White Helmets and Syria’s information wars

White Helmets help Syrian victims
White Helmets help Syrian victims of bombing.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Irwin Cotler says that he will nominate Syrian Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets, for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. The group has drawn world-wide attention for pulling wounded people, including children, from the rubble created by aerial bombing raids carried out by the Syrian government and the Russians, who are there in force. 

Criticizing the CBC

But not everyone is a fan, as I found out over dinner last summer with a Canadian of Middle Eastern origin who works as a management consultant in both the public and private sectors. Upon hearing that I had once worked for the CBC, he criticized coverage by the network’s defence specialist Murray Brewster.  The CBC reported in July 2018 on the extrication from Syria of about 400 individuals belonging to the White Helmets and members of their families, and their pending resettlement in Western countries, including Canada.

Syrian government forces were closing in on rebel held areas where the White Helmets work and the fear was that they would be captured and killed. While the decision was made by NATO leaders, the Israeli Defence Force played a crucial on-the-ground role in the effort, which was staged in its border area with Syria in the Golan Heights.

Down a rabbit hole

My dinner companion said that the White Helmets are not heroes, as portrayed in Western media, but rather Western-funded operatives who habitually produce fake videos about rescuing people from the debris in order to demonize the Syrian government. He asked why Brewster did not include this information in his stories, and said that there is ample documentation to back up this claim.

I had followed the story only in a cursory way but I was sceptical about what I was hearing from my table mate.  I told him that I had faith in the professionalism and the integrity of CBC journalists. He countered by citing a documentary produced by someone named James Corbett, which he said had won an Oscar. I later found that while there was such a documentary, harshly critical of the White Helmets, it had not been nominated for an Oscar.

Our dinner ended with my companion suggesting, somewhat patronizingly I thought, that I follow up with the sources he had mentioned. I did just that and it meant spending hours in a social media landscape populated by blogs, websites, self-described research organizations, contrarian freelance journalists, a Russian news agency called Sputnik and much, much more. Their common theme is that Western-based journalists and news organizations are lying about what is happening in Syria; that the research of NGOs such as Amnesty International cannot be trusted; and that information emanating from those with a different point of view is being suppressed in the West.

CBC reports

I found that Brewster had produced several reports for about the evacuation for CBC Television and there were other print pieces on CBC’s website. In a report on July 22, Brewster referred to a Montreal-based group called Centre for Research on Globalization, which he said had “attacked the White Helmets, claiming that volunteers embed themselves with terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

In a piece on July 24, he made passing reference to claims by Russia and the Syrian regime that the White Helmets were terrorists and purveyors of fake ews.

Later the CBC News website carried a Thomson-Reuters story titled, “Syria denounces White Helmet rescue as ‘criminal operation’’’. The story referenced criticism made about the White Helmets by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and also by the Syrian state news agency SANA.

Brewster and the CBC obviously felt it was their journalistic responsibility to mention criticisms of the White Helmets, but not to give them equal weight in their reportage. One may say that there are two sides (or more) to every story but that does not make them equally true or persuasive.

Conspiracy theories

An article in The Walrus magazine, for example, described the Centre for Research on Globalization as a “Canadian-based conspiracy website . . .” Among its claims: that Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in his hospital room by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, and that the World Trade Center buildings were not brought down by commercial airliners but by controlled demolition.

The website has been run out of Montreal since 2001 by Michel Chossudovsky, a professor emeritus of economics from the University of Ottawa. The site contains multiple articles on the White Helmets, describing them as a cover used to support terrorist groups and as the disseminators of false information. The site also has multiple articles denying that the Syrian regime has ever used chemical agents in attacks upon its own population, suggesting that any such attacks were the work of rebel forces.

My dinner companion had made that claim as well.  I asked if he was denying that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons on its own population. “Didn’t happen,” he said. He had friends in Syria who told him so and the stories about it were staged. I told him that I did not believe that. In addition to media coverage, I had also read reports from Amnesty International and Medicins Sans Frontiers saying that indeed gas attacks were carried out by government forces. I told him that I also believed in the integrity of both of those organizations and in the competency of their research. In the interest of transparency, I should mention that I make donations to both of those groups.

Who to believe

There is a proxy battle being fought in Syria with numerous bad actors, including certainly the Assad regime and the Russians. For purposes of credibility, it would help if some countries in NATO, in particular the United States, had not been involved in coups, assassinations and dirty tricks in any number of countries. One wants to maintain some scepticism about all claims to truth, but when it comes to who I trust to deliver the news give me the CBC, The New York Times, The Globe and Mail and The Walrus any day over Sputnik, Russia Insider, the Syrian state news agency,  and the Centre for Research on Globalization.

One thought on “White Helmets and Syria’s information wars

Add yours

  1. Rabbit holes seem to be the order of the day when one delves deeper into the facts of matters like these. Thank you for your balanced report of the experience.


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