On Monday 18 December 2017, the Guardian published an article by Olivia Solon, entitled How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine. The article was a no-holds-barred attempt by the imperialist media to brand one independent investigative reporter in particular, and all those like her by extension, as a gullible and naïve tool of the evil Russians and a proponent of ‘fake news’.
The journalist in question is Vanessa Beeley, a self-financed British activist who has, through painstaking and systematic research, uncovered and exposed Nato’s much-hyped ‘civilian volunteer’ force in Syria, the so-called ‘Syrian Civil Defence’ or ‘White Helmets’, as being nothing more or less than a PR tool of al-Qaeda.
The facts uncovered by Vanessa in her work were not addressed in Solon’s vicious piece, which attempted to achieve its aims through a succession of bald and patronising assertions, casting aspersions on Ms Beeley’s motivations, her financing, her training, her associates and her intellectual capacity.
Since its publication, the piece has come under intense scrutiny in the independent media, and its sources, claims, assumptions and lines of argument have all been debunked in great detail. Eva Bartlett’s excellent response in particular is worth reading, both for its content and its sources, as is material from the Off-guardian website.
Solon’s article is a hatchet job first and foremost on Vanessa Beeley, but it also names Patrick Henningsen and his independent website 21st Century Wire, Australian professor and author Tim Anderson, and Canadian independent activist and journalist Eva Bartlett, all of whom have been prominent in the campaign to expose imperialist war propaganda and untiring in their defence of Syria.
Solon’s article plays into several key ruling-class agendas:
1. The campaign for greater overt censorship of digital media
The first of these is the ongoing campaign to drum up public support for more overt censorship and suppression of independent news sources (as epitomised by the current hysteria over ‘fake news’).
Recently, France has proposed banning ‘fake news’ during future elections, and the US Congress has berated Big Tech for allowing ‘Russian-backed’ content to be widely shared online during the 2016 presidential elections.
Then there’s the whole debate regarding net neutrality. In October 2017, Twitter banned all advertising from Russian news channels RT and Sputnik over allegations of ‘Russian meddling’ in the 2016 US elections: “Twitter has made the policy decision to off-board advertising from all accounts owned by Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, effective immediately,” Twitter said. Facebook has pursued similar censorship polices against RT and Sputnik since Donald Trump’s inauguration.
The credentials of Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley as independent investigative journalists dwarf attempts to discredit and silence them, however. Consider Ms Beeley alone, whose extensive research (much of it gathered from first-hand observation and interviews in Syria) includes:
– Establishing for the wider international community a real Syrian Civil Defence force exists and has existed since 1953, and that it is the only such agency recognised by the Geneva-based International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO).
– Establishing that the ICDO does not recognise the White Helmets as the Syrian Civil Defence.
– Establishing that men who are now members of the White Helmets looted vehicles and equipment from the real Syrian Civil Defence in Aleppo – and belongings from civilians.
– Establishing that the White Helmets shared a building in Bab al-Nairab, eastern Aleppo, with al-Qaeda and were present as al-Qaeda tortured civilians, among other documented war crimes.
Meanwhile, Solon’s own authority rests entirely on being a ‘professional’ with the backing of the Guardian’s editorial board. In the words of Eva Bartlett: “Why would the Guardian employ a San Francisco based writer specialising in fluff pieces and Russophobic analysis, who visibly has little to no understanding of what is happening on the ground in Syria, to deliver this ground-breaking exposé?”
Attempting to undermine the credibility of the evidence Vanessa has gathered, Solon three times refers contemptuously to her as a ‘blogger’, and even as a ‘conspiracy theorist’, but these slurs are hard to take seriously when Olivia Solon’s own LinkedIn profile lists her first skill as ‘blogging’.
Unfortunately for the Guardian and for Olivia, the hatchet job also blunts itself. Solon’s sources are non-existent or blatantly pro-imperialist. To take just two examples:
– Scott Lucas, quoted numerous times, is a professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham and a founder/editor of the EA WorldView website (formerly known as Enduring America), which specialises in commentary on Iran, Syria, the middle east and Russia. Lucas is a supporter of the US’s proxy war in Syria via the YPG, and even legitimatises the ‘Free Syria Army’, publishing its leaflets on his website, where he is also a textbook Russophobe.
In an August 2017 article entitled Across Syria, White Helmets protest killing of seven colleagues, he employed the words of terrorist supporter Mustafa al-Haj Youssef (whom Solon has happily paraphrased).
– Elliot Higgins, quoted by Solon, is another blogger, but one much beloved in imperialist circles for his self-proclaimed ability to look at YouTube videos and deduce who has committed atrocities that the US is blaming on Russia or Syria or some other enemy. Higgins has founded an ‘investigative reporting collective’ called Bellingcat, mysteriously funded and regularly cited by imperialist media to back up its pro-war narratives.
According to an article from the award-winning investigative journalist Gareth Porter: “Eliot Higgins is a non-resident fellow of the militantly anti-Russian, state department-funded Atlantic Council, and has no technical expertise on munitions.” (Relying on unreliable Syrian sources, Consortium News, 30 November 2016)
Solon’s article, which carries the subtitle: “The Russia-backed campaign to link the volunteer rescuers with al-Qaeda”, purports to describe how ‘conspiracy theories’ take root: “It’s like a factory”, she declares (an allegation worthy of the fake news label even by its own criteria), implicitly providing another justification for overt information and media censorship by the big tech companies that control most people’s access to and experience of the internet.
Unwittingly, the article actually exposes the Guardian as the imperialist cheerleader it really is. As Louis Allday wrote in 2016 about the war in Syria: “Even a mildly dissenting opinion … has seen many people ridiculed and attacked … These attacks are rarely, if ever, reasoned critiques of opposing views: instead they frequently descend into personal, often hysterical, insults and baseless, vitriolic allegations.” (Controlling the narrative on Syria, Monthly Review, 13 December 2016)
Solon’s article is a perfect example of just such hysterical mudslinging.
2. Anti-Syrian propaganda
The second agenda Solon’s article serves is that of propping up the weakening propaganda war against Syria, its legitimately recognised government and its patriotic armed forces, with the aim of rejuvenating support for the imperialists’ flagging regime-change project.
Once more, however, the article succeeds in its aim only to the extent that the reader is disinclined to think or subject Solon’s assertions to closer examination. Her assertions that the documented instances of the White Helmets’ complicity in war crimes represent the misdemeanours of a ‘few bad apples’ glosses over the fact that Raed al-Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, was denied entry to the US in April 2016, having been deemed by the state department’s Mark Toner to have ties to extremists!
In April 2015, American independent journalist Rick Sterling revealed that the White Helmets had been founded and funded by western powers and were managed by a British ex-soldier. (See Seven steps of highly effective manipulators, Dissident Voice)
Since September 2015, Vanessa Beeley has relentlessly pursued the organisation, revealing that their annual funding today amounts to over $150m, much of it donated by the US and British governments.
Vanessa Beeley has also exposed the White Helmets’ complicity in the massacre of civilians (including 116 children) from Foua and Kafraya in April 2017. In September 2017, Murad Gazdiev documented how the White Helmets’ headquarters in Bustan al-Qasr, Aleppo, was filled with Hell Canons (used to fire gas canister bombs on Aleppo’s civilians and infrastructure) and remnants of a bomb-making factory. The headquarters was in a school, whose children, like those in the rest of occupied Aleppo, were denied access to education during the years that al-Qaeda and other jihadis ran the city.
Solon refers to the chemical weapons attack in April 2017 as having been ‘uncovered by the White Helmets’ and carried out by the Syrian government. But the investigations of Seymour Hersh (on Ghouta in 2013, and on Khan Sheikhoun in 2017) and of the UN’s own Carla Del Ponte have long ago debunked these claims.
Meanwhile, Eva Bartlett’s on-the-ground investigations have revealed the truth behind the media hype about ‘starvation’, destroyed hospitals and the ‘last doctors’ in Aleppo as the Syrian patriotic forces slowly liberated the city from the jihadis, as well as similar lies told about Madaya, al-Waer and Homs. In all instances, starvation and lack of medical care were solely attributable to terrorists hoarding food and medical supplies that had been supplied by government and aid agencies for the trapped civilians.
As has become standard in the corporate media, any information that goes against imperialist interests, especially that which is covered by non-imperialist (whether independent or Russian or Iranian state-owned media) outlets is simply dismissed as ‘Russian propaganda’.
