Should UK attack Syria? What Parliament might say

Has President Assad used chemical weapons in Syria? In 2013, UK parliamentarians were not convinced. Asked to vote on military action, our representatives decided against.

Today, the same question arises again, but this time they may not get a chance to debate it.[1] We face the profoundly worrying possibility that this government could commit us to warfare without seeking or getting democratic approval.

So I want to highlight some points made by our representatives in 2013. [2] If they were true then, they could be as true or even truer now.

On 29th August 2013, UK parliament was recalled early from summer recess to vote on authorising military intervention in Syria. It was alleged that Syria had crossed President Obama’s ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons. Prime Minister David Cameron came to the House of Commons to seek approval for military action.[3]

Cameron told parliament of a report from the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and he presented a two page summary of it. The first question put to him, by Caroline Lucas, was why the full report was not made available.[4] He replied that the case for action ‘is not based on a specific piece or pieces of intelligence.’ He added, ‘intelligence is part of this picture, but let us not pretend that there is one smoking piece of intelligence that can solve the whole problem. This is a judgment issue…’

In the JIC Chair’s judgement it was ‘highly likely that the Syrian regime was responsible.’

Cameron stated that he had ‘consulted the Attorney-General and he has confirmed that the use of chemical weapons in Syria constitutes both a war crime and a crime against humanity.’ The standard of proof in criminal investigations involves eliminating reasonable doubt, and can be tested with respect to such matters as motive, means and opportunity. MPs were minded to test it because they thought they were being expected to take a lot on trust. What does ‘highly likely’ mean, what is it based on, how is that judged, and is reasonable doubt eliminated?

Motive was a matter that bothered MPs. Peter Bone saw ‘no logic to this chemical attack and that is what is worrying some people.’ Julian Lewis noted ‘the JIC is baffled to find a motive for Assad having done this’, adding, ‘as well it might be’, given that it would have been ‘the height of irrationality for him to do the one thing that might get the west intervening against him.’ Like Mr Godsiff, too, David Davis pointed out that ‘even the JIC says that this is an irrational and incomprehensible act’. George Galloway asked what reason Assad could have to ‘launch a chemical weapons attack in Damascus on the very day on which a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team arrives there’.

Neither Cameron nor the JIC could answer on motive. By contrast, a clear motive could be attributed to Assad’s enemies, as David Davis pointed out: ‘it could have been done by the Syrian rebels with the direct aim of dragging the west into the war.’ He noted that ‘JIC discounted that last possibility’, but he worried it was not clear why.

It was on the grounds of means, not motive, that JIC judged it could rule out rebel responsibility. The JIC’s chair stated that there is ‘no credible intelligence or other evidence’ that the opposition possessed chemical weapons, so it is ‘not possible for the opposition to have carried out a CW attack on this scale’. Yet there were MPs who believed this claim to be false. David Davis noted that ‘the UN representative for human rights for Syria thought there was concrete evidence of rebels having sarin gas. There were reports that the Turkish authorities arrested 12 al-Nusra fighters with 2 kg of sarin gas, and other reports that Hezbollah fighters are in Beirut hospitals suffering from the effects of sarin gas.’ George Galloway was forthright in stating that ‘the Syrian rebels definitely had sarin gas’ and he highlighted the relative ease with which improvised forms of sarin can be produced without sophisticated lab equipment.[5]

On this point I think it is important to note that now, in 2017 a similar claim is asserted by UK government: there is ‘no evidence to suggest that any party to the conflict in Syria, other than the Syrian Government, has access to a complex nerve agent such as sarin.’[6] I am sure there would be MPs with concerns that this could be misleading. Certainly, the reference to complexity suggests they are thinking of how military grade Sarin could perhaps only be produced by the Government; yet the actual evidence suggests the chemicals involved are other grades of sarin that can be made by rebels. Given that the OPCW report is vague on precisely this point – whether it is sarin a ‘sarin-like substance’ that has been found where and by whom – the MPs could rightly pose some challenging questions. Those who had followed some of the debate by independent researchers would know to ask that information be released from the UK’s own labs on both the 2013 and the 2017 samples. The UK scientists would presumably know the chemical profiles of those samples, as would those in USA and Russia too.[7]

The fact is, that if rebels were understood to have Sarin in 2013, they would still have it now. Unless, of course, they had used it all, in which case a major premise of the UK’s government’s stance would be directly kicked away. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that with supply lines continuing to operate since 2013 they could have a great deal more by now. In light of all this, would MPs, if allowed to debate, agree that rebel capability is ruled out?

But even if the opposition could have had the means, did they really have the opportunity? MPs would be aware that the incidents of both 2013 and 2017 occurred in areas over which the opposition were in complete control.  Evidence could be managed and produced by them to a great extent without external interference or observation.[8] This means that if they had sought to construct a ‘false flag’ operation, they could have had the opportunity. Exactly how they would have done it involves considering some very horrific possibilities.[9] But if a possible account sounds ‘too horrific to believe’ MPs might still be wary of underestimating the horrors that some of those involved might be capable of.

