White Helmets: Instrument for regime change in Syria?

By CHRISTINA LIN - October 24, 2016

The increasing US trend of weaponizing human rights is threatening a rules-based liberal order. The systematic corrosion of these international norms with attendant disastrous consequences has been demonstrated in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia.

Ironically in Libya, after US/NATO invoked Responsibility to Protect to violently overthrow Muammar Qaddafi’s government, it was Qaddafi loyalists that rescued US embassy personnel while suspected extremists affiliated with US-backed rebels that were not thoroughly vetted murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in a tragic illustration of “blowback.” Former head of Defense Intelligence Agency General Michael T. Flynn revealed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arranged for Qatar to ship arms to al Qaeda-aligned Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) as the rebel opposition, which later attacked the West.

Now, Washington is again repeating this destructive pattern and invoking human rights rationale to overthrow the Syrian government, based on reporting from the White Helmets—a Syrian Civil Defense organization created by the US and UK in 2013.

Documenting human rights abuses to legitimize military invasion

Some controversies surround the White Helmets. In 2016 it was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize as brave men and women of Syria Civil Defense who rescue people to save lives during a war. However, as Jonathan Gornall portrayed in The National, there has also been disturbing reports that White Helmets is a US/UK propaganda tool to weaponize human rights for regime change in Syria as in Libya.

There exist some uncomfortable truths. Despite stating it is independent and not supported by any government, White Helmets is funded through US State Department’s USAID to the tune of US$23 million, and US$29 million from the UK government. Various disturbing videos and photos have also emerged of White Helmet members carrying weapons, celebrating with Al Qaeda when they defeat the Syrian army in battles, and standing by to watch as rebel jihadists conduct executions and then immediately rushing forward to place the body in body bags.

Its credibility took a hit when in April the leader, Raed Saleh, had his visa to the US revoked for suspected ties to terrorists. Senator Ron Paul’s Institute’s reports that the real Syrian Civil Defense, registered and in existence for 63 years since 1953, had never heard of the White Helmets until recently further damaged their legitimacy as a Syrian humanitarian NGO.

In fact, the real Syria Civil Defense is a founding member of the ICDO (International Civil Defense Organization), and other ICDO partners include the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Secretarian of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations of Geneva (UNOG), Red Cross and the Red Crescent. It has an actual number to call inside Syria—113.

By contrast, the US/UK created White Helmet is not a member of ICDO, nor is there a listed public phone number to call. They are only present in Al Nusra and armed opposition territory in Idlib and East Aleppo, and the sole source that is filming and documenting alleged war crimes in Aleppo that is being fed to western media.

Their co-mingling with Al Qaeda and photos of numerous members as armed jihadists, coupled with the recent Berlin airport bomber suspect also being a White Helmet member from Idlib, has cast doubt on their credibility as an impartial humanitarian NGO. According to a former director of the US Congressional Task Force for Counter terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, he confirmed the White Helmets is “largely a ploy for instigating Libya-style western ‘humanitarian intervention’ (R2P in short). They are a propaganda entity rather than a civil defense…[and] provide the Western media what they want in order to push their line.”

And that line is regime change in Syria.

Increasing “Saudization” of US mideast policy

Nonetheless, despite Germany naming US-backed rebel group Ahrar al Sham as a terrorist organization and former Italian prime minister Franco Frattini voicing concerns that a no fly zone for regime change would protect al-Nusra, US continues to support these al-Qaeda groups as legitimate “opposition.” This prompted Frattini to accuse Americans of pandering to Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s agenda, echoing investigative reporter Gareth Porter’s criticism that Washington allows US policy to be determined by Wahhabi ambitions.

He noted former Hillary Clinton aide Derek Chollet in his new book The Long Game, revealed that Clinton and CIA director Leon Panetta were pushing to arm Syrian opposition force solely to give US “leverage” with its Sunni allies by acquiring “skin in the game,” not that it was some well-thought out plan to resolve the Syrian crisis. Former US ambassador Robert Ford also observed that “For a long time the administration ‘looked the other way’ while the US supported jihadists that were coordinating with Al Qaeda,” including the State Department despite knowledge that Qatar and Saudi Arabia were providing funding and logistical support to ISIS and other terrorist groups in the region.

As such this made the US complicit in the Wahhabi project of using Salafi terrorists to maximize pressure for overthrowing the Syrian government although Syria had never attacked the US, while supporting Al Qaeda groups (ISIS is new name for Al Qaeda in Iraq while al Nusra is al Qaeda in Syria) actually directly harms US national security.

However, whether current US strategy of weaponizing human rights would turn into a full-scale war would likely be decided in the November elections—and the next president’s decision to escalate the conflict via a no fly zone against Russia and her Eurasian allies.

Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane’s.