3. The ongoing demonisation of Russia
Which leads us onto the final agenda served by Solon’s nasty little article: the further demonisation of Russia as part of the wider imperialist drive to war against that country.
Russophobia has now hit such a pitch of hysteria that it is becoming standard practice for imperialist governments and media to blame Russia for every economic and political set-back. Given the depth of the crisis engulfing the imperialist world, there are new examples of this almost every day.
For example, Hillary Clinton, shocked by her loss to Donald Trump in November 2016, told her donors that FBI director James Comey and Russian president Vladimir Putin were the chief culprits. “The latest reports made clear Vladimir Putin himself directed the covert cyber-attack against our electoral system, against our democracy, apparently because he has a personal beef against me,” she claimed, presenting (of course) absolutely no evidence in support of this assertion. (Clinton blames FBI director and Russia for her defeat, RT, 16 December 2016)
Her supporters’ claim that all 17 US intelligence agencies agreed that Russia was behind the hack of Democrat Party emails and used them to swing the election in favour of Republican Donald Trump was later retracted. (AP latest to retract claim that ‘17 US agencies’ confirmed Russian DNC email hack, RT, 1 July 2017)
And, aside from a handful off much-exaggerated business relationships between individuals, we have seen no evidence whatsoever to prove the DNC’s claims of ‘Russian interference’ in the US elections. “I just feel like they really don’t have it but they want to keep digging … and so I think the president is probably right to say, ‘Look, you are witch hunting me’,” said CNN producer John Bonifield. (CNN producer: Trump ‘probably right’ about Russian ‘witch hunt’ by Eddie Scarry, Washington Examiner, 27 June 2017)
Even a January 2017 report by the office of the US director of national intelligence could not provide any satisfactory evidence of US election inference beyond mere timelines illustrating the growing popularity of Russian news network RT. Despite this, it still claims: “Putin ordered campaign to influence US election”, a conclusion completely divorced from its contents or its ‘evidence’.
Responding to Solon’s piece, Eva Bartlett showed how, since early October 2017, the author produced or coproduced 24 stories for the Guardian, nine of which took a ‘blame Russia’ line of ‘journalism’ and included repeated inflammatory references to ‘Russian operatives’, ‘Russian interference’, ‘Russian trolls’, ‘Russian propagandists’, and ‘Russian bots’.
Baroness Cox of the British House of Lords recently stated in an interview with RT: “And the fourth point that I would like to make particularly to you is the very real appreciation that is expressed by everyone in Syria of the support by Russia to help get rid of Isis [Daesh] and get rid of all the other islamist religious groups.” (Member of House of Lords Baroness Cox: Russia has done right thing in Syria, Sputnik, 28 December 2017)
Should Baroness Cox be considered a ‘Russian bot’ or ‘Russian operative’ funded by the Kremlin?
A symptom of decay
Those who make up the liberal wing of the imperialist media are clearly rattled by the increasing ability of independent researchers to bypass their control of the ‘left-wing debate’ and successfully reach an interested and expanding audience.
For example, in an email communication from Olivia Solon to Eva Bartlett, one of the Guardian’s questions was about her audience, asking whether it was true “that you attract a large online audience, amplified by high-profile right-wing personalities and appearances on Russian state TV?”
The clear implication of such a question is that the growing popularity of Eva and those like her is based on the support of racists and dastardly Russians.
It should be no surprise, however, especially considering the tendentious ad hominem level of ‘critique’ to which the Guardian is resorting in its rants against anti-imperialist forces, that many people, whether right-wing or left-wing, are disgusted by the lack of honesty and integrity to be found in the British media and are prepared to ditch the high intellectual standards that Britain’s ‘most mainstream left-wing newspaper’ professes to uphold and turn instead to far more objective sources of information.
For our part, we are extremely grateful for the selfless dedication of such investigators as Vanessa Beeley, Eva Bartlett and Tim Anderson. Their work is helping to convince conscious members of the working class that the imperialist media is not to be relied upon, including such apparently liberal outlets as the BBC, Channel 4 and the Guardian.
Moreover, in exposing the lies that have been fed to workers to try and justify seven years of unjustifiable and brutal war against the people of Syria, Beeley, Bartlett and co are helping to lay the foundations of a real anti-war movement; one that is not afraid to stand with the victims of imperialist aggression and say clearly:
‘No cooperation with imperialist war crimes; victory to the resistance!’