So where might our elected representatives think evidence concerning motive, means and opportunity points today? Would they be inclined to accept the view of the government that it is so likely Assad was responsible for the chemical attacks that we’d be justified in engaging in acts of war against Syria?

I don’t claim to know how the debate would go today, but we can reflect on how it went in 2013. Andrew Mitchell offered his ‘strong advice to the Government’, in view of doubts about whether the use of chemical weapons is unequivocally the work of Assad, ‘to publish in full the evidence’. Julian Lewis argued that even if not all members could see the full report, at least The Intelligence and Security Committee should be allowed to, given that it had sufficient security clearance. Ed Milliband found that evidence against Assad was not compelling, and John McDonnell agreed that ‘to say that “highly likely” and “some evidence” are not good enough’. Richard Ottaway complained that all they’d been given was ‘bare bones’ with ‘no depth’. He endorsed the proposal that ‘the Intelligence and Security Committee could ​look at the JIC analysis, report to the House on the veracity of the intelligence and confirm that it agrees with the opinion in the JIC intelligence letter before us.’ Alasdair McDonnell expressed concern about acting ‘on the basis of uncertain or confused intelligence, particularly in view of possible consequences of action for the Syrian people, something Galloway urged the house to think about: ‘Every religious minority in Syria—there are 23 of them—is petrified at the thought of a victory for the Syrian rebels, whom the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been doing their utmost to supply with weapons and money over ​the last two years.’

So much hinges on the reliability of intelligence, and yet so little, in truth, is really known about it by those who uphold democracy in our country. Surely, if we have learned anything at all from the recent history of UK intervention in the Middle East, it is that our leaders’ summary judgements about indirect reports of evidence can let us down, and very badly.




[1] See the worrying discussion of the use of the ‘Enabling Act’ to authorize military action without express approval

[2] Source of Hansard references: Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons 29 August 2013 Volume 566 [Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 16 July 2013, on Developments in UK Foreign Policy, HC 268-i.]

[3] In the event, of course, Obama himself drew back from the direct confrontation with Syria. Did he know the evidence did not in fact support a justification for it, and congress could expose this fact?

[4] The Greens’ Caroline Lucas: asks ‘why he has refused to publish the Attorney-General’s full advice? ​Why has he instead published just a one-and-a-half-side summary of it, especially when so many legal experts are saying that without explicit UN Security Council reinforcement, military action simply would not be legal under international law?’ And the SNP’s Angus Robertson says ‘we have been recalled to Parliament because of potential imminent military action by UK and other forces. We have been called back four days before Parliament was to reconvene anyway, so it is not unreasonable to conclude that there was a high probability that intervention would take place before Monday. The UK Government expected that we should vote for a blank cheque that would have allowed UK military action before UN weapons inspectors concluded their investigations and before their detailed evidence was provided to the United Nations—or, indeed, Members of this House. Following our having been misled on the reasons for war in Iraq, the least the UK Government could have done was to provide detailed evidence. Frankly, they have not, as was underlined in my intervention on the Prime Minister earlier. … Surely we must have definitive evidence that the Syrian regime or opposition was responsible for the use of these weapons—with the greatest respect, that means not just two pages of A4 paper.’

[5] Galloway: ‘The Syrian rebels have plenty of access to sarin. It is not rocket science. A group of Shinto obscurantists in Japan living on Mount Fuji poisoned the Tokyo underground with sarin gas less than 20 years ago. One does not have to be Einstein to have one’s hands on sarin gas or the means to distribute it.’

[6] Statement by H.E. Ambassador Sir Geoffrey Adams, UK Permanent Representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. 5th July 2017

[7] According to a technically well-informed blogger, ‘There is ample evidence that (1) the Nusra Front was producing sarin, and (2) that the sarin used in Syria in 2013 was kitchen sarin that did not match the synthetic pathway used for Syrian military stocks. Mokhtar Lamani, the UN Special Representative in Damascus, had reported to the UNSG in March 2013 that Nusra was bringing nerve agents into Syria through the border at Azaz. The Russian lab that analysed environmental samples from the Khan-al-Assal attack in March 2013 reported that the sarin had been produced under “cottage industry” conditions. It’s likely that Porton Down had obtained similar results from their own analysis of a sarin sample from Uteybah, and were able to compare the Russian findings with their own (very helpful when trying to interpret mass spectrometry results on a complex mixture). This would have helped to establish the credibility of the Russian in this matter.

