The Guardian, White Helmets, and Silenced Comment

The Guardian recently published an article claiming that critical discussion of the White Helmets in Syria has been ‘propagated online by a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government’. Many readers were dismayed at this crude defence of a – presumably – pro-imperialist perspective, and at the unwarranted smearing of reasoned questioning based on evidence from independent journalists.

What The Guardian did next:

  • quickly closed its comments section;
  • did not allow a right of reply to those journalists singled out for denigration in the piece;
  • did not allow publication of the considered response from a group of concerned academics (posted in full below);
  • did not respond to the group’s subsequent Letter,[1] or a follow up email to it;
  • prevaricated in response to telephone inquiries as to whether a decision against publishing either communication from the group had or had not been taken;
  • failed to respond to a message to its Readers’ Editor from Vanessa Beeley, one of the journalists criticised in the article.

Meanwhile, the article’s author, Olivia Solon, tweeting from California, allowed herself to promote her piece while simply blocking critical voices.

Conduct hardly more becoming was that of The Guardian’s George Monbiot who joined in, tweeting smears against critics and suggesting they read up about ‘the Russian-backed disinformation campaign against Syria’s heroic rescue workers’. Judging by the tenor of responses to this, the journalist misjudged his surprising intervention. It seems that people who follow these matters are able to decide for themselves who and what they find credible.

As for allowing a fair hearing to independent researchers like Vanessa Beeley, it is poignant to observe that while The Guardian’s journalists were tweeting away, she was actually on the ground in Syria, again putting herself at personal risk of bombs and mortars despatched by the fighters that the White Helmets provide support to; she was there meeting – and filming – Syrian people who provide grave witness statements concerning those that The Guardian uncritically commends as ‘heroic rescue workers’.

A growing number of us believe that it is high time the critical questions raised by independent investigators be treated with the seriousness and scrupulousness they warrant. That is why the academic Working Group on Syria, Propaganda, and the Media offered the following response to The Guardian under its ‘Comment is Free’ rubric. Since it was not published there, I post it on behalf of the group here.


From the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media:

Seeking Truth About White Helmets In Syria

The recent Guardian article by Olivia Solon attacks those investigating and questioning the role of the White Helmets in Syria and attributes all such questioning to Russian propaganda, conspiracy theorizing and deliberate disinformation. The article does little, however, to address the legitimate questions which have been raised about the nature of the White Helmets and their role in the Syrian conflict. In addition, academics such as Professors Tim Hayward and Piers Robinson have been subjected to intemperate attacks from mainstream media columnists such as George Monbiot through social media for questioning official narratives. More broadly, as Louis Allday described in 2016 with regard to the war in Syria, to express ‘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’. These are indeed difficult times in which to ask serious and probing questions. It should be possible for public debate to proceed without resort to ad hominem attacks and smears.

It is possible to evaluate the White Helmets through analysis of verifiable government and corporate documents which describe their funding and purpose. So, what do we know about the White Helmets? First, the ‘Syria Civil Defence’, the ‘official title’ given to the White Helmets, is supported by US and UK funding. 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). The White Helmets receive funding from the UK government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) and the US government’s USAID, Office of Transition Initiatives programme – the Syria Regional Program II. The UK and US governments do not provide direct training and support to the White Helmets. Instead, private contractors bid for the funding from the CSSF and USAID. Mayday Rescue won the CSSF contract, and Chemonics won the USAID contract. As such, Chemonics and Mayday Rescue train and support the White Helmets on behalf of the US and UK governments.

Second, the CSSF is directly controlled by the UK National Security Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, while USAID is controlled by the US National Security Council, the Secretary of State and the President. The CSSF is guided by the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which incorporates UK National Security Objectives. Specifically, the White Helmets funding from the CSSF falls under National Security Objective “2d: Tackling conflict and building stability overseas”. This is a constituent part of the broader “National Security Objective 2: Project our Global Influence”.

The funding background of the White Helmets raises important questions regarding their purpose. A summary document published online indicates that the CSSF funding for the White Helmets is currently coordinated by the Syria Resilience Programme. This document highlights that the core objective of the programme is to support “the moderate opposition to provide services for their communities and to contest new space”, as to empower “legitimate local governance structures to deliver services gives credibility to the moderate opposition”. The document goes on to state that the White Helmets (‘Syria Civil Defence’) “provide an invaluable reporting and advocacy role”, which “has provided confidence to statements made by UK and other international leaders made in condemnation of Russian actions”. The ‘Syria Resilience CSSF Programme Summary’ is a draft document and not official government policy. However, the summary indicates the potential dual use of the White Helmets by the UK government: first, as a means of supporting and lending credibility to opposition structures within Syria; second, as an apparently impartial organisation that can corroborate UK accusations against the Russian state.

In a context in which both the US and UK governments have been actively supporting attempts to overthrow the Syrian government for many years, this material casts doubt on the status of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organization. It is therefore essential that investigators such as Vanessa Beeley, who raise substantive questions about the White Helmets, are engaged with in a serious and intellectually honest fashion. The White Helmets do not appear to be the independent agency that some have claimed them to be. Rather, their funding background, and the strategic objectives of those funders, provide strong prima facie grounds for considering the White Helmets as part of a US/UK information operation designed to underpin regime change in Syria as other independent journalists have argued. It is time for the smears and personal attacks to stop, allowing full and open investigation by academics and journalists into UK policy toward Syria, including the role of the White Helmets, leading to a better-informed public debate.


Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media

Steering Committee

Professor Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, University of Edinburgh

Professor Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics, University of Edinburgh

Professor Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism University of Sheffield


Jake Mason (PhD candidate, University of Sheffield)

Divya Jha (PhD candidate, University of Sheffield)



[1] Having sent the article reproduced here to ‘Comment is Free’ at The Guardian on 23 December, but receiving no definite response, despite a follow up email, on 5 January, we sent the following letter to The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor. (This also received no response.)

Dear Mr Chadwick

We are writing in relation to an article by Olivia Solon “How Syria’s White Helmets became victims of an online propaganda machine” published on 18 December.  This article asserted that those who have questioned the ostensible role of the White Helmets as an impartial humanitarian organization, including the experienced journalists Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett, are part of “a network of anti-imperialist activists, conspiracy theorists and trolls with the support of the Russian government “.  

We sent on 23 December a request (reproduced below) to Comment is Free requesting that they consider for publication a brief (800-word) response to Solon’s article.  This article set out the grounds for a more serious engagement with the questions that arise from UK and US government support for media-related operations in Syria.  The text of this article is reproduced below.  The original is attached as a Word document, in case the embedded links do not work in the unformatted text.

Despite a second message on 28 December specifically requesting a written response to the original message on 23 December (and copied to you), we have not had any response from the Guardian other than automated acknowledgements.   Before we proceed to publish this material elsewhere, it is important to document that this article has been seen by an editor and rejected (if that was the decision).   I understand that Comment is Free editors are not able to reply to every pitch, but this one concerns an article that has serious implications for the Guardian’s reputation.

We request therefore that you ask your editorial colleagues to respond in writing with a confirmation that our article has been seen and rejected.  A one-sentence email message from an editor would be enough – we shall not bother you again.


Prof. Tim Hayward, Professor of Environmental Political Theory, University of Edinburgh

Prof. Paul McKeigue, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Statistical Genetics, University of Edinburgh

Prof. Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism, University of Sheffield










This entry was posted in disinformation, Guardian, guest blog, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Syrian opposition, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to The Guardian, White Helmets, and Silenced Comment

  1. Pingback: PBC News & Comment: Trump’s Shitstorm Soils All of US – Peter B. Collins

  2. Mark says:

    The sad fact is that UK/USA support for “rebel forces” has prolonged the suffering of the Syrian people UK/USA are in breach of international law by interfering in Syria, supporting forces against the countries government.
    The UK/USA are state funding terrorism in Syria using tax payers money, and they call for Assad to be removed, British and American politicians need to be held accountable in the Hague for War crimes against the Syrian people.

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  4. Pingback: How anyone who questions the White Helmets narrative became victims of the Guardian propaganda machine | OffGuardian

  5. Pingback: Request to Guardian for response & right of reply to Solon White Helmets article | OffGuardian

  6. mato48 says:


    Keeping a lie straight for seven years is tough and takes some effort. Ultimately the propagandists of the Guardian and other establishment media will lose their reputation (if they had any in the first place).

    Thank you for addressing this issue relentlessly!

    My own statement about the defamation campaign against Syria (from last year, still valid):

    The arguments of regime change propagandists are all based on a decade long demonization campaign of the Syrian Baath leadership. The Baath party is secular, with a program of Arab nationalism and socialism. With this traits it is an annoyance and a threat not only to Islamic fundamentalists and Arab potentates, but also to Israel.

    In Syria itself President Dr. Bashar al-Assad is viewed as soft and compromising and many Syrians think that his father Hafez or Bashar’s brother Bassel, who died in a car accident, would have crushed the demonstrations in Daraa and Homs with overwhelming force, thereby avoiding the tragedy of the Syrian war.

    Syrian policemen initially were not even armed and they only got pistols to defend themselves when armed elements among the demonstrators shot at them. Even then they had to give account of every fired shot. The Mukhabarat undeniably used harsher methods but they only took action after a number of policemen were killed by demonstrators.

    Several times Dr. Bashar al-Assad tried to calm down the unrest by releasing prisoners and declaring ceasefires, actions which the Islamists and their foreign supporters misunderstood as weakness and which only emboldened them. He was even accused of deliberately releasing jailed Islamists to weaken the secular opposition and “taint the revolution,” an argument which ignores the fact, that the Islamists were in charge from the first day on and a truly secular opposition only existed in Turkish hotel rooms and in the imagination of Western commentators.

    Dr. al-Assad and his wife Asma, both highly educated and meeting western ideals in many respects, were a major headache for the regime change propagandists. The article ”A Rose in the Desert,” by the fashion magazine Vogue, which showed the Assad family in a sympathetic light, had to be hastily removed, the families private emails were intercepted and used for ridiculous accusations of hubris and vanity.

    After nothing was found to incriminate Dr. Assad personally, the image of a bloodthirsty dictator was built based on a series of false flag atrocities, starting with the Houla massacre in 2012, where the UN concluded from eye witness reports that Syrian troops did it, despite the fact that the victims were mostly government supporters.

    Witness reports and photo documents were also the only evidence for most of the other alleged crimes of Dr. Assad, who soon was customarily called “butcher” Assad. The terms shabiha, Mukhabarat, barrel bombs, East Ghouta gas attack, Caesar photos, Sednaya prison were repeated again and again to become synonymous for Dr. Assad’s immorality and savageness, though any discussion about the terms and associated assumptions was and still is avoided.

    After years of intensive brainwashing, for most of the western media audience now shabiha, barrel bombs, sarin, Caesar, Sednaya have a strong negative emotional connotation and articles about Syria only need to use one of these words to set the tone. In online forums and comment sections these words likewise are used as contractions and shorthand symbols to affirm the wickedness of President Assad.

    No further proof of the barbarity and ruthlessness of the regime is needed, dissenters are labeled “tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists.” Or just ridiculed: lol….

  7. Do not stop the noble efforts until the truth prevails … The Guardian finds itself rightly criticized for its persistently deceptive and fully immoral promulgation of warmongering propaganda. What people are witnessing with their very eyes is a real spiritual battle, and the manifestation of clashes between those representing the love light of truth and those serving the evil dark of lies. One senses the coming 1st of many future article, video, and radio titles directly confronting those who willingly sell their souls and speak destructive-to-life lies. Borrowing from the movie starring Jack Nicholson: “Guardian Warmongers – You Can’t Handle The Truth!”

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  13. Guano says:

    The CSSF documents are intriguing, to say the least. Possibly you should use FoI requests to get more of them. If this is an active aid programme, there should be a definitive version of the Project Summary. There should also be a Logical Framework Analysis for the project and each component, that sets out the actions to be taken, the logic of the project, the assumptions being made and how the project is to be monitored. There should also be Stakeholder Analyses, which examine the capacity and objectives of the various partners in the project and the extent to which these are compatible with the aims of the project (eg – will an effort have to be made to get the various partners to go along with the aims of the project, or are they in agreement already).

    In the case of the White Helmets component of this project, it is difficult to see how it contributes to the overall aim of creating space for moderate elements of the armed opposition. There is strong evidence that the White Helmets work in a context dominated by extremist elements of the opposition and that domination has tended to be enforced militarily, so it is difficult to see how a civil rescue organisation will help to reverse that domination.

    In the case of the components of the project administered by DfID, it is a bit easier to understand the logic. However, what I understood from briefings about the cross-border humanitarian aid to the areas of Syria abandoned by the Assad government is that the armed opposition is not involved in service provision. There are unarmed civilian groups who have organised themselves to make life less miserable for those people who have not fled from the area, and these groups use diaspora networks to bring in things like spare parts for water pumps, and humanitarian organisations have supported these networks. What I understood is that the armed opposition groups have little interest in this, and they all came under the rubric of “security concerns” for humanitarian programming. It is difficult to see how supporting people providing this kind of service this contributes to the legitimacy of the non-extremist armed opposition, unless they have suddenly taken an interest in civilian administration.

    • timhayward says:

      Thanks very much. I’ve copied this to the Working Group.

