5 Questions for “Professors Against White Helmets”

For the last year the Civil defence organisation that provides search and rescue help to Syrian opposition communities under attack from the Syrian regime and its allies – known as the White Helmets – has come under an unprecedented wave of attack by regime supporters. For the most part these attacks have been confined to the wilder shores of the internet, but recently they have been taken up by a small group of British academics, headed by Prof Tim Hayward of Edinburgh University and Prof Piers Robinson of Sheffield University, who have posted a response  to a recent article in the Guardian by Olivia Solon outlining the links between the organisations circulating these accusations and the Russian state.

Hayward and Robinson appear to be outraged by the fact that the Guardian did not bow down before their Professorial titles and fast-track their views into print. They also complain that they “have been subjected to intemperate attacks from mainstream media columnists such as George Monbiot through social media”. The severest comment I can find from Monbiot on them is “I believe that Tim Hayward, Piers Robinson, et al have disgraced themselves over Syria” If they regard that as an “intemperate attack” then I can only conclude that they have led very sheltered lives.

Curiously, Hayward and Robinson, despite the fact that the latter is a specialist in media studies, raise no objections to the substantive findings of Solon’s article (so perhaps we can take that as an indication that she is on solid ground).  Instead they focus their attention on the White Helmets.

Funding of the White Helmets

They start by telling us  that the White Helmets  are “supported by US and UK funding.” Well, not quite: as the White Helmet’s web site points out they have support from seven different governments. Some of this is episodic and in-kind, and the US and Britain are the largest donors; but the Helmets also receive regular financial support from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, which together provide over 40% of its funding.

And how large is this funding? The figures on this are often unclear, but my calculations are that they amount to about £24.6 million annually. Of course, abstract figures have very little meaning – the Helmets have some 3000 members spread across 110-120 centres, and aim to provide assistance to over 4 million inhabitants of areas under attack from the Syrian regime, so the money has to go a long way. To get a more meaningful picture let’s compare it with an analogous organisation closer to home. Take for example the Cheshire Fire Service, which is about a quarter the size of the White Helmets, measured in terms of both personnel and catchment area. Its annual budget is over £41 million (and is regarded as dangerously underfunded by locals). And, of course, there is no comparison between the situations Cheshire firefighters face and those the Helmets have to deal with. (The last time a bomb fell on Cheshire was in 1941.) So the Helmets have to carry out their gargantuan task with just a little over half the funds of a quiet English county.

Syria damage 1

Who do you call ? The Tartous Fire Brigade?

The next point that Robinson and Hayward make is one which speaks volumes about the calibre of their “scholarship” and its provenance: “Here it is important to note that the real Syria Civil Defence already exists and is the only such agency recognised by the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO).”

As those who have followed the campaign of denigration against the White Helmets know, this is directly lifted from Syrian regime supporter Vanessa Beeley. It is embarrassing to see two academics reprising this argument, which is more worthy of a playground spat than a serious discussion A quick trip to Wikipedia, or a two-minute visit to the ICDO website would tell you the obvious: the ICDO is an intergovernmental body – its members are by definition states and it doesn’t “recognise” anyone; as its constitution states, “The ICDO federates the national structures established by States… with the aim of favouring cooperation and mutual solidarity between them.”  Complaining that the White Helmets are not members of the ICDO makes as much sense as complaining that they are not members of the World Trade Organisation. And what sort of bizarre ontology leads to the conclusion that the White Helmets are “not “real”?

Frankly I think this line of argument is pretty  silly, but since we’ve been advised by Hayward and Robinson that its “very important” let’s follow them down the road The ICDO website provides links to each of its members; if you click on most of them you will be taken to the website of their dedicated Civil Defence service; but if you click on Syria you get taken to the website of the Ministry of the Interior, which has a lot of discussion of “internal security”, of traffic management, and even of the seizure of rotten chicken in Damascus, but nary a mention of any Civil Defence.

When Vanessa Beeley wants to promote what she and our professors call the Real Civil Defence all they can come up with is the Tartous Fire Brigade. So what they seem to be suggesting is that when a town like, say, Atareb has its marketplace bombed and 50 people are trapped under the rubble what they should do is dial 133 (the number for fire emergencies) and wait for the Tartous Fire Brigade to turn up!

I do wonder just how far our Professors are prepared to follow their muse in this escalating silliness;  but let’s not belabour the point – we have some serious issues to deal with.

People like Hayward & Co tend to produce what I think of as “interrupted discourse”  – that is, arguments which make forceful objections to a state of affairs but stop short of the climactic moment where they tell us what outcomes  they are actually advocating. For example, they object to the fact that the White Helmets are funded by western governments – so what do they advocate – Less funding? No funding? Funding by someone else? They don’t tell us. Ditto for their objection to the fact that the Helmets are trained by western contractors. Are they saying that they would prefer the Helmets to be untrained? Again – no comment.

