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The Guardian, White Helmets, and silenced comment

In the crudest of ironies, The Guardian recently published a pro-imperialist article claiming critical discussion of Syria’s White Helmets had been ‘propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government’. It also closed its comment section, refused the journalists identified in the piece a right of reply, and declined to publish a considered response from a group of concerned academics. So much for Comment is Free. Since The Guardian has refused to do so, we have posted the piece in full, on behalf of the group, here at Renegade Inc.

Illustration by Rachael Bolton.

But first, some context: Editor’s note

The Middle East is complicated. It is a region that few in the West are particularly au fait with. But despite our collective ignorance of the intricate and longstanding relationships and conflicts that pepper the region, the West is very involved in Middle Eastern politics and its conflicts. Its public figures – be they politicians or members of the mainstream media – have a lot of opinions.

This is really just to say that the context for today’s piece is not so much our desire to endorse a particular side of this specific argument, but rather to recognise the role of the media as a forum for reasoned and balanced debate. To provide as much whole information about complicated issues when the truth might not be cut-and-dry, you have to allow right of reply.

Who are the White Hats?

The Syrian Civil Defence organisation, also known as the White Helmets, is an urban search and rescue group operating in rebel-held regions of Syria and Turkey. It is important to note that the group’s title is highly misleading as it is not Syria’s official civil defence force. The real  Syria Civil Defence was established in Syria in 1953. More on this below.  

The White Hats have around 3,400 members. The group was nominated for two Nobel Peace Prizes, and a documentary about them won an Academy Award. They claim to have saved more than 99,220 throughout the most recent Syrian conflict and that their workers are “unarmed and neutral”. You get the picture, they’re thought of as the good guys. The Guardian certainly thinks so.

In a piece published December 18 of last year, journalist Olivia Solon launched a passionate defence of the White Helmets, claiming they had been victim of an “extraordinary disinformation campaign” by “anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls” all supported by the Russian government, who provide support for the Syria’s Assad government.

But the conflict in Syria, as you might expect, is bloody complicated.

Syria: A brief run-down

Syria has been fighting a US intervention masquerading as a civil war since 2011. Basically, a bunch of people were unhappy with the Assad political regime and they cracked the shits. But this wasn’t one united opposition party, or even a military coup-type scenario; it was a couple of different opposition forces backed by a whole cast of self-interested external players.

Suddenly, Bashar al-Assad is fighting a civil war on multiple fronts against multiple opponents of his democratically elected government. These include terrorist groups and so-called “moderate rebels” financed by the US. We all know about the war against ISIS – of course we know about that, it’s the one that is important to us in the West, duh!  As it turns out, it’s also a force bought and paid for by the US and its allies. It turns out that Islamic extremism, neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism have over-lapping interests. Assad is also fighting a civil war against the Free Syrian Army, which is described as a “moderate” faction, loosely assembled and mainly led by ex-military officials who defected from the Syrian Armed Forces.

Arab Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia – client states of the US and UK – are pouring resources into any-and-all opponents of Assad.  That includes the US-funded terrorist affiliated combatants.

Vanessa Beeley, British investigative journalist in the Middle East, and one of the journalists criticised in The Guardian’s article, says the sectarian narrative of Shia vs Sunni in Syria is being “externally imposed” as part of a regime change narrative. (Assad is Alawi, his wife is Sunni). 

Why does this matter?

The White Helmets are allied with the so-called “moderate” rebel forces, backed by the US and UK governments. According to reporting from Beeley, who has spent years on the ground in Syria, they are responsible for terror attacks across the country. They receive funding, training and practical support from the US and its allies. This affiliation has been described as “imperialist” by critics who argue the group is not just saving people in bombed-out buildings but are in-fact working to destabilise the Assad regime by releasing falsified video footage, lying about atrocities perpetrated by Assad-aligned combatants, agitating to turn peaceful conflicts violent and carrying out atrocities to bring about regime change.  

The US would quite like to topple the Assad regime once and for all, for…oil and balance of power reasons we won’t go into here today. (But which you can read more about here. And here. These critics include Russian media and government sources, which are lambasted by mainstream media pundits as biased and wrong, but also several Western writers, journalists and academics. 

Thus endeth the Editor’s Note

So much for ‘Comment is Free’: Professor Tim Hayward. 

The Guardian recently published an article claiming that critical discussion of the White Helmets in Syria has been ‘propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government’. Many readers were dismayed at this crude defence of a – presumably – pro-imperialist perspective, and at the unwarranted smearing of reasoned questioning based on evidence from independent journalists.

What The Guardian did next:

Meanwhile, the article’s author, Olivia Solon, tweeting from California, allowed herself to promote her piece while simply blocking critical voices.

Conduct hardly more becoming was that of The Guardian’s George Monbiot who joined in, tweeting smears against critics and suggesting they read up about ‘the Russian-backed disinformation campaign against Syria’s heroic rescue workers’. Judging by the tenor of responses to this, the journalist misjudged his surprising intervention. It seems that people who follow these matters are able to decide for themselves who and what they find credible.

As for allowing a fair hearing to independent researchers like Vanessa Beeley, it is poignant to observe that while The Guardian’s journalists were tweeting away, she was actually on the ground in Syria, again putting herself at personal risk of bombs and mortars despatched by the fighters that the White Helmets provide support to.

She was there meeting – and filming – Syrian people who provide grave witness statements concerning those that The Guardian uncritically commends as ‘heroic rescue workers’.