The phone transcripts of the Nusra team arrested in Turkey in May 2013 showed that they were buying sarin precursors in quantities of hundreds of kilos, including white phosphorus. The OPCW labs reported that the sarin used in Ghouta contained hexafluorophosphate. This indicates that the synthesis started with phosphorus trichloride or elemental phosphorus, and that intermediate reaction products were not purified at each step. The Syrian government’s sarin production started with trimethyl phosphite, bought in large quantities from the UK and India during the 1980s. Finally, Seymour Hersh has reported that the US, which fitted out the ship Cape Ray as a sarin disposal facility, obtained samples of the sarin binaries given up by the Syrian government and determined that their chemical profile did not match the Ghouta sarin.’ ‘On 29 August, just before the House of Commons met to debate the resolution for war on Syria, the UK Joint Intelligence Committee released a report to the Prime Minister stating that there was “no evidence for an opposition CW capability” and therefore “no alternative to a regime attack scenario”. Yet only one day later, Obama had been informed that both these statements were false. It’s clear that the UK defence lab scientists and defence intelligence officials were well aware that the JIC was misleading the House of Commons (a crime against the constitution) and that they resorted to passing information via the military chain of command.’

[8] The 2017 incident occurred at (or around) the time of a Syrian bombing raid at the area in question, and some MPs would surely ask how the rebels could have arranged for this. But, apparently, it would not have been as difficult as one might imagine. Given that air raids within a certain radius and timeframe could be known in advance, and given that various elements of testimony could also be prepared ahead, then mobilizing some key parts of material evidence on the day would not be logistically impossible. In fact, there are unresolved discrepancies in accounts of the timing of events on the ground in relation to the bombing from the air as well as surprising vagueness about locations of victims at key times. Independent researchers have discussed at great length every aspect of the reported incidents and seem to be coming towards the sort of view that became a consensus among them regarding the 2013 incidents.

[9] Attentive researchers have examined these and come to some extremely disturbing conclusions about these. Anyone interested is recommended to consult the collective findings and analysis of A Closer Look On Syria: I find this rather more exhaustive and realistic than Bellingcat’s recent hasty attempt to set out a reductio ad absurdum of what would need to be believed .

Posted in constitutional politics, disinformation, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 9 Comments

Khan Sheikhoun: why it is sensible to be sceptical still

The OPCW fact finding mission (FFM) has now reported on the chemical incident in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, in April 2017. Although heavily trailed in previews, by Bellingcat and others, as presenting virtually a smoking gun implicating the Syrian government, the report itself is so hedged with caveats that one could perhaps say there is so much smoke that we can’t even see a gun.

Certainly, the report cannot specifically verify any weapon involved, as the FFM ‘was unable to retrieve any items from the site which would indicate the means of dispersal of a chemical. After analysing photographs and video supplied by witnesses, the FFM could not establish with a great degree of confidence the means of deployment and dispersal of the chemical.’ (6.19)[1]

I know nothing about chemical weapons but I know a little about how reports get written. A number of people collaborate in piecing together the evidence and analysis that goes into the long document. One voice then has to come clearly through the summary that goes out to press, even though different glosses are possible. Since a certain gloss, given some extra spin, has been making the rounds in the media, I think it worth pointing out how one could interpret it quite differently.

The OPCW tell us they could not visit the site of the reported incident (since it is in the control of very dangerous men) and could not therefore get high value evidence (3.11).[2] The evidence they examined included samples that were sent (via those dangerous men) to Turkey without the FFM being able to document a verifiable chain of custody (3.46).[3] So how the samples came to be contaminated or by exactly what (since it apparently could have been a ‘Sarin-like substance’ or Sarin) is a matter of surmise. They tried to piece together a narrative on the basis of witness statements from people on the ground who were among, if not of, the dangerous men. ‘It was not possible to corroborate’ the narrative that was inferred from those testimonies (5.10); and the narrative was in fact contradicted by statements taken by the Syrian authorities (5.10).

Commentators who had sight of the report during its embargo period, like Bellingcat, worked very quickly to bring out publications aimed at convincing us the report provided a refutation of those of us who are sceptical about the narrative of Syrian Government responsibility for the Khan Sheikhoun incident.

It seems to me, though, that the caveats are extremely significant.  Especially given that in order to feel safe in disregarding those caveats one has to put a good deal of faith in the honesty and integrity of the people in control of the area of the incident. I find this hard to do, given that everyone considers them not even safe to visit.

[Readers will notice that in this brief comment I have not referred to the victims of the incident.  The cause of death of all those people should presumably be a matter for criminal investigation, which was not the purpose of the OPCW mission. It is a matter of very grave concern indeed.]



[1] All references are to paragraphs in the Report Of The Opcw Fact-Finding Mission In Syria Regarding An Alleged Incident
In Khan Shaykhun, Syrian Arab Republic April 2017.