Five Questions

These sorts of interrupted discourses are logically and ethically unsatisfactory – so let’s see if we can make honest men of our Professors by asking them  a set of questions:

  1. Are communities in opposition areas of Syria being bombed regularly with a significant loss of life and destruction of infrastructure?
  2. Are the people who live in these communities likely to just sit back and leave the dead and injured where they fall or will they try and do the best they can to rescue the injured and retrieve the dead?
  3. Is this work done by the White Helmets or by someone else? If someone else who? (Hopefully we can eliminate the Tartous Fire Brigade answer.)
  4. Do the victims in a Civil conflict have the right – legally and morally -­ to conduct such search and rescue operations?
  5. If they do, and it is the White Helmets who are the vehicle for carrying this out work, is it better that they are funded and trained or that they have to do it without training and using garden tools for the purpose?

The answers I would give to these questions would lead me to conclude  – So what is the beef with the White Helmets?

Our professors, of course,  may have different answers. Once we see what these are we can begin to get some sense of what factual claims,  and what process of reasoning, their objections to the White Helmets are based on.

But if they are unwilling to to spell these things out, then they are just hiding in the shadows of a distorted discourse, with their claim to be seeking “informed public debate” ringing hollow.

This blog is open to the Professors if they would like to reply here. Or they can answer in their own spaces. Wherever it is delivered, I ­ -– and, I suspect, many others – look forward eagerly to their replies.


27 thoughts on “5 Questions for “Professors Against White Helmets””

  1. Pathetic straw man article in which a series of moot points and logical fallacies are proposed. What are the “substantive findings” you are referring to in Solon’s article?

    1. Solon couldn’t have any substantive findings. She never went anywhere to gather any information, so how could she have any findings. She was just a hack, paid to produce a puff piece to order. How could she know anything at all. She’s never even been there. Nor have any of the rest of Vanessa Beeley’s critics. If you overcome that then you might have the authority to criticise her.

      1. I assume you haven’t read Solon’s article. Its about the *campaign* against the helmets – so the only place she needed to “go” to research it was the internet. You people seem to think that Beeley is the only western person to have set footin Syria. Sure she gets in easily because the regime knows what she’s going to write before she gets there. But plenty of real journalists have gotten in from time to time – some quite recently. And of course there are Syrians in this country and elsewhere in Europe (remember them?) who have both their own experiences and in many cases news from family members they have left behind. But their messages don’t suit you, so youturn them into “unpersons”.

      2. Has Beeley ever been anywhere without regime escorts. Its pointless arguing with fans of Assad , Putin. They think in cliches about ‘terrorists’ ‘head choppers’ ‘secular’ and think nothing further about it. Never mind that Iran is a theocratic Fascist regime, Putin is a mass terrorist, and Assad regime is upheld as a system based on fear. One can’t argue with them any more than one could with Nazis.

      3. Virtually no one can enter or move around Syria without some sort of approval from the security services. But I’m sure Beeley’s relationshiip is much closer than that.

  2. its about money – shes clearly paid by Russia Assad and Iran – nothing more nothing less Propoganda to justify their warcrimes against everyday people like us but happen to live in Syria
    Are communities in opposition areas of Syria being bombed regularly with a significant loss of life and destruction of infrastructure?


    Are the people who live in these communities likely to just sit back and leave the dead and injured where they fall or will they try and do the best they can to rescue the injured and retrieve the dead?

    not at all

    Is this work done by the White Helmets or by someone else? If someone else who? (Hopefully we can eliminate the Tartous Fire Brigade answer.)

    cvili defence – white helmets – volunteers who do not want just sit and do nothing but watch their friends and family die

    Do the victims in a Civil conflict have the right – legally and morally -­ to conduct such search and rescue operations?


    If they do, and it is the White Helmets who are the vehicle for carrying this out work, is it better that they are funded and trained or that they have to do it without training and using garden tools for the purpose?

    someone has to help

    1. In the absence of proof or experience these infantile smears are just that…..smears. This is what Monbiot identifies with? It could be equally alleged that her critics are in he pay of the Guardian, except that some are, or the U.K. FCO, or whatever. But since these squalid allegations are mere dross, and do not add nor subtract from the veracity of her genuine findings, and are just personal attacks intended to deflect attention, she would do well to ignore them.

      1. I think you are confused about what you are replying to. Its another comment on my blog – nothing to do with George Monbiot or me – just as your comments are nothing to do with me. And Beeley is unlikely to read it unless she decides to visit – which seems rather unlikely.

  3. Thank you magpie. I fear it will be a long day in hell before these ‘professors’ reply. The questions are a bit tricky for them to answer because if they answer truthfully they will be shown up for the heartless fools that they are.

