Workers Vanguard No. 1103
13 January 2017
Syrian White Helmets: Tools of U.S. Imperialism
When the Netflix “documentary” The White Helmets was released in September, it was greeted with rousing fanfare. The White Helmets, popularly identified by their headgear, are promoted as humanitarian heroes who are lauded for their claims to have saved tens of thousands of lives from the rubble of the Syrian civil war. The Wall Street Journal hailed them as “White Knights for Desperate Syrians.” The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof gushed over them as “a reminder of the human capacity for courage, strength and resilience.” The London Guardian lobbied for their nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed them as “brave 1st responders on the scene.” George Clooney is planning to make a movie about them. Hollywood shortlisted the Netflix documentary for an Oscar nomination.
The slickly produced Netflix film is principally a “feel good” propaganda hoax aimed at manipulating public perception about the civil war in Syria and popularizing imperialist intervention. The White Helmets are presented as impartial, ordinary citizen volunteers with no political agenda, motivated only by the lofty motto: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.” Absent from the documentary is any mention of their origin or how they acquire their funds and equipment. Several scenes show them training in southern Turkey, with no explanation of how a group of Syrian civilian volunteers were able to cross back and forth over that border.
But there have also been a number of online articles exposing who these people really are. Most notably, Max Blumenthal, an award-winning journalist and author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, published a two-part series on alternet.org last October that clearly demonstrated the true nature of the forces behind the White Helmets. The organization was founded in 2013 by James Le Mesurier, a former British army officer and a veteran of NATO interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia who subsequently established a career in the murky world of mercenary organizations like Blackwater. The group’s members were trained to film themselves rushing into bombed buildings to extract survivors while also recording the destruction meted out by the Syrian regime. Such footage, which forms a large part of the Netflix documentary, is disseminated to the world to promote “humanitarian” imperialist military intervention to overthrow the brutal regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.
As Marxists, we have no side in the grisly civil war, which has claimed some 400,000 lives and displaced half the country’s population. However, we say that workers internationally do have a side against military intervention by the U.S. and other imperialists. It is these forces that have stoked the flames of the war by providing material and logistical support to the anti-Assad forces. Thus, while we are die-hard opponents of everything the reactionary cutthroats of ISIS stand for, we are for the military defense of ISIS against the imperialists’ armed forces and their proxies in the region. These include the Syrian Kurdish nationalists as well as, in Iraq, the Baghdad government, the Shia militias and the Kurdish pesh merga—who have all been acting as the ground troops of the U.S. military intervention. At the same time, we also oppose the other capitalist powers involved in Syria—such as Russia, Iran and Turkey—and demand that they get out.
As Marxist opponents of imperialism, we recognize that any setback for Washington coincides with the interests of the international proletariat, both in the Near East and, crucially, here in the U.S. We aim to turn the multisided disillusionment and anger of working people in the U.S. into class struggle against their capitalist rulers. It is through such struggle that the proletariat can be won to the need to build a revolutionary workers party that will lead the fight for socialist revolution to destroy the imperialist beast from within.
From the beginning, the White Helmets scheme was funded by various imperialist powers, including Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which to date has shelled out some 32 million pounds (over $40 million). The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has given out another $23 million through its Office of Transitional Initiatives (i.e., its office of regime change). Japan and several European countries have also sent financial aid to the group.
The White Helmets serve as a vehicle for a shadowy public relations outfit called the Syria Campaign, which presents itself as a “non-political” campaign for regular Syrian citizens that is dedicated to civilian protection. But, as Blumenthal writes, “Behind the lofty rhetoric about solidarity and the images of heroic rescuers rushing in to save lives is an agenda that aligns closely with the forces from Riyadh to Washington clamoring for regime change.” The Syria Campaign has organized demonstrations and mobilized pressure for Western intervention to overthrow Assad. The White Helmets documentary itself, according to Blumenthal, “appears to be at least partly the handiwork of the Syria Campaign.”
One of the key calls of both the Syria Campaign and the White Helmets is the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria. Visitors to the White Helmets’ website are promptly greeted with a request by its leader, Raed Saleh, to sign a petition for a no-fly zone. In May 2015, Saleh met with UN and European officials to push the same, while his colleague Farouq Habib testified before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs in support of such a zone. The imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria would not only be directed against Assad; it would also potentially pose war with Russia, which has provided crucial air support to the Syrian regime. Thus, Washington is currently reluctant to impose such a zone.
As for the White Helmets, who operate exclusively in territory held by anti-regime forces including the Islamic State (ISIS), they have been seen in videos and photographs posing triumphantly on the corpses of Syrian government soldiers and boasting about discarding their body parts in the trash. One video shows them with jihadist fighters celebrating under the flag of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front (now calling themselves Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) after a defeat of Syrian troops. A particularly disturbing video shows the execution of a man in civilian clothes in northern Aleppo by an Al Nusra member, and then two members of the White Helmets immediately wrapping up his body.
