Over the past few years the Syrian White Helmets – the organisation that provides search and rescue services in opposition areas has come under intense attack from pro-regime quarters – particularly by Vanessa Beeley and the 21st Century Wire website that she is associated with. Beeley has a number of little helpers in this work, one of whom is the French “humanitarian” Pierre Le Corf who plays an important role spreading the message in the Francosphere, with some 20 videos posted on You Tube and regular appearances on the French editions of the Russian Sputnik channel and Iranian Press TV.
Le Corf first projected himself into the public domain in March 2016 when he launched a “humanitarian NGO” called We are Super heroes”. This consisted of a crowd-funded programme of trips by le Corf to several parts of the world where he recorded interviews with “marginalised communities” (the “super heroes”) which he posted on a web page. So far so innocuous.
In April 2016 Le Corf pitched up in Aleppo, apparently sponsored by the French organisation SOS Chrétiens d’Orient (SOS Christians of the East) an organisation with ties to the French far right.).
He initially took up residence with a family in regime-controlled West Aleppo, where he distributed first-aid kits in the neighbourhood. He also had himself filmed walking the streets of West Aleppo where he recited tales of the East Aleppo armed groups’ attacks on the civilian population of the West. This evolved into the mantra “there are no rebels in East Aleppo – only terrorists” (he seems to have forgotten about the civilian population).)
After the fall of Aleppo he remained in place and linked up with the Vanessa Beeley team to contribute to the demonization of the of the White Helmets.
Humanitarian or Hypocrite?
The first thing to note about his narratives is that they completely ignored what was happening on the other side of Aleppo, a few kilometres from where he was living and working. Every crime Le Corf accuses the “terrorists” of committing is matched many times over by the crimes of the regime. The shelling and bombing of East Aleppo by regime forces began in July 2012 (before any return fire by the armed opposition). Le Corf tells us that he has passed information about the war crimes committed by the “terrorists” in East Aleppo to the UN human Rights Commission’s Committee of Inquiry on Syria. That’s his prerogative. But he would be well advised to read their reports as well. In the report on Aleppo they do itemise attacks on West Aleppo by rebel forces during the final period of the regime’s offensive to recapture the city: 6 attacks over a period of 15 weeks killing 41 people, including 9 children. A tragic loss of life rightly classed by the Commission as the war crime of “indiscriminate attacks in a civilian populated area”.
We can widen the horizon to cover the whole period of the regime offensive (June to December 2016) by looking at the records of the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC): they record 90 deaths in West Aleppo in that period as a result of armed opposition shelling, including 12 students of the University of Aleppo. None of the victims were military personnel.
But what was happening in East Aleppo while this was going on?
The UN Commission describes it as follows:
“Launched on 23 September 2016, the aerial bombardment campaign of eastern Aleppo drastically increased civilian casualties. 300 people – including 96 children – were killed in the first four days of the offensive alone. (my emphasis)
“Syrian and Russian air forces conducted daily air strikes in Aleppo throughout most of the period under review, exclusively employing, as far as the Commission could determine, unguided air-delivered munitions. These included aerial bombs, air-to-surface rockets, cluster munitions, incendiary bombs and improvised air-delivered munitions (barrel bombs), and weapons delivering toxic industrial chemicals, including chlorine.”
The VDC has documented 480 deaths of civilians in Syrian and Russian bombing raids over the course of the whole offensive, a quarter of them children. These raids killed virtually no fighters.
But we don’t have to get caught up in a numbers game to demonstrate the differing impact of the conflict on the two halves of Aleppo – its inscribed on the face of the city: UN satellite data shows how physical destruction was distributed across the city by 2016, with East Aleppo affected far more acutely than the regime districts. Khedr Khaddour of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung has mapped the UN data onto the political line of divide and shows that large parts of regime controlled Aleppo experienced almost no damage during the conflict (less than 2% of buildings affected); some areas like Midan (where Le Corf says he “occasionally lives”) were more seriously affected, with up to 9% of buildings damaged. However in East Aleppo most areas suffered between 30% to 65% damage.
