Many people are taking to social media in an attempt to tarnish the image of the Syrian Civil Defense Organisation, better known as “the White Helmets”, who help victims in combat zones.
Social media users have been sharing several different amateur videos as “proof” of conspiracy theories claiming that the White Helmets are actually undercover Islamist terrorists who collaborate with jihadist groups. We gathered these videos and analysed them to sort fact from fiction.
The White Helmets are Syrian rescue workers who operate in zones under rebel control. They participate in all kinds of rescue operations, especially after bombs and air strikes. They claim to have saved close to 100,000 people since the start of the war and are known for documenting the conflict by sharing photos and videos on social media.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: ‘White Helmets’, the Syrian men and women braving bombs to save lives
Originally, the White Helmets were an independent organisation made up of volunteers. Today, the organisation is funded by multiple foreign governments, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Japan, as well as by private donors. The organisation says it runs on a budget of $26 million (equivalent to about 21.5 million euros). These days, the rescue workers are paid about $150 (around 120 euros) per month if they work full-time, according to American magazine Newsweek.
For the past few months, however, the White Helmets have been the target of a smear campaign on social media, mainly led by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Social media accounts, especially those belonging to conspiracy theorists and media with pro-Russian leanings, accuse the White Helmets of being allies of jihadist rebel groups. They also claim the White Helmets are carrying out a communications (ie comms) war with the Syrian regime.
These critics of the White Helmets have offered a large number of amateur photos and videos as proof of their accusations.
We found the following articles and videos among the most widely shared:
- An “investigation” by Anna news, an Abkhaz news agency known for its pro-Assad stance, called “White helmets, the mask of terror”.
- ““Netflix and the White Helmets, hand in hand with al Qaeda”, a video posted on Hands Off Syria, a pro-Assad, pro-Russian YouTube channel.
- ““'They don't care about us': Syrians on White Helmets' true agenda”, a video broadcast by Russia Today, the Russian TV channel financed by the Kremlin.
- Several different articles published on websites Clarity of signal (examples here and here) and 21st Century wire. These two websites have an entire section on what they call the “hidden side” of the White Helmets.
We chose not to include testimonies from residents in Aleppo gathered by Russia Today and Anna News because they are impossible to verify.
The “articles” posted on Clarity of signal include a large number of screengrabs showing Facebook profiles of men said to be White Helmets. The site offers these screengrabs as proof that at one time or another, these men took up arms and fought for rebel groups. These profiles have since been deleted, so we were not able to investigate these claims further.
We carefully selected 21 photos, videos and documents that people have frequently been sharing as alleged proof of collusion between the White Helmets and jihadists, or as alleged proof that the organisation has been staging its rescues as photo ops.
Accusation: “Al Nusra says that the White Helmets are jihadist fighters”
There are two images that have been touted as proof that the White Helmets are part of jihadist groups. The first is a document, supposedly signed by several armed groups, and the second is an interview with an influential Islamic cleric with ties to Al Nusra, Abdullah al-Muhaysini.
>>“In a document, Al Nusra refers to the White Helmets as ‘soldiers of the revolution’”
The France 24 Observers team wasn’t able to find out when or how the document was originally published, nor to establish its authenticity. There’s an Al Nusra logo but the quote cited by Anna News is incorrect – nowhere does the document mention “soldiers of the Syrian revolution”.
This is the translation in full:
“In the name of God the Clement and Merciful”
Charter from armed groups in Aleppo. After several instances of violence against members of the Civil Defence [Editor’s Note: The White Helmets are also known as the Civil Defence], the groups commit themselves to:
Not hinder the work of the Civil Defence
Protect members of the Civil Defence
Refer to the Civil Defence office in case of disagreement with a member of the Civil Defence
The Civil Defence is a free revolutionary organisation which has no affiliation with any armed group or political organisation
All armed groups are obliged to respect this charter
All armed groups agree to take action against any other group that contravenes these rules.