[2] ‘During an investigation, complete, direct, and immediate access to the alleged initiation site provides the greatest opportunity to collect high value evidence.’ (3.11)

[3] ‘Typically, samples from an incident would be collected by the investigating team immediately after the incident, using approved procedures and equipment, including full documentation of the chain of custody of the samples. As noted earlier, the team 
was constrained due to the inability to access the site of the alleged incident and the amount of time that had passed between the alleged incident and receipt of samples by the team (depending on the source, between 1 week and 2 months after the incident). As a result, the team was unable to:

(a) assess the geography and conditions of the location of the alleged incident; (b) directly select sampling points and items;
(c) conduct on-site collection of samples; and
(d) implement a complete chain of custody, by the team, for samples from source.’ (3.46)

Posted in journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 23 Comments

Who Shall Debunk The Debunkers?

Established information sources like Google or Wikipedia sometimes answer a search about an intriguing claim you’re investigating by assuring you from the get-go that it has been discredited or debunked. They seem keen you should know this before they even explain what the claim actually is. I’ve learned to be suspicious.

Relatedly, I’ve found, the entire purpose of certain “independent” organisations calling themselves “fact checkers” seems to be to dispose of views that challenge or dissent from a given narrative promoted by the corporate media. These defensive communicators are savvy enough to know you can’t fool all the people all the time but, being part of a near monopoly of information, they have an advantage of numbers.  Dissenters can get isolated and marginalised as “conspiracy theorists”.  Challenges to authorized versions of events are portrayed as all the crazier when they diametrically oppose “what we all know”.

“We all know”, for instance, that Bashar Al-Assad is an evil dictator murdering his people, so when people die in an apparent chemical attack, “we all know” he was responsible; sure, the definitive prove might not be there “yet”, but we are promised we’ll have it in due course. Meanwhile, the sight of some dead children – no matter if they might have been killed and filmed by war criminals opposed to the Syrian government – is enough evidence for warmongers in Washington to license the unleashing of a bit of armed “democracy”, US-style.

Complicit in this process are those who undertake to discredit dissenting voices. Their support is needed because regarding such red-line-crossing incidents as those involving chemicals in Syria – as in 2013 and in April 2017 – controversy remains about who was responsible. Certainly, it is not beyond reasonable doubt that Assad was responsible. Too many indications suggest the possibility of an opposed conclusion.[1]

The quality of debunking, in fact, is sometimes shoddy. I first got drawn into publicly debating information about Syria for that reason. Having seen the famous clip of Eva Bartlett confronting the mainstream media narrative at the UN,[2] I was intrigued to learn that Channel 4 had debunked her claims. The Channel 4 piece was extraordinarily misleading, however, since it did not in fact attempt to refute any of Eva’s major claims about no western journalists being on the ground in Aleppo and about all information coming from compromised sources. She was demonstrably correct on those points. Her substantive version of events on the ground was also then vindicated with the liberation of Aleppo.

Misdirection, however, appears to be standard practice for those debunkers who present themselves as impartial arbiters of evidence but in fact cherrypick and obfuscate it.[3] One modus operandi is to pick up on some technical detail of an event that can be cast as a scientific inquiry. Very long and convoluted reasoning is then deployed to “prove” that this scientific evidence is actually sufficient, for those capable of understanding it, to prove the authorized account. Dissenters are then dismissed by showing that they cannot grasp the science. If they say that the scientific question is not sufficient to settle the matter about who is responsible, they get carefully coralled back to questions that the debunker has prepared a position on.  Those who persist in asking independently reasonable questions are liable to get ignored.  As are those who engage knowledgeably about the science. One way or another, dissent is largely managed away.

So who is to debunk the debunkers? The rest of us have less information about events than will a well-supported debunker.  It is quite possible that the more prominent organisations, particularly those that appear to have no need to engage in any fundraising activities, will be suitably briefed about what “is known” in relevantly authoritative circles.

Nonetheless, all of us are capable of using basic logic and evaluating the credibility of competing witness statements. That is why jury systems can deliver verdicts that as a society we are prepared to rely upon. Whereas a jury in a trial gets to hear evidence on two sides, however, the current situation involves a virtual monopoly of information on the part of the authorized version. The case for the other side remains to be made.

To answer my question: those who have skills or knowledge to challenge the authorized version have an obligation of responsible citizenship, in the public interest, to do so.  This applies across the social world, but includes a part I know quite well, namely, the academic.  Universities and research institutes are full of people with the knowledge and experience to ask probing questions and develop credible alternative explanatory hypotheses.  The particular obligation of academics is all the more pointed, I would suggest, since among the debunkers themselves may be some who hold university positions.

There is a line here that I believe we – as academics, and also as part of a wider society – have to hold. It is a line already worryingly breached by the dramatic burgeoning in the neo-liberal era of Think Tanks with barely a veneer of objectivity or impartiality.  Within universities, I believe, the disinterested pursuit of knowledge should be regarded as a sacrosanct goal.  It has already been put somewhat at risk by governmental pressures on academics to have ‘impact’, and it has always been somewhat blurred in practice, especially in research fields closely alligned with industry interests.  I would also acknowledge that those of us who work in social sciences will have certain political leanings that can affect our research priorities.  But the academic world as a whole ought to be pluralist and open enough for manifestations of bias to be exposed and adjusted for.