This fact is recorded by Le Corf himself. He features in a French tv programme which opens with shots of the devastation in East Aleppo, and then switches to a glowing report on Le Corf, showing him walking through a street in West Aleppo. The area clearly suffers from sniper attacks, but there is no sign of structural damage to the buildings. (In order to bolster his case Le Corf has to display a car with damage to its bodywork.)
So what does our “humanitarian” have to say about the suffering of East Aleppo civilians? Virtually nothing. Indeed he became so enamoured of his own views that he actually sang the praises of planes flying overhead on the way to bomb East Aleppo (“I pray that the planes arrive”). In his imagination they were attacking rebel artillery– but in the real world, they were bombing people’s homes, bread queues, and medical facilities.
Le Corf not only decries the crimes committed by one side of the conflict while ignoring the greater volume of killing perpetrated by the other side, he actually exploits the former to justify the latter.
That is not the stance of a “neutral humanitarian” – nor of any sort of genuine Christian– it is the behaviour of a hypocrite and a propagandist.
Let’s take another example of Le Corf’s disingenuousness: he repeatedly asserts that there were no military targets in West Aleppo and hence no justification for the opposition artillery fire. But in one of his interviews a boy complains that he had difficulty studying during the conflict because the tanks stationed outside his house caused the building to shake whenever they fired their guns –testimony to the fact that the Syrian army was basing heavy weapons in residential areas I am not suggesting this justifies reckless military operations by the opposition but it does indicate that the responsibility here is not as one-sided, as Le Corf claims, and demonstrates how unreliable he is as a guide to the situation in Aleppo.
In the workshop of Pierre Le Corf
Le Corf shot a video in March 2017 which attempted to demonstrate a link between the White Helmets and Jabhat-al Nusra. This video belongs to a particular sub-genre used extensively by regime propagandists: going one step further than US Senator McCarthy of 1950s fame it adds to his category of “guilt by association” that of “guilt by proximity” –trying to discredit someone by claiming that they did their business in premises close by some reprehensible group. For good measure this flimsy reasoning is often bolstered by finding some sort of convenient “incriminating evidence” in the premises in question.
The location of Le Corf’s filming is shown below in a screen shot from Google Earth: the compound marked in red, consisting of a set of four L-shaped buildings (the former al-Sakhour School) and the more compact set of buildings to the north, marked in green, which comprised the M10 Hospital.
Le Corf’s video is a strange affair – shot at a frantic pace with a mobile phone that is often out of focus, it obscures as much as it enlightens.
Let’s take a frame-by frame look at it and see what it tells us about Le Corf.
Le Corf starts by focusing on one of the L-shaped blocks and tells us “that’s the headquarters of Jabhat al Nusra” (“le quartier général de Jabhat al Nusra”). But it’s not the headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusra – that is in the former Eye Hospital on the other side of the city. Perhaps Le Corf is just exercising “propagandist’s licence” here – to announce that the White Helmets centre is across the courtyard from a building used by Jabhat al-Nusra is not nearly as dramatic as proclaiming that it adjoins the Nusra headquarters. So Le Corf sexes up his dossier by repeatedly making that claim.
But what evidence is there that the building in question had anything at all to do with al-Nusra? None: Le Corf never enters this building.(Although in a separate video Vanessa Beeley does visit it and like Le Corf asserts that it is an Al-Nusra base; but she fails to find anything in the building to corroborate it – indeed her cameraman briefly scans a wall with two drawings of “Free Syria” flags, which rather contradicts her claim.)
Le Corf, however starts his tour in the White Helmets building and tries to establish the connection from the other direction, claiming (1:11) that “The building is covered with military munitions and the Nusra flag.” But neither of these appear in the video. Instead he encounters on the exterior wall a drawing of a “Free Syria” flag which he proclaims in a fit of indignation to be a “military flag” (1:32). But of course, it’s nothing of the sort -it may be the flag that Free Syrian Army carries but it’s also the flag of the civil opposition, a flag carried by hundreds of thousands of Syrians on demonstrations in 2011/12 and born today by many Syrians.in exile. There is no basis for claiming that its presence is evidence of alignment with any armed faction and certainly not al-Nusra.
Le Corfe then delivers what he obviously thinks is his coup de grace: at 1:51 he films an image of Daesh’s “seal of the prophet” logo printed on a sheet of paper and affixed to a wall in the building. He comments that this represents “Daesh- Jabhat al Nusra allegiance”. (It’s difficult to decipher what he means by this nonsensical pronouncementbut other statements of his suggest that he thinks Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra share the same flag.)
But whether born of ignorance or manipulative intent, this ploy raises serious suspicions about Le Corfe’s methods. Daesh was expelled from Aleppo by June 2014. So how is it that a piece of paper bearing its emblem is found attached to the wall of a building in an area “reduced to “rubble” (Le Corf’s words) 3 years later? The only explanation I can think of is that someone put it there shortly before Le Corf shot his video in a clumsy attempt to set the scene for his allegations.
But let’s move on.
At 3:35 Le Corf finally produces the sole tangible piece of evidence he has to corroborate his claims – a single Jabhat al Nusra flag, which he conveniently finds lying on the floor, (probably placed there by whoever provided the “Daesh” fakery)
At 4:24 he homes in on a drawing on the wall and proclaims “here al Nusra, everything al Nusra”; but the drawing appears once again to be of the Daesh “symbol (sufficiently faded that it could well be three years old and apparently defaced by some irreverent graffiti written over it).
Le Corf then moves to the M10 Hospital. There at 5:59 he tells us that “it was said that it was destroyed. It’s not true.” But no one claimed that the building was flattened – only that it was seriously damaged (as Le Corf later acknowledges) and put out of operation.
Le Corf’s Conjuring Act
The case of the M10 provides us with clear proof of how Le Corf goes about his work. He made another video focused on the M10 Hospital with an Iranian TV reporter. Here he explains to her that a notice in the entry hall of the building is a message from “the Libyan terrorists to Jabhat al-Nusra telling them that “democracy is kufr” (heresy). Why exactly Nusra needs that explaining to them is left obscure. He also informs her that there is a notice on the entrance door from Nusra saying that “it’s forbidden to work with Americans” (something even he seems to find odd in a hospital run by the Syrian-American Medical Society, SAMS). Its noteworthy that he pointed out neither of these things in his previous video.
We have, however, a means of checking his claims. A crew from Syrian state television had visited the M10 hospital before Le Corf. They had a very similar agenda to his – “exposing” the hospital as evidence of western support for “terrorism”; like him they noted the large quantity of medicine in the building – commenting in particular on a large amount of insulin. Their main focus was on two pieces of hi-tech medical hardware provided by SAMS – a CT Scanner and a mammogram machine (used for early diagnosis of breast cancer).
What they did not find, however were any notices from Libyan terrorists or from Jabhat al Nusra or any other signs of Jabhat al Nusra presence. These seem to have been miraculously conjured up for Le Corf’s propaganda exercise.
Moeover the SANA tv crew seem to have visited the other building that featured in Le Corf and Beeley’s videos, where they note finding more medical stores – but they refer to it simply as “the school” not the “Jabhat al Nusra headquarters.”
There are only two possibilities here: either Syrian state television reporters turned a blind eye to the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra in the M10 Hospital and the former al-Sakhour school or Le Corf’s reports from these locations were manufactured fakes.
The SANA report also sheds some light on Le Corf’s claim that the M10 hospital was only serving Nusra. That is inconsistent with the presence of a large quantity of insulin and a mammogram machine – unless we are expected to believe that the rebel fighters in East Aleppo suffered from an extraordinary high incidence of Type 1 diabetes and breast cancer.
Far more likely is the simple explanation that the M10 was a general hospital treating the whole population of East Aleppo, until that is, regime bombs put it out of action.