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.
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.
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:
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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?
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.