian Political Feminist Movement told HuffPost UK: “Civil society took the role of the government because when a zone or part of Syria is against Assad, the government punishes those civilians because they chose to be against the regime.
“So they cut all the services from those areas – there’s no governance for legal services, to register marriage or birth certificates or anything like that.”
In 2012 the Assad regime passed a law that effectively criminalised aid to the opposition – if you don’t support Assad, you are classed as a terrorist and a legitimate target.
“So NGOs took those roles to provide services, food, women’s rights, aid, education, legal aid and documenting violations, detainees or people killed and also hospitals and first responders,” adds Duried.
The very nature of the White Helmets’ work means they are on the front lines of the regime’s assaults on civilian areas which include a well-documented pattern of targeting civilian infrastructure, particularly hospitals.
An essential part of the White Helmets toolkit is a headcam. Speaking to HuffPost UK last year, Le Mesurier said: “We issued helmet cameras to the team initially as a training tool so we could take those videos and make recommendations to the way they could improve their technical capabilities.
“We then started posting those videos on social media, others then picked those videos up – that’s not the White Helmets pushing them out there, that’s them being picked up by other news and media entities.”
These videos were a boon for groups who supported the uprising against Assad – first hand witness accounts almost in real time of the aftermath of regime and Russian attacks on Syrian civilians.
But the footage, and in turn the White Helmets themselves, unwittingly became a major part of the propaganda war fought by both sides.
Why Are They Subject To A Disinformation Campaign?
The footage captured by White Helmets posed a problem for pro-regime forces as it is video evidence of potential war crimes perpetrated by Syrian and Russian forces.
Around the same time that Russia entered the conflict in 2015, Russian government agencies and Russian state media channels began pushing an unsubstantiated narrative propagated by a handful of bloggers who claimed the White Helmets were created by the west solely for the purpose of toppling the Assad regime.
Even academics from some of the UK’s top universities share stages with and amplify the allegations of bloggers who travel to only regime-held areas of Syria, under the guard of regime forces and uncritically report the regime line.
Tim Hayward of the University of Edinburgh regularly tweets posts from these bloggers, such as this one which claims a site in Eastern Ghouta had been used by anti-Assad forces to produce chemical weapons.
A report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) later concluded these sites were no such thing.
Some of the most common allegations levelled against the White Helmets are...
The White Helmets Are ‘Embedded’ And ‘Work With’ Terrorists
In order to conduct humanitarian work in any area 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-faceted conflict this inevitably means talking to and then operating in areas under the control of Islamist groups such as Islamic State, Al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Islam.
This is not unique to Syria and the White Helmets – there are currently hundreds of other NGOs operating in similar circumstances around the world, conducting humanitarian operations with the blessing of groups or regimes the west has designated terrorists or human rights abusers.
It’s also worth noting the only authority in Syria to have officially banned NGOs operating in its territory is the Syrian government itself.
The White Helmets Are Not The ‘Real’ Syria Civil Defence
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.
For obvious reasons they do not operate in areas not under government control.
Le Mesurier 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.”
This is exactly why the White Helmets were founded – if they didn’t exist there would be no organisation dedicated to the rescue of these victims of Syrian and Russian airstrikes.
They Are Funded By The US And UK Government And Therefore Serve A Nefarious Purpose
One of the main accusations levelled at the White Helmets is 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.
The UK is completely open about the funding it gives to the White Helmets and records are available online, as are all the other NGO projects the British government funds.
Further, this is how all such organisations are funded. Ibrahim Olabi, founder of the Syrian Legal Development Programme, which trains the White Helmets in international law, told HuffPost UK: “The ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], the most impartial organisation that exists on Planet Earth, is funded by states.”
The most notable proponent of this flawed assumption is the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM), a thinktank established by a number of UK academics who have previously been accused of “whitewashing war crimes”.
Its members, which include Professor Tim Hayward of Edinburgh University and Piers Robinson, formerly of the University of Sheffield, claim 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.
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 reduce cattle-raiding in South Sudan; and rehabilitating 20 Soviet-era irrigation projects in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
Last year HuffPost UK highlighted this fact to members of the WSPGM but it did not take issue with any of these other projects, despite them receiving cash from the same source.
The objection raises another question: who should fund groups rescuing civilians in areas from which the Syrian government has disengaged?
Le Mersurier told HuffPost UK: “Are they then saying that the individuals conducting those rescues should not be trained and not equipped? That it’s better those rescues take place without receiving funding or training?
“Or are they saying there are no rescues are taking place because this is a project for regime change without explaining how rescuing people from under the rubble secures regime change?”
James Le Mesurier Was A Spy
Russian authorities have never provided any evidence that Le Mesurier was a spy or worked for any intelligence agencies and have only repeated unsubstantiated claims made by bloggers that write about the White Helmets.
One of the earliest examples is a piece in a website called 21st Century Wire which pushes conspiracy theories and once claimed the “alleged Sandy Hook ‘massacre’” in which 20 children were shot dead “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 assassinations.
The author even admits that Le Mesurier left Olive Group seven years before the merger with Constellis Holdings but asserts this is enough to “give a degree of valuable insight into the elite intelligence and Pentagon circles that Le Mesurier moved in”.
Speaking to HuffPost UK in 2017 about the accusations levelled against him and the White Helmets, Le Mesurier said: “The allegations themselves are incongruous – what are you actually saying? What are the direct allegations?
“The White Helmets were established by Western intelligence agencies, by MI6? They’re Al Qaeda? They don’t exist and they’re a Hollywood creation? They do exist but they recycle casualties?
“It can’t be all four of them yet they consistently do say it’s all four of them.”
“I am nothing but incredibly proud of what they do on a daily basis in the most extraordinarily circumstances and what they continue to do. These men and women are going out every single day and risking their lives for their families and their communities and that is something that is inspirational.”