  4. Very good response. The opponents of the White Helmets show the depths to which the pseudo-left can sink. However, the article does establish the professors’ claim that the White Helmets receive US and UK funding – 60% of their funding. What needs to be acknowledged is that this is a good thing – a very good thing – and that a genuine left would be doing all it can to ensure such funding if it did not exist. Needless to say, the ultimate solution is to get to the source of the need for groups like White Helmets, and that means the overthrow of the Assad regime and the establishment of a new democratic system. Again, there is no left-wing golden rule against foreign governments intervening against fascist regimes on the side of the people’s democratic aspirations.

  5. I think we can both agree neither of us has ever been to Syria. Therefore neither of us could know 100% whether the WH are humanitarian or terrorists. We have to go on what the evidence Indicates. The following are facts and should be considered regardless of who is funding them:
    1. Despite describing themselves as unarmed, a number of their members have been filmed carrying guns and celebrating with terrorists.
    2. They only operate in al Nusra controlled areas.
    2. They carried out a mannequin challenge while filming a fake rescue.
    3. They have been filmed attending sharia court executions.
    4. They have been filmed standing on dead soldiers bodies and showing the v sign.
    5. Several witness testimonies say the WH are thieves and only save terrorists.
    6. The WH have been filmed saving the same girl three times.
    7. Only the WH can verify how many lives they’ve saved.

    1. Well, some of that is true and some is dubious. I myay not have visited Syria but I have a lot of Syrian friends, and am in contact with people there via social media. I also follow the situation closely and don’t put my faith in any one biased source.
      Let me start with some general points. This is a very messy civil conflict with brutal acts being carried out on both sides. In that sort of situation it is difficult for anyone to stay above or outside the conflict, both physically and emotionally. In areas where armed grops like Nusra predominate there is a constant tension between those groups and people who are trying to provide basic services like schools, radiostatons, and civil protection. These are towns and villages that are bombed evry day and which are subject to sieges which cut them off from food and medical supplies. Its a chaotic situation in which people nonethelss have to live and work. And I think they deserve whatever aid people who have the luxury of living in peaceful and orderly environments can provide them.
      On specific points:
      1. In an environment like this its inevitable that some people who are not fighters will bear arms; if I was living in a community that was being systematically starved and some armed group broke that blocade and alowed aid to enter, I would celebrate with them as well, whoever they were.
      2. . a. its not true – obviously they don’t operate in government areas because that’s where the attacks are coming from but different areas have different combinations of armed groups – few are excusivley Nusra and even in an area where they predominate there will be communities where they are absent. There are many cases where people have demonstrated against Nusra, but still had to face regime bombings. b. so what – you don’t refuse people the right to rescue their injured and dead because you don’t like the people who are governing them – at least not in this century.
      2. This is one of the strangest objections. This was a PR exercise by the Helmets (and in my view rather silly) previusly they had done one involving Pokemon. But think about it for a moment – if you were in the business of faking rescues regularly would you then attract attention to yourself by doing one openly? No. This is actually evidence that the Helment DON’T fake things in their normal work.
      4.a. they are removing dead bodies from a battle. b. try adding up the number of white helmets involved in these episodes and the number of locations. I haven’t done this systematically but I would guess its less than 30; and I think in only 2 locations. The Helmets have over 100 stations and 3000 members – so you are talking about a tiny fraction of the organisation.
      5. Fabricating “evidence” like this is the staple work of the Syrian security services. Vanessa Beeley’s problem is that she isn’t happy with promoting small fabrications that might be believable she has to go for big ones that are absurd- e.g. denying that the White Helmets were present in East Aleppo, when there is a host of eyewitness, photographic and video evidence to the contrary.
      6. This is a good example of the depths the opponents of the Helmets go to to fake accusations. https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-eva-bartletts-claims-about-syrian-children
      7. True – but so what if they’ve only saved some fraction of waht they cliam isn’t that worthwhile?
      The thig that really gets me is the enormous amount of effort that has gone into this anti-White Helmets campaign – and to achieve what exactly? Why don’t these people channel their energies into helping Syrian refugees, or pressing the Syrian government to implement the UN resolutions that they constantly ignore.

