Vanessa Beeley Descends on Daraa

Self-appointed “Hammer ofthe White Helmets” (the organisation that provides essential civil defence servicesfor opposition communities Syria) recently visited the city of Dara’a al-Balad that is the midst of a “reconciliation” process overseen by Russia. She took this opportunity to visit the local White Helmets centre, and, under the guise of being a journalist, interviewed one of the Helmets still working there. Using this interview, she then published a story claiming, with considerable glee that it “confirms what I and others have been repeating for 3 years” about the White Helmets

 For once this is quite an interesting story – not for what it tells us about the Helmets but what it tells us about Beeley and her modus operandi.

The situation in Dara’a al-Balad is complex but seems to be this: after protracted bombardment several factions in the area have accepted a “reconciliation” deal with Russia which provides for the surrender of their heavy weapons but allows them to retain light weapons and remain in their respective localities. One of these groups – the Shabab al-Sunna – is reported to have gone further and signed up to the Russian’s “5th corps”, a military force that is deployed under Russian direction While they have agreed to participate in operations against Daesh,they have categorically rejected any support for operations in Idlib. Most of the local White Helmets have left the area but a small number in one centre have chosen to remain, and it was this that Beeley visited.

Her story was first announced in a tweet on 29 September 2018, and was fleshed out a week later in an article on the fund-raising site Patreon.

 In this article she tells us that she interviewed the head of the White Helmets in Dara’a -al Balad, who she says is “now calling himself Mohanad Al Mahameed”, adding ominously “I have researched his previous names”; and repeats her usual mantra “their centre was part of a complex controlled by Al Qaeda until they were bussed to Idlib. A former flour mill was the setting for Nusra Front activity, with the White Helmet centre in the grounds of the mill.

She then goes on to make her great reveal: in the course of her interview Mr. Mahamid allegedly said, in reference to the White Helmets based in Western Dara’a: “Of course, he might be Nusra Front and run a White Helmet centre so this means all his colleagues are also Nusra Front, but not in my area.” Beeley then distorts this statement into a characterisation of the White Helmets “across Syria”

A more extensive article appeared on 21st Century Wire two weeks later. This is a curious piece – it does provide more information on her visit to Dara’a al-Balad, but embeds it in a 7000-word compendium of allegations against the White Helmets using material dating back 18 months. It’s hard to imagine a real journalist. going to so much trouble to bury their own “scoop”.

So what are the details she gives us about the Dara’a al-Balad White Helmets? First she provides a photograph of their premises – a very modest building that does not look like it has any connection with a flour mill – and indeed it hasn’t: the Nusra headquarters that on 19 September was in a flour mill has now been teleported across the province into a school, all illustrated by a map and satellite photo. Beeley has completed her research into the name of Mohanad Al-Mahamid and made the startling discovery that his name is really – Mohanad Al-Mahamid!

It seems there was a good reason for quietly dropping the story about the “flour mill” the real occupants of that building (actually a grain silo) are Shebab al Sunna, who provided Beeley’s escort for part of her trip.

The Beeley version

Beeley provides a short video clip of Mr. Al-Mahamid making a statement at the start of their interview where he confirms the humanitarian mission and independence of the White helmets. She then amplifies on the interview, which she says unfolded as follows:

Beeley: do you think that some White Helmet members or centres acted in a different way from other White Helmet centres, East Aleppo or other cities?”

Al-Mahamid: Of course, here we do not belong to any one, but someone in the Western area, for example, might be Nusra front.

Beeley:  so White Helmet members may also be Nusra Front?”

Al-Mahamid: Of course! They might be Nusra Front and run a White Helmet centre so this means all his colleagues are also Nusra Front, but not in my area.

Beeley then rams home her point:

“An interesting point is made here by Al Mahamid. If a White Helmet centre is run by a Nusra Front member then all his colleagues will also be Nusra Front. This vindicates claims made by myself and other independent analysts that any area occupied by Nusra Front will be dominated and controlled by Nusra Front.”

Beeley’s conclusion here is a complete non sequitur: it does not follow from the premise that one White Helmet centre might have been taken over by Jabhat al- Nusra (and that is all Mr. Al-Mahamid has said) that all centres working in areas where Nusra is a force will automatically be Nusra aligned. If the latter were true then Beeley would have to conclude that the Syrian Arab Crescent, which also works in Idlib, sometimes side by side with local White Helmets, is a Nusra cat’s paw that deserves to be bombed.

I would note here that the meaning of Mr Al-Mahamid’s statement as rendered by Beeley is quite sensitive to the language used – remove the “of courses” and exclamation marks from Beeley’s quotes and the meaning shifts significantly. Mr al-Mahamid’s alleged statements are the results of a double translation of questions and responses. How accurate are they? We don’t know: Beeley provides no record of it. How strange to switch off your camera just as you are getting to the central point of your report.