The Syrian civil war has seen plenty of atrocities committed against civilians by all sides, from minorities slaughtered or driven out of their villages and towns by various rebels, to the bombing of Aleppo by Russian and Syrian forces as they retook the city. With Donald Trump moving into the White House and promising to “work together” with Russia, it is unclear whether or how U.S. policy will shift regarding Syria. The bottom line for Marxists is the understanding that U.S. imperialism is the greatest enemy of working people and the oppressed around the world.
ISO: PR Agents for the
That a supposedly civilian rescue group in war-torn Syria has received tens of millions in aid from the imperialist powers while its leaders are being feted by Western governments and the United Nations (UN) should tell you that something stinks. We have many political differences with Blumenthal, but we appreciate the work he did in getting the dirt on the White Helmets. Not so the reformist International Socialist Organization (ISO), which has a long history of supporting U.S. imperialism’s aims, including in Syria (see “ISO on Syria: Pimps for U.S. Imperialism,” WV No. 1097, 7 October).
Under the title “Will the Left Hear the Cries from Aleppo?” (socialistworker.org, 19 October), the ISO’s Ashley Smith penned yet another apologia for the imperialists. This time, his main polemical target was Blumenthal, whom he denounces for laying bare the U.S. role in Syria. Having deceitfully painted the Sunni Islamist-dominated rebellion as a “pro-democracy uprising” and the “Syrian Revolution,” the ISO’s Smith complains: “Blumenthal focuses entirely on exposing the U.S., thereby letting the primary agents of counterrevolution in Syria—Assad and Russia—off the hook.” One can safely say that the ISO has never been guilty of such focus.
In fact, the ISO’s main problem with the U.S. imperialist rulers is that they have not intervened enough in Syria. Smith laments: “The U.S. withheld critical military support, for example blocking a shipment of anti-aircraft weapons that could have undermined the regime’s military advantage.” Reading Smith’s article, one gets the impression that the U.S. is barely playing a role in the Syrian conflict. In reality, as Blumenthal reports, USAID has committed nearly $340 million for “supporting activities that pursue a peaceful transition to a democratic and stable Syria.” This is on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars the CIA has spent supplying and training rebel forces in the country. And all this is on top of the tens of thousands of bombs that the U.S. has dropped on Syria and Iraq in recent years.
The U.S. ruling class that the ISO alibis is responsible for some of history’s most gruesome crimes, including the destruction of Iraqi society through a decade of sanctions followed by the 2003 invasion and occupation, which has killed hundreds of thousands. Cities like Ramadi and Fallujah have been reduced to rubble. It is telling that just around the same time that the ISO launched its polemic against Blumenthal, Iraqi ground forces, backed by U.S. special ops and aerial bombardment, launched their assault on Mosul to “liberate” that city from ISIS. Yet just like the pro-imperialist media from which the ISO takes its cue, Smith is silent about Mosul while he loudly condemns the horrors taking place in Aleppo. Thousands have been slaughtered in Mosul, including over 900 civilians, according to undoubtedly understated estimates by the UN in early December. At least 130,000 civilians have been displaced.
The ISO finds it “shocking” that Blumenthal exposed the White Helmets for the imperialist tools that they are, with Smith writing, “Just because Blumenthal can find an aid trail that leads back to the USAID doesn’t automatically mean the group and its work are an extension of U.S. imperialism and its politics are molded to those of some of its funders.” It seems that the ISO needs to be reminded of the old adage: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
Since its establishment in 1961, USAID has worked hand in glove with the CIA. From its role in backing the bloody dictatorship of Humberto Castelo Branco in Brazil in 1964, to providing funds in the 1990s to Albert Fujimori’s mass sterilization campaign in Peru—in which some 300,000 indigenous women were forcibly sterilized—to aiding the junta campaigns of genocide against the Mayan peasants in Guatemala, the history of USAID continues to be written in blood.
The ISO’s pimping for U.S. imperialism in Syria is not a surprise. The organization’s political godfather, the late Tony Cliff of Britain, broke from the Trotskyist movement during the 1950-53 Korean War when he refused to defend the Soviet Union, China and North Korea against the counterrevolutionary war waged by “democratic” U.S. and British imperialism. The ISO supported the CIA-backed, woman-hating, anti-Soviet mujahedin forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It cheered on the destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state in 1991-92, a world-historic defeat for the international working class. The ISO was born of social-democratic anti-Communism and has always been in the camp of “democratic” imperialism.