So we depend on proper academic procedures that ensure we all maintain suitably rigorous standards of practice in the conduct of research and dissemination of its findings.

Practitioners from other fields that enter academia with different expertises and experiences can greatly enrich it. This is certainly true in the case of journalists and citizen investigators. There are special affinities here, because we are all engaged in the same kind of enterprise – researching what is going on in the world.  The main difference is that a priority for journalists is to do so in timely fashion, whereas the priority for academics is to do so with great accuracy.  In an ideal world, we could collaborate to generate knowledge of the world that is invariably both timely and accurate.  In the real world, our collaboration may not yield perfection but it can strive for an optimally timely and reliable knowledge.

But I end with a word of caution. It is theoretically possible that people with academic positions could also have conflicts of interest. I believe it is the collective responsibility of members of universities to ensure that none of our number should act in ways that so contravene basic academic standards as to undermine the very purpose of the university as a public institution. Of course, universities have disciplinary mechanisms for ensuring they are not brought into disrepute. All of us as academics have a professional and personal responsibility, I think, to ensure that the operative criteria of good reputation match those of the fundamental purposes of a university as a social institution. In the age of social media, with truth claims of all sorts being contested as never before, the public role of the university is something to be duly reflective about.



[1] I have written about the lack of evidence regarding the April 2017 incident here. In subsequent debate on the subject with George Monbiot here, and further here, numerous people have also added interesting additional points in the comments sections.

[2] See the video here, especially from 13:30:

[3] Readers will notice that I am not naming names here. My ultimate purpose is not to name and shame any person or organisation but to get the measure of a hat that nobody will want to admit fits them!









Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Deceptive Documentaries

When we watch a documentary film I imagine most of us suppose it to be portraying factual information, not fiction. That, after all, is what would differentiate a documentary from other genres like drama or entertainment.

With this assumption in mind I have often wondered how broadcasters, filmmakers, festivals and prizegivers could be screening and celebrating ‘documentaries’ that purvey demonstrable untruths.

As luck would have it, with the International Film Festival being in town here in Edinburgh just now, I was able to get my answer from an industry expert.

It goes like this. When a company/organisation is pitched a documentary they don’t see it as their business to be acting as arbiters of truth. If the thing has good production values and they believe the public would have a real interest in seeing it, then they’ll consider it eligible for support. My expert gave an example: we can suppose that there are scores of biographies of a famous figure like President Kennedy, and that each one has a particular take on its subject; we can readily imagine that the different authors may consider others to be plain wrong in various particulars. These disagreements wouldn’t be the business of someone commissioning or showing the film to pronounce on.

So, I asked, more pointedly, what about a film that portrays a bunch of mercenary terrorists as humanitarian heroes and thereby completely misrepresents the truth about them to the public? Well, she thought for a bit about this. Probably, she reflected, it could  be appropriate to make clear when a documentary was offering one perspective on a situation that other people may have alternative perspectives on. She seemed to allow that this kind of acknowledgement would probably not need to be particularly overt or conspicuous. In other words, even if those involved in promoting the film know it to be controversial in some quarters, that is not a fact to be flagged as a warning. Indeed, it might well be used as an extra dash of spice in the promotion material.

The conversation left me somewhat enlightened and morewhat depressed. I think of how sometimes a documentary is presented to the public as providing a compelling dossier of evidence in support of a case for or against this or that hero or villain. People are led to believe the case has been made. Yet, in reality, they have been deceived.

So the organisations that want to use documentaries for deceptive ends can get away with it. I am therefore sure they’ll carry on getting their Oscars and their Amnesty Media Awards so long as their story chimes with the interests of the sponsors.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will just have to work that bit harder to disseminate more honest understandings of what is really going on behind the screens.


Posted in Amnesty International, BBC, bullshit, Channel 4, disinformation, film, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 2 Comments

Last White Helmets in Aleppo: in lieu of a film review

In the wake of Netflix’s Oscar winning The White Helmets comes the Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize winning Last Men of Aleppo. According to early reviews, audiences leave screenings with a desperate feeling that something ought to be done, but with a sense of helplessness about not knowing what.[1]

While that is very understandable, there are some things we can know if we really want to, even though the film does not reveal them.

First, in case it is true that among audiences are people who wish there was something they could do to just make the bombing in Aleppo stop, I would mention that it has stopped. It stopped before Christmas 2016. The siege of Aleppo ended, and the citizens who had been trapped there, essentially as human shields, were able to leave. Most went to the Western part of the town that had remained under government control.[2] The fighters who had been in control of the eastern quarters were given amnesty and left town in green buses laid on by the Syrian government. They were allowed to take their handheld weapons. The White Helmets went with them to Idlib, although some may have gone to Turkey (where their video clips were edited into this new film).

