white helmets
Despite the virtually impenetrable fog of war that has hung over Syria ever since 2011, Western media and politicians alike have have apparently been able to identify one group of 'good guys' in the conflict with unanimous precision.

Formed in 2013, the White Helmets are universally presented in the mainstream as a band of humanitarian volunteer rescue workers - including current and former teachers, engineers, doctors and firefighters - working primarily to rescue people from rubble created by bombing raids and offer medical help to injured civilians. They are alleged to have saved thousands of lives in the process, have been nominated twice for a Nobel peace prize, and in 2016 was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary.

This benevolent picture of the White Helmets is, however, not one independent researchers who've actually travelled to Syria - much less civilians in areas the group operates - remotely recognize.

Shady Origins

Among them is journalist Vanessa Beeley. Her take on the group is stark - the White Helmets are a "propaganda construct," supporting the "neo-colonialist" ambitions of Western powers and violent extremist groups operating in Syria. Moreover, she has collected documentation indicating the group plays an active, often armed role in the terrorist war on the government of Bashar al-Assad.

"Anyone who spends even a few hours in East Aleppo can collect a vast number of allegations about major, violent abuses carried out and/or supported by the White Helmets, including the use of human shields. Where Al Qaeda and Daesh go in the country, the group is sure to follow. Their support has been logistical too, monitoring Syrian and Russian forces' flight patterns and the like," Vanessa told Sputnik.

Vanessa's suspicions about the White Helmets were initially perked by her discovery the group was founded in March 2013 not in Syria, but Turkey - and not by concerned local civilians, but James Le Mesurier, British private security specialist and former military intelligence officer.

While no mention of him is to be found on the White Helmets' official website in 2018, Le Mesurier's work in the UK armed forces took him to several far-flung theaters of conflict, including a spell as intelligence coordinator for Pristina City, Kosovo soon after the NATO intervention.

After leaving the army, he worked for a number of organizations, including a term as Vice President for Special Projects at private mercenary organization Olive Group, which has since merged with Academi - formerly known as Blackwater, the infamous US private military contractor.

In a 2014 interview with Men's Journal, Le Mesurier implied the founding of the White Helmets was largely serendipitous - he was holidaying in Istanbul, and felt compelled to help civilians in Syria after hearing harrowing stories of devastation from refugees who'd fled across the border. Vanessa doesn't buy this narrative for a moment.

"Given his background, I refuse to believe his presence in Turkey was coincidental, or his founding of the White Helmets spontaneous. It happened when the Syrian civil war was turning in Assad's favor, and the international push for regime change was running out of steam. The ease with which he secured significant subsidy from foreign powers is interesting to say the least," Vanessa told Sputnik.

By Le Mesurier's own account, he quickly raised around US$300,000 in initial funding from the UK and US, among others, a figure that before long ballooned to over US$100 million when Western NGOs and Gulf states start stumping up cash too. Other foreign backers include the Netherlands ($4.5 million), Germany ($4.5 million), Denmark ($3.2 million) and Japan (figure undisclosed). Equipment and supplies have also flowed from a number of EU member states.

As of February 2018, the group's funding stands at over $150 million.

What Did You Learn?

The specifics of the White Helmets' genesis would perhaps be immaterial if their activities in Syria achieved a genuine humanitarian end. However, independent medical professionals who have reviewed the widely-distributed videos of the Helmets at work have raised serious concerns in this regard.

"After examination of the video, I found the measures inflicted upon [the] children, some of them lifeless, are bizarre, non-medical, non-lifesaving, and even counterproductive in terms of life-saving purposes of children," Dr. Leif Elinder, a Swedish paediatrician, has observed.

In any event, the group's claim to have saved over 90,000 lives has also been attacked in some quarters on its own merits - no documentation (such as names) of these individuals has been offered by the White Helmets, or the Western governments supporting them.

Other international first responder groups have likewise detected major issues with the White Helmets' rescue efforts. Still, despite the glaring ineptitude displayed in such clips, Western media and politicians have eagerly disseminated them. For Vanessa, this is a palpable demonstration of the group's true purpose - and the actual nature of their training.

"The White Helmets have been crucial to anti-Assad propaganda efforts, offering first-hand 'proof' of chemical weapons attacks and other alleged atrocities carried out by government forces, which are then used to make the case for intervention. These attacks are often proven to have been staged - or the work of opposition forces - later down the line. Another interesting feature of their videos is they never document actual strikes, just the aftermath, and there are always a vast number of cameras on-site," Vanessa told Sputnik.

Underlining this point, the researcher notes the Oscar-winning documentary about the White Helmets was comprised entirely of footage taken by the group itself - the high production values and crisp video quality are clear indications for Vanessa the group was trained to use, and supplied with, sophisticated, high-end equipment.

Moreover, the group have repeatedly been demonstrated to have staged and even faked photos and videos of rescues, dishonestly edited video footage to misrepresent its content, and reused old footage over and again.

However, the White Helmets' bogus humanitarianism also serves other, even more insidious purposes - concealing the atrocities of extremist factions working alongside the group, ensuring the flow of Western arms and money to the proverbial coffers of violent terrorist organizations in Syria continues untrammelled, and shrouding the group's own brutal, insurrectionary activities.

Vanessa and other independent researchers have documented numerous instances of close cooperation between the White Helmets and extremist groups such as al-Nusra Front and Nour Al Din Zinki, in East Aleppo and elsewhere.

