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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 10/4/16

Inside the Shadowy PR Firm That's Lobbying for Regime Change in Syria

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Along with Heimans, Purpose Europe director Tim Dixon was appointed to The Syria Campaign's board of directors. So was John Jackson, a Purpose strategist who previously co-directed the Burma Campaign U.K. that lobbied the EU for sanctions against that country's ruling regime. (Jackson claimed credit for The Syria Campaign's successful push to remove Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad's re-election campaign ads from Facebook.) Anna Nolan became The Syria Campaign's project director, even as she remained listed as the strategy director at Purpose.

"Purpose is not involved in what we do," The Syria Campaign's Sadri told me. When pressed about the presence of several Purpose strategists on The Syria Campaign's board of directors and staff, Sadri insisted, "We're not part of Purpose. There's no financial relationship and we're independent."

Sadri dismissed allegations about The Syria Campaign's origins in Avaaz. "We have no connection to Avaaz," he stated, blaming conspiratorial "Russia Today stuff" for linking the two public relations groups.

However, Purpose's original job listing for its Syrian Voices project boasted that "Purpose grew out of some of the most impactful new models for social change" including "the now 30 million strong action network avaaz.org." In fact, The Syria Campaign's founder, Purpose co-founder Jeremy Heimans, was also one of the original founders of Avaaz. As he told Forbes, "I co-founded Avaaz and [the Australian activist group] Get Up, which inspired the creation of Purpose."

New and improved no-fly zone

The Syria Campaign's defensiveness about ties to Avaaz is understandable.

Back in 2011, Avaaz introduced a public campaign for a no-fly zone in Libya and delivered a petition with 1,202,940 signatures to the UN supporting Western intervention. John Hilary, the executive director of War On Want, the U.K.'s leading anti-poverty and anti-war charity, warned at the time, "Little do most of these generally well-meaning activists know, they are strengthening the hands of those western governments desperate to reassert their interests in north Africa" Clearly a no-fly zone makes foreign intervention sound rather humanitarian--putting the emphasis on stopping bombing, even though it could well lead to an escalation of violence."

John Hilary's dire warning was fulfilled after the NATO-enforced no-fly zone prompted the ouster of former President Moamar Qaddafi. Months later, Qaddafi was sexually assaulted and beaten to death in the road by a mob of fanatics. The Islamic State and an assortment of militias filled the void left in the Jamahiriya government's wake. The political catastrophe should have been serious enough to call future interventions of this nature into question. Yet Libya's legacy failed to deter Avaaz from introducing a new campaign for another no-fly zone; this time in Syria.

"To some a no-fly zone could conjure up images of George W. Bush's foreign policy and illegal Western interventions. This is a different thing," Avaaz insisted in a communique defending its support for a new no-fly zone in Syria. Sadri portrayed The Syria Campaign's support for a no-fly zone as the product of a "deep listening process" involving the polling of Syrian civilians in rebel-held territories and refugees outside the country. He claimed his outfit was a "solidarity organization," not a public relations firm, and was adamant that if and when a no-fly zone is imposed over Syrian skies, it would be different than those seen in past conflicts.

"There also seems to be a critique of a no-fly zone which is slapping on templates from other conflicts and saying this is what will happen in Syria," Sadri commented. He added, "I'm just trying to encourage us away from a simplistic debate. There's a kneejerk reaction to Syria to say, 'It's Iraq or it's Libya,' but it's not. It's an entirely different conflict."

Funding a "credible transition"

For the petroleum mogul who provided the funding that launched the Syria Project, the means of military intervention justified an end in which he could return to the country of his birth and participate in its economic life on his own terms.

Though The Syria Campaign claims to "refuse funding from any party to the conflict in Syria," it was founded and is sustained with generous financial assistance from one of the most influential exile figures of the opposition, Ayman Asfari, the U.K.-based CEO of the British oil and gas supply company Petrofac Limited. Asfari is worth $1.2 billion and owns about one-fifth of the shares of his company, which boasts 18,000 employees and close to $7 billion in annual revenues.

Through his Asfari Foundation, he has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to The Syria Campaign and has secured a seat for his wife, Sawsan, on its board of directors. He has also been a top financial and political supporter of the Syrian National Coalition, the largest government-in-exile group set up after the Syrian revolt began. The group is dead-set on removing Assad and replacing him with one of its own. Asfari's support for opposition forces was so pronounced the Syrian government filed a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of supporting "terrorism."

In London, Asfari has been a major donor to former British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party. This May, Cameron keynoted a fundraiser for the Hands Up for Syria Appeal, a charity heavily supported by Asfari that sponsors education for Syrian children living in refugee camps. The Prime Minister might have seemed like an unusual choice for the event given his staunch resistance to accepting unaccompanied Syrian children who have fled to Europe. However, Asfari has generally supported Cameron's exclusionary policy.

Grilled about his position during an episode of BBC's Hardtalk, Asfari explained, "I do not want the country to be emptied. I still have a dream that those guys [refugees] will be able to go back to their homes and they will be able to play a constructive role in putting Syria back together."

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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of several books, including best-selling Republican GomorrahGoliathThe Fifty One Day War, and The Management of Savagery. He has produced print articles for an array of (more...)
 

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