>>“The leader of Al Nusra has declared that the White Helmets are Islamist mujahideen terrorists”
The second video purports to show that the White Helmets are “Islamist terrorists”, and that the leader of Al Nusra stated as much in an interview.
In fact, a video of an interview with Abdullah al-Muhaysini, an Islamic cleric close to Al Nusra (and not the “leader” of Al Nusra, as claimed above), was published for the first time on October 2, 2016, on his YouTube channel. It was deleted several times, but can be accessed here. From 19 minutes onwards, the cleric says the following things:
We’d like you to say something about the members of the Civil Defence, those who risk their lives to save people stuck under rubble.
Abdullah al-Muhaysini’s reply:
Regarding those in the Civil Defence, I don’t call them members of the Civil Defence, I call them the mujahideen [Editor’s Note: this means Islamic fighter] of the Civil Defence.
Truthfully, they are mujahideen – may God accept [their jihad and our jihad] – I don’t make a distinction between them and the men who are in the trenches and behind the barricades. They’re no different.
They fight fiercely to save the lives of Muslims. And so I tell them what God says: “The man who saves a life, it is as if he saves the whole of humanity”.
I pray that they have patience and perseverance.
Though the cleric considers members of the Civil Defence as mujahideen, he doesn’t necessarily mean that the White Helmets take up weapons and fight alongside jihadist groups. He is speaking figuratively, referring to the overall concept of the mujahid (a person who fights in the name of Islam) and their holy war – which also includes saving victims.
It’s false to say that these two videos prove that Al Nusra considers the White Helmets as “soldiers of the revolution” or Islamist terrorist fighters.
Accusation: “The White Helmets mutilated the corpses of Assad regime soldiers”
Three videos try to prove this allegation.
>>“A White Helmet participated in the decapitation of the bodies of Syrian soldiers, thrown in a rubbish dump in Deraa”
The first video, extremely graphic to watch, shows at least five men - one of whom is wearing a blue t-shirt with the White Helmets logo on it – roughly handling several corpses in army uniform piled on top of each other in the back of a pick-up. The man with the blue t-shirt pulls a Syrian flag from the pile of corpses and puts it on the floor, while another shows the camera a decapitated head before throwing it violently to the floor. At this point, the name of Bashar al-Assad can be heard, but the rest of what they say is inaudible.
“The impartial and humanitarian White Helmets decapitate the bodies of Syrian soldiers thrown in a rubbish heap in Deraa today”, says the caption of this video published on Twitter on June 20, 2017.
The corpses are not identified, but the flag and the fact that the president’s name was clearly said seem to indicate that the bodies belong to soldiers loyal to Assad.
The White Helmets responded to the emergence of this video in a press release on June 21, 2017, without going into details on the events themselves - but a sister organisation, Mayday Rescue, did write on Twitter that the press release was in response to allegations of the White Helmets having “participated in a decapitation”.
The White Helmets said that the events happened in the governorate of Deraa, and a volunteer was acting of his own accord, outside of his duties as a White Helmet member. They said that he “had participated in an act that violates the organisation’s principles and the vision of the Syria Civil Defence”. He was fired as a result.
Based on the press release, we can conclude that a member of the White Helmets did indeed mutilate soldiers’ corpses.
At least two videos on the site Clarity of Signal are meant to show that the White Helmets share their premises with the Free Syrian Army. They show the same scene: a group of White Helmets in a room in which you can see both the logo of the White Helmets and that of the Free Syrian Army.
The videos actually show a ceremony in honour of the White Helmets working in Eastern Ghouta and in the Jouber area and was organised by the council of rural areas of Damascus province, an administration made up of opponents to the regime. The ceremony took place in the town of Hamouria in eastern Ghouta on April 12, 2016, in the presence of the president of the council of rural areas, Akram Taâma, and a member of the administration of the White Helmets, Abdallah al-Hafi, according to the agency Smart News.
Accusation: “The White Helmets carry weapons alongside armed groups”
A video and a photo are meant to show that the White Helmets have taken up arms alongside rebel groups in Syria.