She recorded numerous interviews with locals in the area, who all told much the same story - the organization's 'humanitarian centers' were always found alongside Nusra Front bases of operations, and White Helmet hospitals were primarily treated injured militants, not civilians. Sometimes, the White Helmets even operated out of the same building as al-Nusra Front and other terror factions.

"In December 2016, I was in East Aleppo when the Syrian Arab Army and allies liberated the area from terrorist occupation. Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers I spoke to denied ever encountering the White Helmets there, and all civilians I spoke to were confused when asked if they knew the White Helmets. The only civil defense group they'd heard of was 'al-Nusra Front Civil Defense'. Some told me this group stole from the bodies of the dead," Vanessa told Sputnik.

Not So Civil

The White Helmets' close connections with such organizations are perhaps unsurprising, given the group is embedded exclusively in areas of Syria occupied by terrorist factions.

However, beyond supporting such groups in a medical capacity, numerous instances of the Helmets working alongside them in more incendiary contexts have been documented - and Vanessa strongly suspects they also received military training from founder Le Mesurier as a result.

For instance, a clip taken during the al-Nusra Front's brutal March 2015 attack in Idlib clearly depicts White Helmet operatives beating a civilian, mingling readily with heavily armed al-Nusra Front militiamen. Another shows White Helmet operatives subsequently celebrating "victory" with al-Nusra Front in the city's main square of Idlib.

Furthermore, several videos of jihadist executions have featured members of the White Helmets in some capacity - and these clips have often been shared enthusiastically by operatives on their personal social media accounts. Moreover, many documented images show White Helmet operatives carrying arms or posing with armed militia groups in Syria.

Perhaps the most notorious example of this phenomenon occurred in the Dara'a governorate in June 2017 - a video shows a member of the White Helmets' local team climbing over dismembered bodies of Syrian Arab Army soldiers piled on a pickup truck.

As the operative stands on the mutilated bodies, extremist fighters surrounding the truck chatter excitedly, brandishing a gruesome war trophy - a victim's severed head. The White Helmet appears entirely unfazed, extracting the Syrian flag from among the bodies and tossing it to the ground.

The White Helmets issued a statement distancing the group from the horrific act, claiming to have sacked the offending volunteer for a "gross breach of conduct." Official condemnations from the group's Western governmental backers, and the mainstream media, were unforthcoming.

While such actions by definition make a mockery of the group's 'civil defense' branding, Vanessa believes the White Helmets' appropriation of the label is particularly perverse as there exists an actual Syria Civil Defense group, founded in 1953.

The group operated in government and militia-held areas alike until 2016, when it was decided they should work only in the former due to safety concerns - extremists were targeting crew members during rescue missions in occupied areas. Nonetheless, as of 2018 the organization still manages to provide aid and support to around 80 percent of the Syrian population.

She met with the group's members in Aleppo, Lattakia, Tartus and Damascus during her time in Syria, and interviews conducted with their members indicated al-Nusra Front and associated 'moderate' rebel groups in areas such as East Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Idlib, massacred members of their group, stealing much of their equipment in the process, including fire engines and ambulances. Many of these individuals went on to become White Helmets.

The virtually indivisible affiliation between armed extremist groups and the 'humanitarian' White Helmets is amply demonstrated by a film made by Pierre Le Corf, a humanitarian volunteer in Aleppo, in the White Helmets' main center in east Aleppo, shot after the group abandoned the area, departing in buses also evacuating an assortment of armed groups, including al-Nusra Front. This mass-flight took place in December 2016, under the Syrian Government Amnesty and Reconciliation agreement, which ensured safe passage for armed fighters to Idlib.

In the clip, the French national explores the former school, which had been occupied by al-Nusra Front and the White Helmets, and converted into a multifunction base of operations, incorporating a military center, Sharia court, prison, execution chambers and ammunition depots. The White Helmet sections of the building are replete with graffiti and flags affirming their fealty to a number of terrorist groups.

In Plain Sight

In an ironic twist, Raed Saleh, leader and global representative of the White Helmets, was barred from entering the US and deported from Dulles Airport in Washington DC in April 2016.

When Mark Toner of the US State Department was subsequently questioned about the incident at a press briefing, he stumbled to give a response, acknowledging that the US had at that point funded the group to the tune of $23 million, while suggesting Saleh had "extremist connections." Despite his remarks indicating US officials were clearly aware of the group's questionable affiliations, they weren't reported in the mainstream media.

While Western funding and lauding of the group continues apace, there are clear signs the White Helmets' benevolent facade is beginning to crack, even if only at the edges. For instance, in October 2016 the Threshold Foundation, which provides donations to social and environmental movements, pulled its sizeable funding from the group's documentary project.

"We have learned the subject of the film (the White Helmets organization) and others involved in this film are advocating for strategies that could entail international military force and escalated violence," the Foundation explained.

Moreover, the work of crusading investigative journalists like Vanessa is increasingly exposing how the group is a creation of Western powers, strongly financially and ideologically invested in Syrian regime change - and she has much more to publicly reveal, much of it based on documents found inside abandoned White Helmets centers.
"The White Helmets are feeding images of 'humanitarian disaster' and 'war crimes' to the very same nations funding them, to politicians and media outlets, with the explicit purpose of lobbying for a no-fly zone in Syria. Recent history teaches us establishing such a zone carries with it the threat of reducing Syria to a Libya-style failed state. They cannot be allowed to qualify as a humanitarian organization any longer," she concludes.

Vanessa Beeley Independent Journalist