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 theorizing 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. So, what do we know about the White Helmets? First, the ‘Syria Civil Defence’, the ‘official title’ given to the White Helmets, is supported by US and UK funding. Here it is important to note that the real Syria Civil Defence already exists and 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.
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)