Since their departure, law and order has been restored across the whole of Aleppo. The eastern part is no longer bombed. Nor does it any longer experience the kidnappings, rape, murder, crucifixion, torture, sexual exploitation and organ trafficking that had been permitted and perpetrated by the “rebels”. It also no longer serves as the launch pad for mortars and hell cannon fired into the civilian population in the Western part of town.[3]


Aleppo 2017

Citizens are returning and starting to rebuild their lives in East Aleppo. The White Helmets, meanwhile, are providing their services in the Al Qaeda held territory of Idlib.

Viewers of the film may find this puzzling news, given they’ll have heard ‘the White Helmets’ collective insistence that they’ll never abandon Aleppo’ and that ‘Aleppo will always be their home’.[4] The fact is no White Helmets operate in Aleppo now, just as none did before the “rebels” seized its Eastern part. Incidentally, the real Syrian Civil Defence volunteers, who have operated in areas under legitimate government since 1953, wear red helmets.[5]

Several further facts about the White Helmets are not much publicised in the news media or these films. One is that they are not actually volunteers in the usual sense, for they are paid. The funding comes from foreign governments, notably UK and USA (as explained, respectively, by Boris Johnson and Mark Toner).

The White Helmets do not typically put others first, at least according to witnesses, and in Aleppo had a reputation for robbing the houses they entered and the people they helped.[6] Not that they helped ordinary citizens, for the most part, since it appears their main practical role was to provide support to the fighters.[7] Their filmed rescues are not all necessarily genuine.[8] Nor is it true that they assembled as a group spontaneously. This was the work of British military man James Le Mesurier, with funding from Western governments, notably Britain and America. He organised training for them in Turkey.

Among the White Helmets are fighters who, despite what we are told, can be seen with weapons.[9] They are also accessories at executions.[10]

A beauty of film is that it can conjure a world of pure imagination. When this potent capacity is applied in the making of a documentary it can make the material more compelling. It can, of course, also serve to manipulate and distort the evidence it presents.

The film does not aspire to help audiences understand better “what they can do” about the terrible situation in Syria. It tends to reinforce the received wisdom about the supposed heroes of Aleppo. But anybody wondering how truthful it is will want to review that received wisdom, and perhaps consider some of the now numerous critical accounts of the role the White Helmets have actually been playing in the Syrian war.

One might then also try to understand what the deep motivation is for Western media and even film industry award institutions to be involved in glorifying people who are at a maximum of one degree of separation from active terrorists. By thinking about this, one may better understand – unswayed by the artful manipulations of a motion picture – exactly what one should really be worrying about.

The West’s support for regime change wars has brought devastation to whole countries. Think about Iraq or Libya as well as Syria. It has brought refugees. It has involved allowing British citizens freely to train for jihad. It has allowed them to fight against legitimate governments abroad and return home. We have seen them here in Britain. We saw them in Manchester recently, and on Tower Bridge. I fear we may see more.

We live in a time, I believe, when it is vital to be challenging the assumptions that support the escalation of conflicts. While the message of White Helmets films may seem to be about the need for peace and humanity, their underlying function – and the reason for their being funded by hawkish governments – is to reinforce the need for intervention to overthrow another country’s government.

That is why I think films like this are not really best described as documentaries. For what the White Helmets are, as John Pilger has succinctly observed, is ‘a complete propaganda construct’.[11]


Not having seen the film ‘Last Men in Aleppo’, I am not in a position to recommend it. A short film I can recommend is this. At less than 4 minutes, a view of it will be time well spent if you are tempted to believe what is said in White Helmets promotional material.



[1] ‘I suspect it’s the filmmakers’ wish that once those initial feelings ebb, moviegoers will ask what they can do to help. This picture doesn’t offer hope; its aim is to compel us to create some.’ Glenn Kenny in the New York Times 2 May 2017

[2] This is recorded by Aron Lund in an article that is by no means sympathetic to Assad’s government:

[3] You would not know it from this film, or the Netflix one, or the Western media more generally, but the Western part of Aleppo is far more populous than the eastern part and has remained functioning – despite the incoming shells from the “rebel” areas – throughout the war.

[4] This is from the review by Vikram Murthi, 3 May 2017

[5] This resource gives detailed information about the real Syrian civil defence as well as some further insight into operations by the White Helmets.

[6] See for instance this account by Aleppo journalist Khaled Iskef: . Indicative is this interview with a young boy from Aleppo:

[7] Abu Jaber Al-Sheikh, the leader of Hay’at Tahreer Al-Sham (Al-Qaeda in Syria) thanks the White Helmets and calls them “the hidden soldiers of the revolution”. This was part of his speech commemorating the 6th anniversary of the Jihadist insurgency in Syria: See also the evidence on the ground in Eastern Aleppo:

[8] We cannot be certain exactly what is and what is not staged in White Helmets films, but we can be certain of their capacity to make convincing fakes for the camera, since they demonstrated it with their notorious Mannequin Challenge video: .


