Save the Children, Launch the Bombs: Propaganda Agents Behind The White Helmets (2016) Documentary and Media Imperialism in the Syrian Civil War

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Left: Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara (image credit: https://www.arabnews)com/node/1060491/offbeat

Right: Khaled Khatib (image credit: https://www.cnn.com/2017/02/26/us/white-helmets-oscar/index.html

Ben Arthur Thomason

In September 2016, The White Helmets documentary, directed by British film maker Orlando von Einsiedel and released on Netflix, won sweeping endorsements for the White Helmets rescue group from Western media and celebrities, as well as increased support from their funders at the US Agency for International Development and the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office. The film ostensibly portrayed a grassroots volunteer search-and-rescue organization of ordinary Syrians who chose a path of peace and humanitarianism in a bloody civil war to save all civilians from bombings. The White Helmets also happened to make photo and video records of their efforts out of a supposed communal concern to document the horrors they and the civilians experienced at the hands of the Bashar al-Assad government and its Russian and Iranian allies.

By 2017, thanks in part to the success of the Oscar-winning documentary profiling their group, the White Helmets were nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, won the “alternative Nobel” Right Livelihood Award, and earned praise from members of the US Congress and UK Parliament as well as prominent entertainers like Ben Affleck, Daniel Craig, Vanessa Redgrave, and the band Coldplay (The Syria Campaign 2016). Detractors calling the group a Western-backed vehicle for regime change in Syria were charged with consciously or unconsciously contributing to a Russian-led disinformation plot, and a considerable narrative defense from the media, DC-based think tanks, and even academic sources formed around the White Helmets, (Cosentino 2020, 99; Choudhury, Ng, and Iamnitchi 2020; Horawalavithana, Ng, and Iamnitchi 2020; Wilson 2020). Concurrently, the White Helmets grew into the most influential and well-funded pro-rebel media and civil society group operating in the Syrian Civil War.

The White Helmets became instrumental in fomenting and justifying foreign intervention in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Sunni Arab rebels, and perhaps their greatest weapon was their aesthetic of authenticity as a locally sprung civil resistance and community media group. In reality, the White Helmets were established, funded, and promoted by Western state and corporate interests for the purpose of supporting those interests’ favored factions in the Syrian conflict. The story behind the White Helmets’ 2016 Oscar-winning documentary gives insight into how they were so successful at gaining the enthusiastic support of Western public figures in government and media, as well as how physical and information warfare functions in the digital age.

In this article, I argue that The White Helmets was a key piece of war propaganda that manipulated aesthetics of grassroots media activism and liberal values of humanitarianism to promote and justify Western military intervention in Syria. Understanding the role of the White Helmets is not only imperative to understanding the Syrian Civil War, but also to understanding the ways in which twenty-first century Western propaganda and media works to fight state enemies abroad and influence populations at home. My findings have significant implications for the greater narrative battles around the Syrian Civil War and what the West, meaning the United States and its liberal democratic state allies, should do about it. This article also demonstrates urgent problems with media complicity in state- and corporate-led propaganda and military efforts in foreign nations like Syria.

My political economy analysis contextualizes and details the creation process behind The White Helmets, as well as select media pieces and producers connected to it, to gain deeper perspective on a broader industry of information and media creation and distribution. The media creators and what they produced had many target audiences inside Syria, among the Arabic-speaking world, and in the international community leading up to The White Helmets, but my study will focus on the main targets of the documentary itself: liberal Western media professionals, their audiences, and Western politicians. My study covers the funding and players behind the White Helmets and the 2016 documentary, both of which derived from a series of Western public-private partnerships. It also places the film in its social and military context in the battle for Aleppo City where it is set. While what is on screen is considered for understanding the message and who it is aimed at or against, this research article will focus on the relevant actors and history off screen, and what they can reveal about ostensibly community media serving as public-relation tools of transnational political interests.

The first section of my article establishes the secondary literature I am in conversation with on documentary film making, Western propaganda for foreign intervention, and the Syrian Civil War. The second offers an abridged background on the White Helmets organization itself and outlines the military and social factors that shaped the documentary but were not shown in the film. For the White Helmets rescue group, the key player in a series of public-private partnerships covered here is Analysis Research Knowledge (ARK), a consultancy firm that targets global conflict zones and created the White Helmets as part of extensive media and civil society contract work they did inside Syria for the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office. ARK, alongside other Western government contractors, created a significant media production and civil society infrastructure to support sectarian and theocratic Sunni Arab anti-Assad rebels on the ground and whitewash them for international audiences. The third section details the actual film, quickly summarizing what was portrayed on screen and then walking through the production, marketing, and distribution process and the corporate, state, and media networks that directly created the documentary The White Helmets and made it a success. For the creation and dissemination of the film, key players included British filmmakers Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara, a public relations firm with ties to Western media and civil society operations in Syria called The Syria Campaign, a Syrian opposition media outlet that sprung from Western funding called Aleppo Media Center, and a British documentary funding and networking organization called BRITDOC. This section also provides further context and interpretation regarding other documentary films created by these same networks for similar propaganda and intervention purposes. I conclude with a consideration of what these documentaries and networks mean for popular and scholarly understandings of the Syrian Civil War and propaganda warfare in the twenty-first century.

 

Studies of Soft Power, Documentary Film, and the Syrian Civil War

Interventions abroad are often the business of grizzled intelligence agents, presidents, and legislators in private committee rooms, but the accompanying floods of media information on the international settings of said interventions delivered to the American public shortly before and during regime changes are important as well (Blum 2014). Arguments for war in media coverage often include horror stories inflicted on defenseless civilians committed by the government in question, perhaps the most famous of which was the false Nayirah Testimony, written by Hill+Knowlton Strategies, then the world’s largest public relations firm, to persuade Americans to embrace the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 (Stauber and Rampton 2002). In the context of the Syrian Civil War and The White Helmets, the weaponization of horror stories played a key role in framing media coverage of the conflict and inspiring calls for intervention from political actors. Such news cycles flood the media and information space on the topic, marginalizing dissenting voices and creating a sense of urgency for a decisive response, encouraging the public to quickly fall behind, or at least offer no substantial opposition to, state action on the issue.

Documentary film is a small but important part of this system involving states acting on, or calling for action on, other nations, concurrent with media mobilization to justify that action to media figures, political factions, and everyday citizens. Documentaries using both private and public funds and expertise have a long history of informing the public on political and historical matters (MacCann 1973, 12). Western-produced documentaries portraying the spaces, peoples, and institutions of foreign countries controlled by governments unfriendly to the US and its state allies can include relatively apolitical nature shows or slice-of-life stories like the 2020 German-produced film The Russians: An Intimate Journey from Birth to Death, directed by Juri Rescheto. Yet these films more often focus on serious political controversies and crises, with life-and-death stakes for entire communities, political movements, or administrations, such as the American-produced 2019 documentary directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, One Child Nation.

My article looks beyond what creators put on the screen to sway their audiences to think or act a certain way. I instead seek to reveal the money, expertise, and interests behind the creation and distribution of the documentary and gain insight into the political economy of media in relation to international power struggles. This study details the agents behind the production and proliferation of a specific documentary film made by Westerners for a Western audience about a state unfriendly to Western regimes, and I use their stories to illustrate complex relationships between contemporary propaganda and foreign interference pursuits among the US and its allies. Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality, released in 1986, and Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, released in 1988, developed critical theories of mainstream media political economy, its connections to corporate and state power, and their influences on public opinion on national and international issues. