The ‘White Helmets’ and the Inherent Contradiction of America’s Syria Policy
The “Arria Formula”
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.
The “Neutral” Activist
Even void of the controversy over social media posts, the public face of the White Helmets is one that is strictly anti-Assad in nature. “Assad remained a symbol who fuels violence in Syria,” Farouq Habib, a founder of the SCD who today serves as the program manager for May Day Rescue, told an audience in Ireland in October 2015. Earlier, in June 2015, he had testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, imploring committee members to “move immediately to stop the killing machine operated by the Assad regime against the Syrian people” by “imposing a no-fly zone.”
The imposition of a no-fly zone over northern Syria has been a rallying cry of those who advocate regime change in Damascus—it has been a central tenet of the Erdogan government in Turkey and a favorite policy position of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Key to such a policy is the argument that the Syrian air force (and, since September 2015, the Russian air force) has been systematically slaughtering Syrian civilians with indiscriminate bombing. The White Helmets have played a major role in facilitating this argument, constantly imploring whoever will listen to implement a no-fly zone to protect the people of Syria from the horrors of Assad’s ubiquitous barrel bombs.
Civilians killed in Syria—1.9 percent by Rebels; 2.7 percent by ISIS; 95.4 percent by Regime.
These figures appear prominently on a poster hanging inside the White Helmets’ coordination center in Istanbul. There is no doubt the Syrian civil war has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Syrians; Amnesty International estimates some 400,000 have been killed to date, although with no official body counts that number is soft.
This doesn’t stop American officials, such as Samantha Power, from trying to create the impression that blame for these deaths rests solely on Bashar al-Assad. “Assad killing thousands of civ in Syria—pol solution urgently nec & regime backers must insist it end barrel bombs/chlorine/indiscrim attacks,” Power tweeted last year. Her words mirror those of the White Helmets. “There is great danger for civilians from the Syrian Army, the militias who are fighting with them, and ISIS,” White Helmets media activist Khaled Khatib said. “But the weapon that kills the most Syrians—by 90 percent—is the barrel.”
At the time of Power’s tweet (June 2015), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based clearinghouse for information coming out of Syria and generally sourced to anti-regime activists, reported that some 330,000 Syrians had been killed in the Syrian civil war. Of this number, some 93,600 were soldiers and militia loyal to President Assad. Another 82,550 were Syrian rebels, anti-regime foreign fighters and defectors, making for a total of 176,150 combatant deaths, more than 50 percent of the total.
This percentage comported with the findings of William Eckhardt, the military lawyer who led the prosecution of crimes committed by American soldiers at My Lai, during the Vietnam War. In his formative study, “Civilian Deaths in Wartime,” Eckhardt said, “The civilian percentage of war-related deaths remained at about 50 percent from century to century.” In short, while the number of civilian deaths in Syria was horrible, it was not out of proportion with what could be expected, given the overall scope of the Syrian conflict.
Moreover, a study conducted by The New York Times in 2015 found that of the civilians killed in the Syrian conflict, more than 30 percent of civilian casualties were from the effects of artillery and mortar fire. About 33 percent of civilian deaths were a result of shootings and mass killings (although this figure is widely recognized as being underreported, given the lack of data coming from Islamic State-controlled areas). The emphasis placed by the White Helmets and their supporters on aerial bombardment was misplaced—only 22 percent of Syrian civilians died as a result of regime air attacks, with most of these not using barrel bombs.
These calculations predate the intervention by the Russian air force. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has calculated that some 2,000 civilians have been killed by Russian airstrikes between September 2015 and March 2016. During this same period, the Russian air force is said to have killed nearly 1,500 opposition troops and more than 1,100 Islamic State fighters, producing a civilian casualty ratio of 1 to 1.3, an improvement over the pre-Russian intervention figures.
There is no escaping the reality that, for all of their heroic rescue work, the White Helmets function as an effective propaganda arm of the anti-Assad movement. There is a symbiotic, hand-in-glove relationship between the anti-Assad rhetoric of the ostensibly “neutral and impartial” White Helmets and the policy objectives of their funders, a relationship that embodies the notion of a quid pro quo relationship between the two. With their training, equipment and logistical sustainment underwritten exclusively by donations from Western governments (primarily the U.S. and U.K.), the White Helmets serve as a virtual echo chamber for American and British politicians and officials.
Without casting aspersions on the heroism of its members in rescuing Syrian civilians, without this propagandist value the White Helmets would not receive donations on the scale that they currently enjoy. The recent denial of an entry visa into the United States by the Department of Homeland Security to the head of the White Helmets, Raed Saleh, serves as a case in point, underscoring the sensitivity that surrounds the White Helmets and their close proximity to entities—Al Nusra Front and Islamic State—that have been officially deemed as terrorist. The White Helmets are useful only so long as they stay on message, and that message is delivered through a narrative constructed from carefully edited imagery put out by the White Helmets themselves. Simply put, if the White Helmets turn off their cameras, America will turn off the money.
The messaging of the White Helmets is not serendipitous, but rather part of a deliberate strategy that imbues every aspect of their work. The images and videos depicting the work of the White Helmets inside Syria are exclusively self-produced and distributed. Even a recent documentary film distributed by Netflix (not surprisingly titled “The White Helmets”) had to rely on the White Helmets for the film shot inside Syria (Khaled Khatib, the White Helmet media activist, was trained by the film’s cinematographer on how to operate the specialized camera used in the film). The only entity allowed to tell the White Helmets story are the White Helmets themselves, and in this they have been very successful—their work has garnered them the attention, support and admiration of numerous organizations, parties and luminaries outside Syria (Russia and Iran, allies of Assad, being the notable exceptions).
A Magnet for Terror
The compelling way in which the White Helmets document the horrors of the Syrian civil war enables people like Samantha Power to score political points at the United Nations and elsewhere. But the message is a double-edged sword, as it also ably shines a spotlight on the very actions the anti-Assad forces use to justify their resistance—especially Al Nusra Front and Islamic State, in both of whose territory the White Helmets freely operate. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said, “There is no one who has done more to make Syria a magnet for terrorism than Bashar al-Assad.” Or put another way, the United States is the No. 1 funder and facilitator of one of the most effective recruiting tools used by terrorists inside Syria today—the White Helmets.
Abdullah Nawhlu’s testimony before the Arria Formula meeting chaired by Power only underscores this point. “If the siege of Aleppo continues,” he said to the audience over a phone line with gunfire crackling in the background, “greater humanitarian disasters will happen … we’re talking about 350,000 humans, a huge humanitarian disaster that will shame humanitarian organizations forever.”
Al Nusra could not have said it better. In fact, some 10 days after Nawhlu’s testimony, Sheikh Mostafa Mahamed, the director of communications for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (or FTS), the rebranded Al Nusra Front, told Sky News that, through their ongoing siege of Aleppo, “Assad and his allies cut off 300,000 civilians from the only supply route that would allow humanitarian aid.” FTS was, at the time, leading dozens of disparate rebel groups in Syria in an offensive against what Mahamed called the “four horsemen of the Syrian apocalypse—the Assad regime, Russia, Iran and the militia of Hezbollah.”
Power had acknowledged the very military operations described by Mahamed during the Arria Formula meeting a little more than a week before his news conference. “Opposition groups,” she declared, “joined by members of the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra, launched a counteroffensive” targeting the “overwhelming force of the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah” in order to break “the Assad regime’s siege of Eastern Aleppo.” It was as if Power and Mahamed were speaking off of the same talking points. The confluence of policy and objectives that links the United States, the White Helmets and Al Nusra Front are very real, if not openly acknowledged.
The Russians have repeatedly cautioned against America’s embrace of messaging that underpins the propaganda purposes of those who oppose the Assad regime—including Al Nusra Front/FTS. “We urge our colleagues to refrain from their usual deceit,” Russia’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Vladimir Safrankov, said in the aftermath of Power’s Arria Formula meeting, “and admit that the main cause of all humanitarian problems in Syria is not the counter-terrorist actions by the legitimate government in Syria to bring order against the external interference in intra-Syrian affairs in 2011 which sought to topple legitimate authorities and provide weapons to the opposition.”
The Russians’ position is fundamentally out of sync with that of their American counterparts. “As long as Assad is there,” Secretary of State Kerry told reporters last May, “the opposition is not going to stop fighting.” The problem for Kerry, however, is that this “opposition” includes two entities—Islamic State and Al Nusra Front—that are designated by both the United States and the United Nations as terrorist groups. Efforts by the United States and Russia to broker a cease-fire in Syria to allow the delivery of much-needed humanitarian supplies to Eastern Aleppo and elsewhere have been frustrated by the close relationship that exists between many of the “vetted” opposition groups and Al Nusra Front.