    • Tettodoro says:

      @Guano Its not about “reversing the military domination” of the salafist/takfirist armed groups but about providing an alternative to them for the civilian population with respect to civil protection, public order, and basic services. You are largely right about the role of civil and diaspora organisations in filling this space, and the creation of the elements of a civilian administration. (For example the provision of medical services.) But that is what much of this assistance is supporting and has been for some time. You may have more up to date information than I do about the state of relations between the armed opposition groups and civil society in opposition areas, but I imagine that it is very variable – particularly in areas like East Ghouta where there are armed factions with different socio-political views coexisting alongside each other. If you are right I also think it is a recent development: service provision was a key element in ISIS’s strategy; and was important in the expansion of Nusra for some years. I think things have changed somewhat more recently for a complex of reasons – military failures of the armed groups and greater assertivness of civil society groups,(and rise of the war economy). If you are interested in discussing these things further, happy to oblige.

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  16. A reader says:

    Thank you for covering this. A lot of us on the left feel very much alone since mainstream “liberal” media like The Guardian have been propping up imperialist-friendly narratives for years now. It’s a relief to find sources of informed views from another perspective.

  17. Tettodoro says:

    5 Questions for “Professors Against White Helmets”

    • Adria Kent. says:


      As I commented on that (your?) blog – even the most wildly generous of answers in favour of the White Helmets to those five questions would not preclude them ALSO being a propaganda instrument (construct) of the West.

      I’ve also just posted this there too, which I’m copying here for Tim’s readership:

      It’s interesting that I wrote my earlier comment [to @tettodoro’s linked blog] 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’.

  18. Bryan Neddin says:

    You have comments here who write stuff like ‘ Houla was a false flag’, and ‘after years of brainwashing, ‘sarin’ and ‘barrel bombs’, have a negative connotation.’ Keep it classy Assadist scum. Hayward you are a disgrace and your commenters brain dead vile morons. One of them notes that ‘Assad even got criticised for releasing Islamist extremists in 2011’. Yeah, funny that , you morons. Keep pushing the lies that Assad and Putin and Hezbollah are ‘anti-terror’. You Fascist morons. Keep praying your dirty little prayers that Russian bombs kill first responders .

    • Bryan Neddin,

      Please share your view on what it will take to finally end the war, violence and destruction, and bring true peace to Syria and its people.

      Thank you very much.

      • Tettodoro says:

        I’m sure Bryan can reply for himself, but for my part I would say it certainly won’t be furthered by finding excuses for every war crime the Assad regime commits. How about starting with implementing all the UN Resolutions that call for genuine ceasefires (not ones accompanied by accelerated bombing); ending the sieges of opposition areas and allowing free movement of humanitarian aid ; releasing the tens of thousands of detainees in regime prisons. And then maybe serious engagement in the Geneva peace process?

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  20. AB Hobart says:

    Perhaps some of the propaganda is beginning to be disowned ?

    Seventh report of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism 26 oct 2017
    27. Khan Shaykhun
    “On the basis of its work, the Fact-Finding Mission had concluded that a large number of people, some of whom had died, had been exposed to sarin or a sarin-like substance, and that such a release could only be determined to have been the use of sarin as a chemical weapon. ”

    and now in the last couple of weeks

    Associated Press 2 feb 2018
    WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. has no evidence to confirm reports from aid groups and others that the Syrian government has used the deadly chemical sarin on its citizens, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday.

    French President Macron 14 feb 2018
    “Today, our agencies, our armed forces have not established that chemical weapons, as set out in treaties, have been used against the civilian population.”

  21. Tettodoro,

    You asked: “How about starting with implementing all the UN Resolutions that call for genuine ceasefires.”

    Tell that to your – yes, your – hired killers. Mr. Tettodoro is proposing the equivalent of an individual allowing a brutal murderer to murder him, her, family, friends, etc. without self-defending and fighting for their very lives. “Ceasefire” in the face of advancing murdering hordes is beyond ridiculous, and illustrates the clear propaganda tactic of avoiding mention of the covertly-assisted, state-sponsored, mass-murdering terrorists operational for seven years in Syria – nor those managing said mass murder.

  22. preuzener says:

    My only issue, for I agree with the thrust of the position and project of the working group and largely trust the positions of Beeley and Bartlett, is the repeated assertion that they weren’t given right of reply in Solon’s diatribe.

    I’m fairly sure they were in fact asked to provide comment. Yes, asked in the reductive and pre-determined rhetorical ruts of the authors reasoning, yes it’s difficult to answer leading questions that presuppose your logical weakness and select dichotomies to present as important to the issue – but I do wish they had at least sent back some of the facts as they perceive them.

    Even though it’s tempting to see it as a rigged game – as ms Bartlett alluded to when she called it an ‘already decided story’ – I think the greater damage is done in not at least trying to get some of your points across, in what has, let’s face it, become a full-blown information war, played out in the theatre of public perceptions of the material conflict in Syria.

  23. Pingback: How The Guardian is handling different views on media bias in reports from Syria is quite worrying | Digital in Dublin

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