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Sadri happened to be the director of The Syria Campaign and Sahloul was the Syrian American Medical Society director who partnered with The Syria Campaign. In the article McNeill wrote about Omran's photo, which was linked in her Facebook post, both Sahloul and Sadri urged Westerners to join their call for a no-fly zone-- a policy McNeill tacitly endorsed. (Sahloul was recently promoted by the neoconservative columnist Eli Lake for accusing Obama of having "allowed a genocide in Syria." This September, Sahloul joined up with the Jewish United Federation of Chicago, a leading opponent of Palestine solidarity organizing, to promote his efforts.)
As the outrage inspired by the image of Omran spread, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (a friend and publisher of Syria Campaign board member Lina Sergie Attar) called for "fir[ing] missiles from outside Syria to crater [Syrian] military runways to make them unusable." Meanhwile, on MSNBC's Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough waved around the photo of Omran and indignantly declared, "The world will look back. Save your hand-wringing"you can still do something right now. But nothing's been done."
As breathless editorials and cable news tirades denounced the Obama administration's supposed "inaction," public pressure for a larger-scale Western military campaign was approaching an unprecedented level.
Damage control for opposition extremists
The day after Omran made headlines, the left-wing British news site the Canary publicized another photograph that exposed a grim reality behind the iconic image.
Culled from the Facebook page of Mahmoud Raslan, the activist from the American-operated Aleppo Media Center who took the initial video of Omran, it showed Raslan posing for a triumphant selfie with a group of rebel fighters. The armed men hailed from the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki faction. At least two of the commanders who appeared in the photo with Raslan had recently beheaded a boy they captured, referring to him in video footage as "child" while they taunted and abused him. The boy has been reported to be a 12-year-old named Abdullah Issa and may have been a member of the Liwa Al-Quds pro-government Palestinian militia.
This was not the only time Raslan had appeared with Al-Zenki fighters or expressed his sympathy. On August 2, he posted a selfie to Facebook depicting himself surrounded by mostly adolescent Al-Zenki fighters dressed in battle fatigues. "With the suicide fighters, from the land of battles and butchery, from Aleppo of the martyrs, we bring you tidings of impending joy, with God's permission," Raslan wrote. He sported a headband matching those worn by the "suicide fighters."
Despite its unsavory tendencies and extremist ideological leanings, Al-Zenki was until 2015 a recipient of extensive American funding, with at least 1000 of its fighters on the CIA payroll. Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who has said his research on the Syrian opposition was "100% funded by Western govts," has branded Al-Zenki as "moderate opposition fighters."
This August, after the video of Al-Zenki members beheading the adolescent boy appeared online, Sam Heller, a fellow for the Washington-based Century Foundation, argued for restoring the rebel group's CIA funding. Describing Al-Zenki as "a natural, if unpalatable, partner," Heller contended that "if Washington insists on keeping its hands perfectly clean, there's probably no Syrian faction -- in the opposition, or on any side of the war -- that merits support."
This September 24, Al-Zenki formally joined forces with the jihadist Army of Conquest led by Al Qaeda-established jihadist group, Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham. For its part, The Syria Campaign coordinated the release of a statement with Raslan explaining away his obvious affinity with Al-Zenki. Sophie McNeill, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reporter who was among the first to publish the famous Omran photo, dutifully published Raslan's statement on Twitter, acknowledging The Syria Campaign as its source.
Curiously describing the beheading victim as a 19-year-old and not the "child" his beheaders claimed he was, Raslan pleaded ignorance about the Al-Zenki fighters' backgrounds: "It was a busy day with lots of different people and groups on the streets. As a war photographer I take lots of photos with civilians and fighters."
Mahmoud Raslan may not have been the most effective local partner, but The Syria Campaign could still count on the White Helmets.
In Part II: How the U.S.-funded White Helmets rescue civilians from Syrian and Russian bombs while lobbying for the U.S. military to step up its own bombing campaign.