[10] Evidence can be found on social media but I have opted not to link to it here since it is disturbingly graphic.

[11]  Since Pilger is known to be on the political left, it is interesting to note that a similarly critical view of the White Helmets is given by someone usually regarded as on the political right, Peter Hitchens:


Posted in disinformation, film, media, propaganda, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 3 Comments

Blowback from ‘Regime Change’ policies: the need for better public debate

Terrorist acts on British soil have been committed by people revealed to have been not only known but actively supported by British intelligence agencies.  They were supported in carrying out acts of violence in other countries, including Libya and Syria, because it was in accordance with UK foreign policy objectives. Those objectives themselves were highly questionable, and the methods still more so.  Meanwhile, we have started to learn – and at a bitter cost to those killed or injured, and their friends and families – what goes around comes around.  What went around was not fair or deserved in Libya or Syria, and it is cruelly arbitrary for lives to be lost or terribly changed in our country too.

Blowback is, I fear, a word we may find ourselves using increasingly and for some time to come. We should certainly try to get as focused, rational, mature and responsible an approach as possible to the complex problem we face.  That would mean raising the level of public and political debate somewhat from what has become usual.

For that reason, a number of us – 62 academics and journalists, including John Pilger – have signed the letter below that has today been sent to the Guardian.  In case you don’t get to read it there, it is reproduced below. 

Update: the letter appears in the Guardian 9 June 2017,

Update: Noam Chomsky has added his signature 19 June 2017.

(For more background see also the article on OpenDemocracy by our letter’s lead author Piers Robinson.)


From 9/11 to the London Bridge Attack: Time to Rethink the ‘war on terror’

Today, 16 years since 9/11 ushered in the US-led ‘war on terror’ and with attacks now occurring across Europe and multiple wars across the MENA region, it is time for the West to reflect far more deeply on these matters. Whilst the attacks should be condemned and sympathies expressed for the bereaved, these actions will not address the ways in which terrorism has become interwoven with Western foreign policy.

To date, policy responses involving civil liberty crackdowns, threats to control the internet and repressive measures such as Prevent, which target entire communities, especially Muslim, have not been evidence-based and have, indeed, run counter to advice from experts and the security agencies themselves. Responses to the immediate problem of terrorist acts, such as those witnessed in London and Manchester, need to be much more intelligent and informed.

At the same time, simplistic and politicised representations of ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ terrorism vs. the West are wholly inadequate and are belied by emerging facts. It is now clear that, even as far back as the response to 9/11, the US sought to exploit this event in order to initiate regime operations against countries unconnected to Al Qaeda. The recent Chilcot Report quoted a British Embassy report stating ‘The “regime-change hawks” in Washington are arguing that a coalition … (against international terrorism) could be used to clear up other problems in the region’. The most notable outcome of this exploitation was the catastrophic invasion of Iraq.

More recently, the highly destructive conflicts in Syria and Libya have highlighted powerful inconsistencies regarding Western governments claim to be fighting terrorism. In Syria, the priority of toppling Assad has involved support, intentional or unintentional, for a variety of extremist groups and key allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been implicated in providing support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups. Indeed, the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia based on massive arms deals, and support in that country for ‘Islamist Jihadists’, has now become an election issue in the UK. Regarding Libya, the recent Manchester attacks have triggered remarkable claims regarding the possible relationship between the alleged attacker, Salman Abedi, and British security services and a broader policy of facilitating the movement of extremists between the UK and Libya to help overthrow Qadafi in 2011.

Responding to the dreadful events in London and Manchester requires level-headed policy responses and critical reflection upon the way in which Western governments have become embroiled in exploiting terrorism and even facilitating it. If we are to move beyond the ritualistic cycle of terror attack-condemnation-military response-terror attack, it is time to come to terms with, and bring to an end, Western involvement in terrorism.


John Pilger, Journalist and Documentary Film Maker

Professor Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Professor Vian Bakir, University of Bangor

Professor Ruth Blakeley, University of Kent

Professor Oliver Boyd-Barrett, Emeritus Bowling Green State University

Professor Daniel Broudy, Okinawa Christian University

Professor Emanuela C. Del Re, University of Niccolo’ Cusano

Professor John L. Esposito, Georgetown University

Professor Des Freedman, Goldsmiths, University of London

Professor Natalie Fenton, Goldsmiths, University of London

Professor David Ray Griffin, Emeritus, Claremont Graduate University

Professor Penny Green, Queen Mary University London

Professor Tim Hayward, University of Edinburgh

Professor Jenny Hocking, Monash University

Professor Eric Herring, University of Bristol

Professor Tareq Y. Ismael, University of Calgory

Professor Richard Jackson, University of Otago

Professor Jeremy Keenan, Queen Mary University London

Professor Timo Kivimäki, University of Bath

Professor Paul McKeigue, University of Edinburgh

Professor David Miller, University of Bath

Professor Mark Crispin Miller, New York University

Professor Fredrick Ogenga, Rongo University

Professor Julian Petley, Brunel University

Professor David H. Price, Saint Martin’s University

Professor Piers Robinson, University Of Sheffield

Professor Salman Sayyid, University of Leeds

Professor Tamara Sonn, Georgetown University

Professor David Whyte, University of Liverpool

Professor James Winter, University of Windsor, Ontario

Amir Amirani, Producer and Director

Dr Nafeez Ahmed, Anglia Ruskin University

Dr Matthew Alford, University of Bath

Max Blumenthal, Author and Journalist

Dr Emma Briant, University of Sheffield

Remi Brulin, New York University & John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Dr TJ Coles, University of Plymouth