Kerry himself has acknowledged the close relationship between these groups and Al Nusra Front, and the difficulty this poses when trying to deconflict military action designed to strike terrorists such as Islamic State and Al Nusra Front while leaving the “vetted” opposition untouched. “The most important thing,” Kerry told reporters, “is seeing if we can reach an understanding with the Russians about how to … deal with [Islamic State] and al-Nusra. They are designated terrorist groups by the United Nations. … There are a couple of subgroups underneath the two designated … who brush off and fight … alongside these other two sometimes to fight the Assad regime.”
Kerry’s remarks, while reflective of reality, contradicted stated American policy. “For months,” a senior Obama administration official was quoted as saying in response, “we’ve been arguing to make sure the Russians and the Syrian regime don’t equate these groups with the terrorists. Kerry’s line yields that point.”
This very point continues to hamper efforts by Russia and the United States to negotiate an effective cease-fire in Syria. The most recent iteration of cease-fire in Syria—negotiated earlier this month—requires that the United States separate the “vetted” moderate opposition from those units designated as belonging to terrorist groups, such as Al Nusra Front/Fateh al-Sham, so that the former can be hit by American and Russian airstrikes while sparing the latter. This has proved all but impossible to do, given the close links that exist between Al Nusra Front/FTS and the other opposition groups.
“A Cowardly Act”
The delivery of humanitarian aid to Syrian civilian population hubs is a centerpiece of the current cease-fire. The United States and others condemned the Syrian government for not facilitating the movement of humanitarian aid convoys, as required by the terms of the cease-fire. Russia responded by stating that rebel violations of the cease-fire made any movement along the routes designated for aid delivery impractical and unsafe. Then, on Sept. 19—five days after the cease-fire was signed—aid convoys finally rolled. One, comprising 31 vehicles, delivered relief supplies to the village of Urem al-Kubra, west of Aleppo. Notifications of the convoy’s route and destination were sent to all parties, with the exception of Al Nusra Front/FTS, which as a terrorist organization was not a party to the cease-fire. A Russian military drone accompanied the convoy until the delivery of aid was accomplished, and then left the area. The convoy proceeded to a Syrian Red Crescent warehouse on the outskirts of Urem al Kubra, where it began to offload supplies.
What happened next is a matter of dispute. Ali Barakat, an employee of the Syrian Red Crescent Society and the brother of Omar Barakat, the head of the Red Crescent office in Urem al Kubra, stated that the area in and around the Red Crescent warehouse was struck by more than 20 “missiles” fired from both helicopters and the ground. One of these “missiles” struck a vehicle carrying his brother, killing him. Eleven other aid workers also were killed in the attack. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the attack as a “possible war crime and a cowardly act.”
The first rescuers who arrived on scene were the White Helmets, cameras rolling. The scene they recorded was one of mayhem, with bright orange fireballs exploding in the background from 18 burning aid trucks and their contents. Hussein Badawi, who led the White Helmet team that responded, repeated Ali Barakat’s narrative of the attack coming from “helicopters and land missiles,” noting that the attacks took place over the course of two hours, including some 11 “missiles” that struck the convoy after his team arrived on scene and began searching for survivors. Later Badawi altered his story, claiming in a video clip released by the White Helmets that the convoy had been struck by “four barrel bombs” dropped from Syrian government helicopters.
The United States and the United Nations were quick to condemn what was termed a “cowardly” attack on the aid convoy. The initial statements coming from the United States placed the blame on Syria and its Russian allies. “The important thing,” Kerry told reporters after reviewing initial reports of the attack, “is the Russians need to control Assad, who is evidently indiscriminately bombing, including on humanitarian convoys.”
The Pentagon, however, placed the blame for the attack on the aid convoy squarely on the Russian air force, noting that American intelligence data showed that Russian SU-24 fighter-bombers were in the air in the vicinity of Urem al Kubra at the time of the attack. “We hold the Russian government responsible for airstrikes in this airspace,” U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters, “given [that] their commitment under the cessation of hostilities was to ground air operations where humanitarian assistance was flowing.”