>> “Ammar al Selmo, the head of the Aleppo White Helmets, was an armed rebel in 2014”
The photo purports to show Ammar al Selmo, the former head of the Aleppo branch of the White Helmets, now in charge of the Al Bab branch, posing with a Dragunov sniper rifle next to eight other men, some of whom are also heavily armed.
Widely taken up and shared by conspiracy theorist websites alongside other photos of the same genre, this image is the only one that has been confirmed by its subject.
In an interview with Christoph Sydow, a journalist for the German daily newspaper Der Spiegel, Ammar al Selmo recounted his version of what happened.
The photo dates back to 2011. Shabiha [armed militia loyal to the Syrian regime] came to my village. I carried a weapon to defend myself. But I never fired it. I stopped carrying it after two months. In 2013, I joined the White Helmets. I want to help my fellow citizens.
Sydow published al Selmo’s statement on Twitter on September 27, 2016.
We are unable to independently verify Ammar al-Selmos’ version of events, and can therefore neither confirm nor disprove them.
>> “White Helmet members walk around armed with assault rifles”
In a report by the Kremlin-backed TV station Russia Today, an extract of a video shows a man wearing the White Helmets uniform and holding a gun. “When was the last time you saw medical personnel and first aid workers walking around with assault rifles?” asks the journalist.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team could not locate the original footage, and therefore cannot verify its authenticity. It is unknown when and where these images were filmed.
Another video shows people who are supposed to be members of the White Helmets making V-signs from the back of a pick-up which is full of the corpses of presumed Syrian army soldiers. The FRANCE 24 Observers weren’t able to locate the original footage from this video in order to verify it.
Accusation: “A White Helmet member admitted to throwing the corpses of Syrian army soldiers onto rubbish heaps”
A video shows a White Helmet in his uniform facing the camera and saying in Arabic, “We collect the bodies of the Shabiha [pro-Assad militia] and throw them in the rubbish”. The FRANCE 24 Observers team wasn’t able to locate the original footage from this video in order to verify it.
What the White Helmets have to say
The France 24 Observers reached out to the White Helmets about these photos and videos.
A spokesperson for the organisation said that they “would not be able to respond directly to all of the links that [the France 24 Observers] sent, because a large number of them have no basis in reality.”
They are the result of an intense disinformation campaign in which, every day, new allegations are published. The objective is to discredit our documentation of Russian war crimes in Syria, which we do carry out while saving the lives of our countrymen. Their aim is also to enable the Assad regime and its allies to call our volunteers terrorists and to target them in violation of all international conventions.”
We recognise that there have been rare isolated incidents during our five years of activity, concerning a tiny fraction of our 4,300 volunteers, during which our Code of Conduct and our values have been breached. We’ve always taken rapid measures to manage these incidents, including the expulsion of certain volunteers and full cooperation with credible judicial institutions in Syria.
“You can’t operate in these zones without the authorisation of armed groups”
Syrian conflict specialist Thomas Pierret says that having agreements with armed groups is the only way that the White Helmets can carry out their humanitarian work:
Amongst the White Helmets, many have a general sympathy with the opposition […] The group also maintains practical accords with armed groups. But it is stupid to reproach them for it […] : you can’t operate in these zones without the authorisation of armed groups […]. Considering the extent of their activities in Syria, these questionable cases are few and far between. It’s not like there are images showing White Helmets killing children; they are not being accused of atrocities or transporting weapons.
These allegations and videos [claiming that the White Helmets work for terrorist groups] are nonsense. The Russians have poisoned the debate. […] It’s just a distraction, a propaganda operation.
Pierret discounts accusations from certain social media users that the White Helmets are “comms tools for armed groups”.
“What kind of communication are we talking about? If we’re talking about civilians being bombed, it is a reality. It isn’t these armed groups that are bombing Idlib. Here, the goal is to take war crimes [committed by the Syrian government and Russia and documented by the White Helmets] and discount them as just comms from the White Helmets.”