Sarah Earnshaw, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Dr Philip Edwards, Manchester Metropolitan University

Dr Lucy Morgan Edwards, Researcher

Muhammad Feyyaz, University of Management and Technology, Lahore

Dr Ciaran Gillespie, University of Surrey

Stefanie Haueis, Fachseminarleiterin, JGHerder-Gymnasium, Berlin

Dr Mark Hayes, Southampton Solent University

Dr Emma Heywood, Coventry University

Dr Nisha Kapoor, University of York

Dr Paul Lashmar, University of Sussex

Dr Sarah Marusek, University of Johannesburg

Dr. Narzanin Massoumi, University of Bath

Dr Anisa Mustafa, University of Nottingham

Ismail Patel, Friends of Al-Aqsa, Peace in Palestine

Dr Elizabeth Poole, Keele University

Dr Fahid Qurashi, Canterbury Christ Church University

Dr. Piro Rexhepi, Max-Planck-Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity

Cathrin Ruppe, University of Applied Sciences, Münster

Dr Rizwaan Sabir, Liverpool John Moores University

Dr Joshua Shurley, Clovis Community College, California

Dr Katy Sian, University of York

Dr Greg Simons, Uppsala University

Stephanie Weber, Curator of Contemporary Art, Lenbachhaus Munich

Dr Milly Williamson, Brunel University

Dr Kalina Yordanova, Assistance Centre for Torture Survivors

Dr Florian Zollmann, University of Newcastle





Posted in blowback, journalism, media, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 10 Comments

Calling Bullshit!

I don’t entirely agree with it. It’s a bit aggressive, a bit crude, to be so direct. Still, I’m thinking it can sometimes be a proportionate response to how much we have to deal with that is passive aggressive. For instance, the sickening phenomenon that has become so prevalent lately as to acquire a name – cry-bullying. The powerful or privileged making victims of themselves. More specifically, I’m thinking how, every time someone tries to understand some strange anomaly in public life, and this leads to questioning an official narrative of the powerful, the dismissal is ever at the ready: “conspiracy theorist!”[1]

As someone whose job is to be a theorist, I find it hard to see why this is used as a term of disdain: if there is evidently some possible conspiracy, surely it is better to have a theory of what is going on? Theories generate hypotheses that can be tested. That way, knowledge and wisdom lie.

Or should we just take it that conspiring never happens and everything not conforming to what official sources say is all pure coincidence?  No matter the odds?

Frankly, I would say, let’s call out these coincidence theorists! Let’s watch them, aghast, as they pronounce – as I suspect they may have plenty of opportunity over the next day or so[2] – about how any manner of strange circumstances are either inexplicable or purely chance.

But in calling them out, let us not dignify their mendacious contortions with the name of theory, which I would reserve for those who take the trouble to investigate conspiracies.

Let’s call it what it is – bullshit!


Brad Bauman: disgusted by conspiracy theories, and Russia

[1] Some serious scholars of the derogatory term ‘conspiracy theorist’ show how it was coined for a specific purpose of narrative control. See, for an overview, the recent interview with Mark Crispin Miller of New York University: . But be aware: that’s on the RT channel, which is, of course, a hotbed of conspiracy theorizing, with the R standing for, yes, RUSSIA! So maybe Mark is a conspiracy theorist about conspiracy theorizing…

[2] I have particularly in mind today the bringing back into public awareness the unexplained death last year of DNC staffer Seth Rich. Stefan Molyneux has put out an informative video about this: There are theories about that terrible event which stand to be tested, and, insofar as it is a matter of public concern, I believe it is better for them to be tested than to be ignored or dismissed.

To be clear, my point is that a theory is worth testing and should not simply be dismissed.  Dismissive tactics can involve bullshit.  This does not mean that any of the hypotheses dismissed should be assumed true; it just means trying to be clear about what we know as opposed to what we are merely instructed to believe.  Conspiracy theorists could themselves engage in bullshit if they try to prop up a theory in the face of contrary evidence.  This mistake is presented by narrative correctors as the defining feature of conspiracy theorists.  I would say it is what separates a bad conspiracy theorist from a more competent one.


Posted in bullshit, disinformation, journalism, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Uncategorized | 7 Comments