For their part, the Russians denied any role in the deadly attack. “Russian and Syrian warplanes did not carry out any airstrikes on a UN humanitarian aid convoy in the southwest of Aleppo,” a spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry declared. Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, noted that Russian intelligence showed that Al Nusra Front and other rebel groups were operating BM-21 surface-to-surface rocket launchers—“land missiles,” to quote the eyewitness accounts of the aid convoy attack—in the vicinity of Aleppo at the time of the attack.
“We have studied video footage from the scene from so-called ‘activists’ in detail and did not find any evidence that the convoy had been struck by ordnance,” Igor Konashenko, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said in a written statement. “Only representatives of the ‘White Helmets’ organization close to the Nusra Front who, as always, found themselves at the right time in the right place by chance with their video cameras can answer who did this and why.”
The United Nations, swayed by the lack of any direct evidence of an airstrike, quickly changed its story. “We are not in a position to determine whether these were in fact airstrikes,” the United Nations humanitarian spokesman, Jens Laerke, told reporters. “We are in a position to say that the convoy was attacked.” Even the United States ratcheted back its rhetoric. “We don’t know exactly what happened, we’re working through it,” Brent McGurk, the U.S. presidential envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State, told reporters. “We think it was an airstrike.”
For their part, the White Helmets remain adamant that the aid convoy was, in fact, attacked by a series of airstrikes. “A total of four regime helicopters targeted [the convoy] with eight barrel bombs,” the group declared in a press statement. “Russian aircraft then struck the location with cluster bombs, preventing the civil defense from reaching the location of the attack, giving first aid to those requiring it and removing the dead bodies.” In short, it was a “double tap,” with a twist—Syrian helicopters dropping barrel bombs, followed by Russian jets dropping cluster munitions. Barrel bombs and the “double tap”—themes the White Helmets have emphasized from the group’s inception. But in this case, the statement of the White Helmets is not backed up by any evidence, either on the ground or elsewhere.
The attack on the aid convoy threatened to undo the cease-fire negotiated between Russia and the United States before it even came into force. Both parties scrambled to salvage what they could. “The cease-fire is not dead,” Kerry said after a recent emergency meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
But it was. Russia and Syria resumed their aerial bombardment of rebel-held Eastern Aleppo, using thermobaric “bunker busting” bombs in an onslaught that included in its target list three facilities belonging to the White Helmets. “What’s happening now is annihilation,” a spokesperson for the White Helmets said of the bombings.
While Eastern Aleppo was being pounded, the Stockholm-based Right Livelihood Award Foundation announced that the White Helmets had been named as one of the recipients of what is often called “the alternative Nobel prize” for their “outstanding bravery, compassion and humanitarian engagement in rescuing civilians.”
No mention was made of the murky role played by the White Helmets in fabricating a narrative about a Russian-Syrian airstrike against the Urem al Kubra aid convoy in a way that diverted attention away from Al Nusra Front—a designated terrorist group with which the White Helmets maintain a close relationship—and onto Russia and the Syrian government.
State Department spokesman John Kirby has acknowledged that the United States recognizes “the difficulties of separating al-Nusra from the moderate opposition in some areas of the country.” Given the reality of the White Helmets’ ambiguous existence—one in which they receive funding, training and political support from America and its allies on the one hand, while operating side by side, and often in cooperation with, Al Nusra Front (and even Islamic State) on the other—the ability to distinguish hero from villain becomes a challenge.
Confronting the social media-based recruiting prowess of Islamist extremists inside Syria has become a leading priority for American policymakers. The ongoing lionization of the White Helmets, however, whether in an Arria Formula meeting of the United Nations Security Council hosted by American Ambassador Power, or through the awarding of “the alternative Nobel prize” by a Swedish foundation, is problematic in this regard. By embracing the anti-Assad message and imagery of the White Helmets, that organization’s supporters are in actuality furthering the messaging used by Al Nusra Front, its affiliate organizations and Islamic State to recruit followers in Syria and around the world. The contradictions inherent in this situation should be evident to all.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and a former weapons inspector. He is the author of seven books on arms control and foreign affairs. His most recent book, “Deal of the Century: How Iran Blocked the West’s Road to War,” is forthcoming from Clarity Press Inc. in March.