White Helmets in Syria: some questions for our government
- 03 Jan 2018
What should we – members of Western publics – think about the White Helmets? There is currently great controversy between journalists who present them unproblematically as heroes  and others who view them as problematically associated with terrorists. There is evidently at least something ambiguous about them. Given the positive publicity and generous funding provided by Western governments, there is a case for expecting some due diligence on the part of the latter. This applies with regard both to the truth of the publicity and the use made of our money.
Ambiguities appear from the very inception of the White Helmets. The heroic story has it that groups of ordinary Syrian men – carpenters, bakers, etc – decided to band together to help their fellow citizens deal with the consequences of air raids. Yet it was an Englishman based in Turkey who established the White Helmets organisation. James Le Mesurier is a former British Army Officer who went into the business of delivering ‘stabilisation’ programmes in conflict zones. He relates – in an address delivered at The Performance Theatre in 2015, and viewable here – how the White Helmets came into being. We learn how, in March 2013, at his base in Turkey, he trained the first team of 20 White Helmets. He doesn’t indicate how he made contact with those men, but he must have had a quite effective recruitment method because by June 2015 he is in a position to state that “there are 105 volunteer rescue teams in Syria, made up of 2,600 volunteers. They are nicknamed the White Helmets”.
(Incidentally, the words White Helmets, in English, and sometimes preceded by a hashtag, are emblazoned on their uniforms with the effect (presumably intended) of reinforcing brand recognition in the Anglophone world. This of course tends to suggest that achieving a high profile in Western media has been among the strategic objectives of establishing the organisation.)
Questions may be asked about Le Mesurier’s claims that the White Helmets are neutral and impartial. These claims merit probing given that White Helmets operate exclusively in opposition-held areas of Syria. Thus, when the government retook control of Eastern Aleppo in 2016, the White Helmets decamped from there and made their way to other opposition-held areas, particularly in Idlib. This suggests a loyalty to some cause, or some incentive, other than concern about their own immediate community, since the latter, we might assume, still had some use for firemen and ambulance services, or, indeed, for the skills of the men’s former occupations as these were characterized. In fact, civilians at that time chose whether to stay in their home town under government control and protection or to leave with the fighters. This suggests some political and ideological alignment between the militias, the White Helmets, and those civilians who departed with them. Would this group of people be neutral and impartial with respect to government supporters, or to Christians, Shia, Alawis, and Druze, in the areas under the control of Al Nusra and associated fighting groups? Can we even be certain that the White Helmets would be neutral as between civilians on the one hand and those with military and political power on the other? 
Le Mesurier does seek to offer reassurance on such concerns. The White Helmets organisation in Syria, he says, “is resilient to co-option by armed actors and by political actors because they have the support of the civilian population, and this really is civilian agency, giving the power to communities on the ground.”
This statement warrants closer attention. For while it tacitly recognizes the problem of co-option by armed actors and political actors, it claims that the organisation is resilient to the problem. By ‘resilient’, I presume, we are to understand that the White Helmets could resist being coerced by those with military or local political power on the ground into doing things that are against their mission. Yet it is not obvious how a group of former bakers and carpenters are going to resist commands from armed units that are demonstrably capable of imposing their will, including by means of credible threats of summary execution.
So perhaps when Le Mesurier speaks of the organisation being resilient he means that the larger infrastructure of White Helmets, including Mayday Rescue and its Governmental funders, have countervailing influence over the armed actors? That could lend some credibility to the claim of resilience to co-option, but it would of course open up some significant questions about the relationship between governments, including the UK’s, and the controlling units on the ground – notably Al Nusra, but also other violent terrorist groups. If White Helmets are in a position to resist Al Nusra commands thanks to US-UK support this would suggest that the terrorist organisations are in practice prepared to do the bidding of those governments.
If that is the case, I think those of us who elect those governments and pay the taxes they disburse have a right to know. If it is not the case, then Le Mesurier’s explanation will have to be interpreted differently.
In fact, an alternative reading of his meaning is suggested by his comment that the resilience to co-option is due to ‘the support of the civilian population’. He here seems to be saying that the civilian population – which is presumably unarmed – is able to dictate terms to the armed terrorists who have military and political control in the areas concerned. Yet I cannot imagine how we are supposed to give credence to this suggestion. In fact, it is not entirely clear what he means by saying that “this really is civilian agency, giving the power to communities on the ground.” The idea he seems to want to convey here is that the White Helmets directly express what the ordinary Syrian people really want. Yet he says this power is being given to communities on the ground. Does this mean his organisation has empowered the people not only to cut through collapsed concrete structures and to communicate with satphones but also to treat with terrorist masters on equal terms rather than as simply subject to their will?