      1. Building on Tettodoro’s responses:
        1. Despite describing themselves as unarmed, a number of their members have been filmed carrying guns and celebrating with terrorists.
        Like he writes, this is a large group of volunteers who are a part of a community, and also belong to a humanitarian org. Should every humanitarian org be held up to the standards of each and every single member of staff or volunteer? If so, you wouldnt find many humanitarian organisations in this world. I would dare to say: you wouldnt find any.
        2. They only operate in al Nusra controlled areas.
        Firstly, not true. They operate in areas controlled by the opposition. There is a very good reason for that: they are not allowed to operate in regime held areas. You have a similar reality with Doctors without Borders (MSF), who are not allowed to operate in Assad’s Syria. Are you saying that MSF are terrorists as well?
        On the flip side, the Syrian Red Crescent also operate in Idlib where they have a branch. This means inevitable interaction with Nusra. Are you saying that SARC is also a terrorist organisation? Their main office is in central Damascus, so Assad seems to disagree with you.
        2. They carried out a mannequin challenge while filming a fake rescue.
        What tells you it was a fake rescue? Could it have been a training exercise?
        3. They have been filmed attending sharia court executions.
        One of their tasks is to discount of dead bodies. SARC does the same. Would you prefer if the bodies were abandoned on the streets, left to rot?

      2. Thanks for your reply. I have to pick you up on a couple of your points. First of all Vanessa Beeley has never denied WH were in East Aleppo! It’s slightly embarrassing for you could get that so wrong. It is irrefutable that they were in East Aleppo before it was liberated from the terrorists and this is well documented by Vanessa. Re ‘obviously they don’t operate in government areas’ – why is this obvious exactly? Is it because those lovely extremists don’t bomb government held areas and only the nasty Assad/ Russians attack rebel held areas? (Rebels such as al Nusra, ISIS and Nour al din Zinki the well documented child beheaders). Surely you realise that in a war both sides attack each other! If Vanessa Beeley is a regime supporter then surely that makes you a terrorist supporter.

  6. MATT LEE (AP reporter): You commend this group [White Helmets], you’re going to continue to support them, and yet you revoked the visa of their leader? I don’t…that makes zero sense to me.


    MARK TONER (White House spokesman): So a couple responses, one is unfortunately we can’t speak to individual visa cases. I think broadly speaking, though, on any visa case we are constantly looking at new information, so-called “continually vetting” travel or records, and if we do have new information that we believe an individual–let me finish–would pose a security risk, we’ll certainly act on that.


    LEE: I’m saying that it just strikes me as a bit odd that you’re saying that this group is wonderful and does such a great job and you’re commending them for their heroism, and yet you’re doing this just 10 days after the leader of this group who was supposed to be, you know…got his visa revoked or wasn’t allowed to travel here.


    TONER: Well, he’s one individual in the group and any individual—again I’m broadening my language here for specific reasons—but any individual in any group suspected of ties or relations with extremist groups, or that we have believed to be a security threat to the United States, we would act accordingly. But that does not by extension mean we condemn or would cut off ties to the group for which that works for.

    You can watch the whole Q+A below unless the video is removed:

  7. Even the most wildly positive and/or generous towards the White Helments answers to your questions would not preclude them from ALSO being a propaganda instrument for their major funders. I think you might need to formulate some others if you want to get at the Professors’s beef.

    1. I’ve said what I have to say – you can take it or leave it.But it seems an odd set of priorities to condemn thousands of people to die because you disagree .with the people who are saving them

      1. But they’re saying the WH aren’t saving people so it makes no difference… assuming these clearly well researched professors are to be believed. How could you miss the point so badly.

      2. Go back and read their article (assuming you read it in the first place) – they don’t say that at all: on the cotnrary they link to an article by Max Blumenthal which says “there is little dispute that the White Helmets’ rank-and-file are saving lives in what seems to be an increasingly desperate situation in eastern Aleppo”. How could you miss that point so Badly?

      3. Thank you for not posting my last comment – it seems I accidentally copied a draft, which was riddled with typos – here is a corrected version of what I wanted to say…

        It’s interesting that I wrote my earlier comment the night before the Charities Commission launched it’s most serious kind of investigation into Oxfam following the revelations of the 2011 Haiti prostitution scandal. Yet it appears that repeated examples of White Helmets members in armed gear, all the dubious videos, all the lack of transparency and no evidence at all of a proper audit, gets a free-pass from them, the Government, the media and, it seems, you.

        I can’t speak for the Professors, but my beef with the White Helmets is that there are definite grounds for further investigation, that the possible hijacking of humanitarian efforts for political and propaganda ends is hugely concerning and must be investigated openly and properly, and because George Clooney simply must not be trusted on anything substantial until he has apologise for ‘Batman & Robin’.

      4. I don’t see any logical connection between Oxfam in Haiti and the White Helmets in Syria. Y es, I give them a “free pass” because: I don’t confuse the situation in a war zone under constant bombardment with a picinic on a Berkshire village green; and because I think the work that is being done by the Helmets in saving lines is far more important than any quibble I mght have about PR packaging their efforts; and because I know the message that they are conveying about what is happening in Syria is essentially correct.

    1. Not really. They took control of the Kurdish areas in 2012 with the agreement of the regime and have had a generally non-conflictual relationship with the regime and have (with a few exceptions ) have not been subject to bombardment by the regime or by Russia.

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