This piece was reprinted by OpEdNews with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.
When an aid convoy organized by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs came under attack on its way to the rebel-held countryside of West Aleppo in Syria this September 18, the White Helmets pinned blame squarely on the Syrian and Russian governments. In fact, a White Helmets member was among the first civilians to appear on camera at the scene of the attack, declaring in English that "the regime helicopters targeted this place with four barrel [bombs]." The White Helmets also produced one of the major pieces of evidence Western journalists have relied on to implicate Russia and the Syrian government in the attack: a photograph supposedly depicting the tail fragment of a Russian-made OFAB 250-270 fragmentation bomb. (This account remains unconfirmed by both the UN and SARC, and no evidence of barrel bombs has been produced).
Ironically, the White Helmets figured prominently in The Syria Campaign's push to undermine the UN's humanitarian work inside Syria. For months, The Syria Campaign has painted the UN as a stooge of Bashar Al-Assad for coordinating its aid deliveries with the Syrian government, as it has done with governments in conflict zones around the world. The Guardian's Kareem Shaheen praised a 50-page report by The Syria Campaign attacking the UN's work in Syria as "damning." A subsequent Guardian article cited the report as part of the inspiration for its own "exclusive" investigation slamming the UN's coordination with the Syrian government.
At a website created by The Syria Campaign to host the report, visitors are greeted by a UN logo drenched in blood.
The Syria Campaign has even taken credit for forcing former UN Resident Coordinator Yacoub El-Hillo out of his job in Damascus, a false claim it was later forced to retract. Among the opposition groups that promoted The Syria Campaign's anti-UN report was Ahrar Al-Sham, a jihadist rebel faction that has allied with Al Qaeda in a mission to establish an exclusively Islamic state across Syria.
A Westerner who operates a politically neutral humanitarian NGO in Damascus offered me a withering assessment of The Syria Campaign's attacks on the UN. Speaking on condition of anonymity because NGO workers like them are generally forbidden from speaking to the media, and often face repercussions if they do, the source accused The Syria Campaign of "dividing and polarizing the humanitarian community" along political lines while forcing humanitarian entities to "make decisions based on potential media repercussions instead of focusing on actual needs on the ground."
The NGO executive went on to accuse The Syria Campaign and its partners in the opposition of "progressively identifying the humanitarian workers operating from Damascus with one party to the conflict," limiting their ability to negotiate access to rebel-held territory. "As a humanitarian worker myself," they explained, "I know that this puts me and my teams in great danger since it legitimizes warring factions treating you as an extension of one party in the conflict.
"The thousands of Syrians that signed up with the UN or humanitarian organizations are civilians," they continued. "They not only joined to get a salary but in hopes of doing something good for other Syrians. This campaign [by The Syria Campaign] is humiliating all of them, labeling them as supporters of one side and making them lose hope in becoming agents of positive change in their own society."
This September, days before the aid convoy attack prompted the UN to suspend much of its work inside Syria, The Syria Campaign spurred 73 aid organizations operating in rebel-held territory, including the White Helmets, to suspend their cooperation with the UN aid program. As the Guardian noted in its coverage, "The decision to withdraw from the Whole of Syria program, in which organizations share information to help the delivery of aid, means in practice the UN will lose sight of what is happening throughout the north of Syria and in opposition-held areas of the country, where the NGOs do most of their work."
Despite The Syria Campaign's influence on the international media stage, details on the outfit's inner workings are difficult to come by. The Syria Campaign is registered in England as a private company called the Voices Project at an address shared by 91 other companies. Aside from Asfari, most of The Syria Campaign's donors are anonymous.
Looming over this opaque operation are questions about its connections to Avaaz, a global public relations outfit that played an instrumental role in generating support for a no-fly zone in Libya, and The Syria Campaign's founding by Purpose, another PR firm spun out of Avaaz. James Sadri bristled when I asked about the issue, dismissing it as a "crank conspiracy" ginned up by Russian state media and hardcore Assadist elements.
However, a careful look at the origins and operation of The Syria Campaign raises doubts about the outfit's image as an authentic voice for Syrian civilians, and should invite serious questions about the agenda of its partner organizations as well.
A creation of international PR firms
Best known for its work on liberal social issues with well-funded progressive clients like the ACLU and the police reform group, Campaign Zero, the New York- and London-based public relations firm Purpose promises to deliver creatively executed campaigns that produce either a "behavior change," "perception change," "policy change" or "infrastructure change." As the Syrian conflict entered its third year, this company was ready to effect a regime change.
On Feb. 3, 2014, Anna Nolan, the senior strategist at Purpose, posted a job listing. According to Nolan's listing, her firm was seeking "two interns to join the team at Purpose to help launch a new movement for Syria."
At around the same time, another Purpose staffer named Ali Weiner posted a job listing seeking a paid intern for the PR firm's new Syrian Voices project. "Together with Syrians in the diaspora and NGO partners," Weiner wrote, "Purpose is building a movement that will amplify the voices of moderate, non-violent Syrians and mobilize people in the Middle East and around the world to call for specific changes in the political and humanitarian situation in the region." She explained that the staffer would report "to a Strategist based primarily in London, but will work closely with the Purpose teams in both London and New York."
On June 16, 2014, Purpose founder Jeremy Heimans drafted articles of association for The Syria Campaign's parent company. Called the Voices Project, Heimans registered the company at 3 Bull Lane, St. Ives Cambridgeshire, England. It was one of 91 private limited companies listed at the address. Sadri would not explain why The Syria Campaign had chosen this location or why it was registered as a private company.