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The ‘White Helmets’ and the Inherent Contradiction of America’s Syria Policy
Posted on Oct 5, 2016
By Scott Ritter
She is a Harvard Law-educated, Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose book, “A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide,” helped shape the foreign policy of President Barack Obama. As special assistant to the president for multilateral affairs and human rights on the National Security Council, she strongly advocated in favor of American military intervention in Libya on humanitarian grounds. Later, as the American ambassador to the United Nations, she became the face of America’s policy in Syria. Samantha Power has strongly criticized the United Nations Security Council for failing to take stronger action in response to what she has termed the “morally reprehensible” actions of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saving much of her ire for Russia, which she claimed “continues to hold the council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities.”
Power, who has called the problem of Syria “one of the most critical foreign policy challenges we face,” openly advocated for American military strikes against that country in 2013 in the aftermath of chemical weapons attacks in a Damascus suburb she attributed to the Syrian government. President Obama’s unwillingness to pull the trigger then, and his decision to instead opt for the Russian-brokered peaceful removal of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, was a frustrating setback for the American ambassador. Even more galling was the intervention of the Russian air force in Syria in the fall of 2015, blunting advances made by U.S.-trained and -equipped rebels and strengthening Assad’s hold on power. “We call on Russia to immediately cease attacks on Syrian opposition and civilians,” Power tweeted, warning that the Russian bombing “will only fuel more extremism and radicalization.”
Syria is Samantha Power’s own personal “problem from hell.” While she advocated for the creation and support of a moderate opposition to Assad that existed only in the minds of Washington politicians, the reality was that what Power called the “Syrian opposition” was, in fact, largely composed of Islamist fundamentalists, the most effective of whom fought under the banner of the Al Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate whose roots lay in the resistance to the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. When Iraq’s al-Qaida affiliate morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the United States stood aside, operating under the notion that all that undermined the rule of Assad was good for American policy.
Even when the excesses of Islamic State forced the United States to act, Washington did so in desultory fashion, not wanting to alleviate the pressure brought to bear on the Syrian government by the Islamists. Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq were bombed, but never at a scale that shifted in any meaningful fashion the balance of power on the battle lines drawn between Islamic State and the Syrian regime. Extensive use of American air power helped blunt, and ultimately defeat, an Islamic State offensive against Syrian Kurds around the northern Syrian town of Kobani in heavy fighting between September 2014 and April 2015. And yet, when Islamic State launched a major offensive against Syrian government forces in and around the ancient city of Palmyra, in May 2015, the U.S. responded with a single airstrike that targeted Islamic State antiaircraft artillery. The message sent to Islamic State was clear—as long as its efforts exclusively targeted the Syrian regime, America would turn a blind eye.
The contrast between the American responses in Kobani and Palmyra represents the crux of the contradiction inherent in America’s Syria policy. Ambassador Power recently said during a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., “No suffering, no matter how profound, can justify terrorism.” And yet, Power noted, it was “the systematic repression and atrocities” of the Assad regime that created “a climate of instability and despair that extremist groups have used to help recruit.” According to the American calculus put forward by Power, the very act of defending the Assad regime represents a de facto support for terrorism.
This stance puts the United States directly at odds with Russia, which has been unwilling to limit its military intervention in Syria to simply striking Islamic State, and instead focused its airstrikes on all opponents of the Assad regime, including Al Nusra Front and the so-called “moderate opposition” operating under the banner of the “Free Syrian Army,” or the FSA. The Russian intervention has allowed the Syrian government to solidify its hold on power and reverse many of the gains that had been achieved by opposition forces supported by the United States and its regional allies.
From the perspective of Russia, its military operations have significantly degraded the capabilities of terrorist organizations operating inside Syria. The Russians hold that there is little, if anything, that differentiates Al Nusra Front from other opposition forces, including the FSA, which in the opinion of Moscow has shed any pretense of moderation in the name of radical Islam. “The Free Syrian Army no longer exists,” Russian Ambassador Alexey Borodavkin told a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. “Armed groups qualified as ‘moderate’ are coordinating their activities with terrorist groups.” Borodavkin’s assertion closely tracked with a report by an independent commission of inquiry into the Syrian conflict that found that “groups labeled as moderate,” such as the FSA, were “closely coordinating with extremist groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.”
This distinction seems to be lost on Samantha Power. On Aug. 8 of this year, she chaired an “Arria Formula” meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the situation inside Syria. Named after former Venezuelan Ambassador to the United Nations Diego Arria, who instituted the practice of informal, confidential gatherings hosted by council members for the purpose of engaging high representatives of governments, international organizations and non-state parties, the Arria Formula meeting format has been used by Security Council members over the years to explore issues of international peace and security that fall within the purview of the Security Council.
The symbolism of the Arria Formula format was not lost on Power, who as a journalist covered the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1993 to 1996 and was familiar with the inaugural Arria Formula meetings, where Ambassador Arria brought in eyewitnesses to describe to members of the Security Council the horrible reality on the ground in Bosnia in an effort to spur meaningful action on the part of the United Nations to stop the atrocities.
“This is going to be one of the most difficult sessions any of us have ever sat through,” Power told the meeting attendees. “We can expect the briefers to share gut-wrenching eyewitness accounts. We will not have plausible deniability.”