A growing number of us believe that it is high time the critical questions raised by independent investigators be treated with the seriousness and scrupulousness they warrant. That is why the academic Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and the Media offered the following response to The Guardian under its ‘Comment is Free’ rubric. Since it was not published there, I post it on behalf of the group here:

The White Helmets are a construct of the US / UK / NATO alliance, writes Vanessa Beeley. Because most news outlets have not bothered to make contact with volunteers in the REAL Syria Civil Defence, “western audiences never received a balanced view of the situation”.

From the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media

Seeking truth about White Helmets in Syria

The recent Guardian article by Olivia Solon attacks those investigating and questioning the role of the White Helmets in Syria and attributes all such questioning to Russian propaganda, conspiracy theorising and deliberate disinformation. The article does little, however, to address the legitimate questions which have been raised about the nature of the White Helmets and their role in the Syrian conflict.

In addition, academics such as Professors Tim Hayward and Piers Robinson have been subjected to intemperate attacks from mainstream media columnists such as George Monbiot through social media for questioning official narratives.

More broadly, as Louis Allday described in 2016 with regard to the war in Syria, to express ‘even a mildly dissenting opinion … has seen many people ridiculed and attacked …

‘These attacks are rarely, if ever, reasoned critiques of opposing views: instead they frequently descend into personal, often hysterical, insults and baseless, vitriolic allegations’.

These are indeed difficult times in which to ask serious and probing questions. It should be possible for public debate to proceed without resort to ad hominem attacks and smears.

It is possible to evaluate the White Helmets through analysis of verifiable government and corporate documents which describe their funding and purpose.

Image credit: Activist Post.

So, what do we know about the White Helmets?

Though the ‘Syria Civil Defence’ is the ‘official title’ given to the White Helmets, it is not Syria’s official civil defence force. Here it is important to note that the real Syria Civil Defence already exists; and it is the only such agency recognised by the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO). The White Helmets receive funding from the UK government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and the US government’s USAID, Office of Transition Initiatives programme – the Syria Regional Program II.

The UK and US governments do not provide direct training and support to the White Helmets. Instead, private contractors bid for the funding from the CSSF and USAID.

Mayday Rescue won the CSSF contract, and Chemonics won the USAID contract. As such, Chemonics and Mayday Rescue train and support the White Helmets on behalf of the US and UK governments.

Second, the CSSF is directly controlled by the UK National Security Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, while USAID is controlled by the US National Security Council, the Secretary of State and the President. The CSSF is guided by the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which incorporates UK National Security Objectives. Specifically, the White Helmets funding from the CSSF falls under National Security Objective “2d: Tackling conflict and building stability overseas”. This is a constituent part of the broader “National Security Objective 2: Project our Global Influence”.

The funding background of the White Helmets raises important questions regarding their purpose. A summary document published online indicates that the CSSF funding for the White Helmets is currently coordinated by the Syria Resilience Programme. This document highlights that the core objective of the programme is to support “the moderate opposition to provide services for their communities and to contest new space”, as to empower “legitimate local governance structures to deliver services gives credibility to the moderate opposition”.

The document goes on to state that the White Helmets (‘Syria Civil Defence’) “provide an invaluable reporting and advocacy role”, which “has provided confidence to statements made by UK and other international leaders made in condemnation of Russian actions”. The ‘Syria Resilience CSSF Programme Summary’ is a draft document and not official government policy. However, the summary indicates the potential dual use of the White Helmets by the UK government: 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.

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 organization. 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.

The White Helmets do not appear to be the independent agency that some have claimed them to be.

Rather, their funding background, and the strategic objectives of those funders, provide strong prima facie grounds for considering the White Helmets as part of a US/UK information operation designed to underpin regime change in Syria as other independent journalists have argued.

It is time for the smears and personal attacks to stop, allowing full and open investigation by academics and journalists into UK policy toward Syria, including the role of the White Helmets, leading to a better-informed public debate.

Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media

Steering Committee

Professor Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, University of Edinburgh

Professor Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics, University of Edinburgh

Professor Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism University of Sheffield


Jake Mason (PhD candidate, University of Sheffield)

Divya Jha (PhD candidate, University of Sheffield)


[1] Having sent the article reproduced here to ‘Comment is Free’ at The Guardian on 23 December, but receiving no definite response, despite a follow up email, on 5 January, we sent the following letter to The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor: (This also received no response.)

Dear Mr Chadwick,

We are writing in relation to an article by Olivia Solon “How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine” published on 18 December. This article asserted that those who have questioned the ostensible role of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organisation, including the experienced journalists Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, are part of “a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government“.

We sent on 23 December a request (reproduced below) to Comment is Free requesting that they consider for publication a brief (800-word) response to Solon’s article. This article set out the grounds for a more serious engagement with the questions that arise from UK and US government support for media-related operations in Syria. The text of this article is reproduced below. The original is attached as a Word document, in case the embedded links do not work in the unformatted text.

Despite a second message on 28 December specifically requesting a written response to the original message on 23 December (and copied to you), we have not had any response from The Guardian other than automated acknowledgements. Before we proceed to publish this material elsewhere, it is important to document that this article has been seen by an editor and rejected (if that was the decision). I understand that Comment is Free editors are not able to reply to every pitch, but this one concerns an article that has serious implications for The Guardian’s reputation.

We request therefore that you ask your editorial colleagues to respond in writing with a confirmation that our article has been seen and rejected. A one-sentence email message from an editor would be enough – we shall not bother you again.


Prof. Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, University of Edinburgh

Prof. Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics, University of Edinburgh

Prof. Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism, University of Sheffield


This piece was originally published on Tim Hayward’s website and was reproduced with permission of the author. 

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