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Thursday 9 March 2017

The truth about the White Helmets.

By Flora Bain

Last week Syria was centre stage, not on the news channels for once, but at Hollywood’s biggest event of the year. The Oscar for best short documentary was awarded to The White Helmets, a film showing the heroism of Syria’s volunteer rescuers. The film’s director Orlando von Einsiedel read out a message from Raed Saleh, head of Syria Civil Defence: Their work, he said, is guided by the verse in the Qur’an ‘To save one life is to save all of humanity,’ and he called for peace in Syria. Celebrities rose to their feet in recognition of his call.

In response, Russia’s Embassy to the UK posted this cartoon on their Twitter account. At first I thought it must be a hoax—the real Russian Embassy tweeting this image? The creator of this image Iad Tawil (who describes himself as ‘a secular Syrian’) has playing into the most pernicious stereotypes of his fellow countrymen. Using nakedly racist imagery, the cartoon depicts a thick lipped man, shaggy beard trailing down his chest, a suicide vest beneath an camouflage shirt. On his head is a white helmet, in his hand a shiny Oscar statuette shrinks away from him.

Who would want to attack the White Helmets? To date they have saved over 82,000 lives. Formed as self organised groups of volunteer rescuers in late 2012 in areas that were independent of the regime, these volunteer first responders joined together as Syrian Civil Defence in 2014. Numbering 3,000 people, they are ordinary men (and some 70 women) who risk their lives to help others. These are the people that run towards the burning buildings, the ones lifting rubble with their hands to reach buried children, who they are sometimes able to rescue alive.

Yet people do attack them. The best way to understand this might be to ask who is doing the attacks? And what’s in it for them?

The cartoon is just the tip of the iceberg of the vast quantity of propaganda directed against Syria Civil Defence rescuers. On the night of the Oscars, the first media outlet to post in any depth about the award was Russia Today—or ‘RT’ as they have been rebranded—an outlet funded by the Russian state. They had obviously prepared. The headline? ‘Film about Syrian White Helmets Wins Oscar Amid Allegations of Terrorist Ties’. These allegations come from Russia and from the Syrian Regime.

The term post-truth is used to imply that the truth does not exist, but the truth is still there, it’s just that people are less confident about where to find it, and the trolls are ready to exploit this. Using images and strategies straight out of the propagandists handbook, they repeat lies until they acquire a veneer of truth.

One of the favourite smears of the many propaganda sites and Russian paid trolls is the accusation that the White Helmets are connected to Al Qaeda. They cite their presence in areas in which the Al Qaeda linked Al Nusra Front is present to imply this connection. The White Helmets operate with a policy of neutrality (which has included rescuing regime soldiers) and consequently work in areas controlled by many different groups.

The second favourite smear is that they are Western dupes—by receiving financial support from the US, UK and others they are unwitting pawns in the Western imperialist war. What is most striking is that the accusation itself shows a Western imperialist and racist attitude, unable to imagine that Syrians might think and act for themselves. While the UK should be ashamed of its failure to act against the Assad regime’s killing of civilians, giving practical support to the support the courageous work of the White Helmets (such as equipment donated by London Fire Brigade) is something to be proud of.

So we get to the why. Both these smears play to the advantage of the Assad regime and Russia. The White Helmets are a threat to them. By showing humanity and bravery, the White Helmets prove daily that there is a better alternative to the Assad regime’s savagery. The White Helmets have a media unit to communicate and record their work and through recording their work, people also see the abuses—bombing, chemical weapon use, phosphorus, that have been perpetrated by the Assad regime and Russia upon Syrian people.

In the simplest terms, the White Helmets are also a practical obstacle. They are trying to save the very lives that the Assad regime is trying to control and extinguish, and so the regime treats them as a target. On the same day the Oscar was awarded another Syria Civil Defence centre was hit by aerial bombardment in Idlib. To date 154 volunteers have died in their work.

Syria Civil Defence rescuers are also vulnerable to persecution by the regime. In the evacuation of Aleppo, White Helmets volunteer Abdulhadi Kamel was abducted by pro regime forces, and a forced confession was broadcast. Amnesty International and the White Helmets are campaigning for his release.

We talk of post truth but ultimately the truth must be heard. This is precisely why the documentary, and the award of the Oscar was such a threat to the regime and Russia. Watch the film, follow the White Helmets, and tell people you know about their heroism and about the need for peace in Syria, because that’s what the propaganda cannot be allowed to hide.