Heroism Redefined—Syria’s “White Helmets”
As Diego Arria had done with Bosnia, Power had assembled a cast of people “who have witnessed firsthand the human impact of the fight for Aleppo.” The first of these witnesses was Abdullah Nawhlu, “the head of the Aleppo city sector of Syria’s ‘White Helmets,’ ” Power said at the Arria Formula meeting, “and a first responder who is on the ground, day in and day out, trying to rescue injured civilians.” Before turning over the floor to Nawhlu, Power mentioned a fellow White Helmet named Ismail al-Abdullah, who recounted to a reporter his recent experiences in rescuing victims of an airstrike. “When you see human beings suffering, you need to do something to help them,” Ismail said. “I consider everyone who is staying in Aleppo—all of them—heroes.”
Out of the horror that is Syria today, there has emerged one group that has captured the imagination of the West—the White Helmets of the Syrian Civil Defense, a team of specially trained first responders who provide fire and rescue services to civilians in need. Kristyan Benedict, an official with Amnesty International, has noted, “Syria’s White Helmets are redefining what it means to be brave and heroic. No matter what side of the conflict they’re on—their bravery provides hope in a place where there is little else.” The heroics of the White Helmets have been praised by many individuals and governments around the world, and the group has been nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
The danger faced by the White Helmets is not a fiction—to date, 141 first responders affiliated with the Syrian Civil Defense have been killed while performing their duty. And although their claims of having saved more than 60,000 lives are unverifiable, there can be no doubt that many lives have, in fact, been saved as a result of their work. But let there be no doubt—despite their oft-cited claims of being neutral and impartial, that the White Helmets are very partisan. Raed Saleh, the head of Syrian Civil Defense, has testified before the United States Congress and the United Nations Security Council. “As a patriotic Syrian,” he told the Security Council in June 2015, “I would never have thought myself asking one day for a foreign intervention. However, the souls of innocent women and children who die every day call us to ask for any intervention possible to put an end to the barbaric killing machine led by Bashar al-Assad.”
While the lore of the White Helmets holds that the impetus behind the creation of Syrian Civil Defense came from the actions of Syrian civilian volunteers who responded to neighbors in need following attacks by the Syrian air force, pulling bodies from the rubble and rushing victims to the hospital, the organizational underpinnings of the White Helmets can be sourced to a March 2013 meeting in Istanbul between a retired British military officer, James Le Mesurier—who had experience in the murky world of private security companies and the shadowy confluence between national security and intelligence operations and international organizations—and representatives of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Qatari Red Crescent Society. Earlier that month, the SNC was given Syria’s seat in the Arab League at a meeting of the league held in Qatar.
At that meeting, the SNC assumed Syria’s seat, and the Arab League authorized member states to actively provide support, including arms and ammunition, to the Syrian rebels. The Qataris, working through the SNC, helped assemble for Le Mesurier $300,000 in seed money from Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom for a seven-day course designed to train and equip a 25-person rescue team, recruited by the SNC, for duty in so-called “liberated areas” of Syria. The SNC made available a pair of Syrian activists—Raed Saleh and Farouq Habib—to assist Le Mesurier in this work.
With the help of the SNC, Le Mesurier reached out to the Turkish volunteer search and rescue agency AKUD to help design and deliver the training to the SNC volunteers. The success of this effort caught the attention of both the United States and the United Kingdom, and in 2014 Le Mesurier created his own company, May Day Rescue, using millions of dollars in aid from USAID and the United Kingdom’s Conflict Security and Stability Fund, to expand the role played by the White Helmets inside Syria. Since then, more than 3,000 “vetted” Syrians have received specialized training at May Day Rescue facilities inside Turkey and Jordan and have been organized into more than 120 teams located throughout rebel-held Syria—including areas under the exclusive control of Al Nusra Front and Islamic State.
In this day of social media, it didn’t take long for photographs and video clips of known White Helmet members, in their distinctive uniform, openly celebrating with Al Nusra fighters in the aftermath of Syrian government defeats, and even carrying weapons, something their status as neutral first responders strictly prohibits. The supporters of the White Helmets dismiss charges that they associate with terrorists, characterizing the social media postings as the product of a few bad apples that in no way diminishes the important and heroic work being done by the majority of the rescue workers.
“They have all chosen, they have all chosen to risk their lives to save others,” Le Mesurier told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta in a May 2015 interview, “and that makes every single one of them a hero.” The founder of the White Helmets then introduced the CNN audience to two themes that dominate the White Helmet experience—barrel bombs and the “double tap.”
“These bombs are so malignant,” Gupta explained, describing a barrel bomb, “full of explosives, rebar, wire, nails, anything else that can brutally maim and kill.” Le Mesurier elaborated further: “A barrel bomb dropping on your house is like a 7.6- magnitude earthquake 50 times a day.”
But it is not just what these bombs do when used, Le Mesurier noted, but the manner in which they are employed, especially against the White Helmets. “Helicopters normally carry two barrel bombs and they drop the first barrel bomb, which then explodes, and the pilot then remains in the sky, circling where the explosion took place,” Le Mesurier told Gupta, “waiting for a crowd to gather and waiting for rescuers to come to the scene. When a crowd gathers, they release the second bomb, and that is a double tap.”
“Eighty-four White Helmets have now been killed, mostly by double taps,” Gupta reported. “It’s why Syria is one of the most dangerous places in the world, and why being a White Helmet might be the most dangerous job in the world. And yet, they go on—2,600 have saved the lives of 18,000.”
Heroism, it seems, can cover myriad sins, even the collaboration with a designated terrorist group to fight a common enemy.
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