Mr Al-Mahamid’s version

As it happens I can shed further light on this encounter. Through friends I have been in contact with people in Dara’a al-Balad, including Mr Al-Mahamid himself. And this is what they tell me.

Beeley arrived at the Dara’a al-Balad White Helmets Centre in the company of a television crew from the al-Sham tv station and an officer of Syrian Military Intelligence. The former explains who was behind the camera for the various video sequences that she provides; and the latter would be  obligatory in this sort of situation. Mr Al-Mahamid describes the encounter as follows:

We thought that she was a British journalist who came to convey the tragic reality we lived in. We did not expect her to carry these dark ideas that contradict reality.

She told us that she visited the White Helmets centres of the in the north of Syria, and found in their positions slogans and flags of the Al-Nusra front, and asked us are you linked to the Nusra Front? I told her that we are not linked to any party or organization, we are a humanitarian service institution that does not work for anyone’s agenda. You say that you saw it in the Syrian north if that is true, every centre is governed by a person responsible for it, and that means that the whole centre belongs to Nusra front and supports it, but I have no information about that and there is no such thing in our region. (my emphasis)

The White Helmets is a humanitarian organization that is not linked to countries or agendas. Each centre operates in its own area only. We do not follow a military faction and there is no contact with the Nusra Front. We belong to the Syrian revolution and support the peaceful revolutionary movement. But this is separate from our work as White Helmets, the White Helmets function is completely neutral.

Let me just add a foot note here: Beeley’s claims about the co-habitation of the White Helmets and Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo are pure invention. She has made several videos making this claim. One consists of her standing out side a building and claiming that it was a Nusra base without any evidence; others have her wandering around deserted buildings and making the same claim even though she has found nothing to support it – indeed her camera crews capture “Free Syria” flags on the walls, which suggests the contrary. In one  she invokes the work of Pierre le Corf, which, as I have shown, is pure fakery.

A gauge of Beeley’s honesty in reporting the meeting is the contrast between her and Mr Al-Mahamid’s versions of a minor, but significant, exchange:

The Beeley version: As I was leaving the White Helmet centre in Dara’a Al Balad, Abu Mohanad came after me, he wanted to reassure me that he was not “sectarian” – “I married a Shia Muslim woman” he told me with a grin on his face. It was clearly impossible to verify this curious statement.

Mr Al-Mahamid’s Account: Before she left the centre, we were asked about the subject of sectarianism in Syria. I told her that we are not sectarian and do not carry hatred against other sects. I noted that my wife is from the Alawite community, and lives with me in Dara’a al-Balad. I was asked how your relationship with your husband’s family was. I answered: Our relationship is very good and we have no problems.

Its not clear what conclusion to draw from this discrepancy: presumably Mr Al-Mahamid knows the religious affiliation of his wife’s family. So why would Beeley misrepresent it? Just petty spite – or perhaps her role in the interview was not as central as she would have us believe? (According to Mr Al-Mahamid the interview was not conducted by Beeley herself but by another member of her party.)

And there is another, more significant discrepancy: Beeley claims that Mr Al-Mahamid’s centre is “in the grounds” of an adjacent Nusra base (“a former school”) and offers a satellite image and a photo of this building. Mr Al-Muhameid, however, assures me “There is no centre for the Nusra Front near our centre.”

Who to believe? It seems significant that while Beeley took the time to be filmed inside the shell of the famous al-Omari mosque, she never entered the alleged former Nusra building. Why is that I wonder? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, the building she photographed and labels a former school is in fact Dara’a’s former bakery (bombed by the regime ) – something its interior might have revealed. Near to the bakery there is a school – the al-Asma school which was functioning under the auspices of the regime Ministry of Education, until recently, and has never been a base for any military faction.

Beeley completes this account with another of her standard tropes – according to her under his white helmet Mr. al-Mahamid is really a terrorist supporter, and she claims to have him dead to rights: “A quick scan of the ‘friends’ of Abu Mohanad on his Facebook page reveal a number of armed members or supporters of extremist groups such as Jaish Al Islam, responsible for the atrocities in Douma.” Disingenuously, the link Beeley provides to corroborate this is not to Mr. Al-Mahamid’s page, as she implies, but to that of one of his friends, now living in Amman and with no apparent connection to the White Helmets. When Beeley actually looks at Mr Al-Mahamid’s own page the worst she can come up with is a video of him taking part in a solidarity demonstration with Eastern Ghouta, something I (and thousands of Syrians across the globe) have also done, and another showing him in a Free Syria t-shirt.

There are a number of odd features in these two articles – particularly the discrepancies and lengthy gap between the first and second versions ­­– which might lead some to suspect that Beeley is not the sole  originator of much of the material she publishes. But whoever’s hands are behind it, it is a classic example of how to weave a web of propaganda  through duplicity, distortions, and plain, old fashioned lies.

 

 

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