It is possible that his organisation has indeed so empowered the White Helmets on the ground. After all, we know that White Helmets enjoy certain protections and immunities. We know this simply from watching all the publicity we see – including the documentaries supplied by Netflix and other outlets – if we assume it is shot where we are told it is. For it shows them roaming freely in opposition-held areas, filming in peace and unencumbered, never challenged or even approached by anybody bearing arms.
Due diligence, then, would surely bid us ask how is it that the White Helmets enjoy such freedom in militant strongholds? Could it be because Le Mesurier has found a way to tap into the compassionate and humanitarian impulses of Al Qaeda and its affiliates, just as he appears to have got in touch with his own, in turning from private military contractor into humanitarian facilitator? That is theoretically possible. Perhaps someone who knows could be explicit on the point.
Meanwhile, an empirical fact is that he brings to opposition-held areas a large amount of money. We may not be able to know exactly how much, but the UK Foreign Secretary has affirmed at least one donation of £32 million, and the US government has confirmed assistance of at least $23 million. We do not know exactly what the money has been used for. If the recent BBC research into the use of funds sent to the “Free Syrian Police” (FSP) is anything to go by, we should expect that some of the money has found its way into the hands of terrorist organisations. If that is not the case, Le Mesurier would do a public service by explaining how his organisation has prevented it happening. For then the UK government could use the knowledge to stop allowing our taxes to subsidise terrorism through related routes, like the FSP funding. In any event, I think it would be good for our representatives in government to be given a reasonably full account of how it is being used. They should be eager to ask such questions, and journalists who are really committed to the values of free inquiry ought to be pressing them to do so.
Nothing said here refutes the possibility that among the White Helmets are genuinely brave and altruistic individuals; yet nor can we suppose that they all fit such a description. Controversy continues as to whether there are just a “few bad apples” or whether there are more systemic problems with the organisation. Meanwhile, something anyone familiar with the films and articles praising them will be clear about is the prominent message that “Assad and the Russians are bombing us”. Whatever else the White Helmets may achieve, for civilians or fighters, it is their tangible support for this approved Western message – “we must do something about Assad and the Russians” – that seems particularly to motivate the support for them of our governments.
Now that Assad’s departure appears to be less imminent than was hoped or anticipated by the governments seeking regime change in Syria, the defences of the White Helmets – which are disappointingly often counter-criticisms of the critics more than substantial defences – have become more resolutely anti-Russian in focus. I believe the focus should be brought back onto our own governments: it is they who have some responsibility for what the White Helmets are doing in Syria. They should be held more carefully to account.
 Independent journalists who make this case include Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett, and Khaled Iskef. They have interviewed Syrians about their experience of the White Helmets, as has documentary film maker Carla Ortiz. (These links are indicative only, and their research outputs are much more extensive.)
 For more on his background see, for instance, this by Scott Ritter.
 I think he may be using the term volunteers, as is the practice in the British Army, to distinguish them from conscripts, rather than to mean ‘unpaid’, for I understand that they are paid.
 The significance of public perceptions is clearly not lost on Le Mesurier. Later in the talk he mentions how a GfK global assessment of public trust in professions revealed that, in fragile states, while the least trusted actors are security actors and military actors, the professions with highest levels of trust are firefighters, rescue workers and paramedics. So there is certainly an incentive for someone whose career is centred on deploying the least trusted actors to undergo a rebranding as a facilitator of the most trusted professionals.
 It is therefore not surprising that there have been accusations that the White Helmets are more concerned with getting film footage appearing to show heroism than with actually saving ordinary people. I have not investigated them myself, but the accusations appear to have sufficient corroboration to warrant following up, and hence the mention.
 Rather a lot of witness testimony gleaned from Aleppo during 2017 suggests that the White Helmets prioritized saving fighters, and this has not been countered by comparable testimony from grateful civilian witnesses. Still, I think we must each judge for ourselves whether we find interviews like these, these or these convincing.
Cover photo: Phillip Hammond, as UK Foreign Secretary, meeting White Helmets in southern Turkey
Source: Tim Hayward
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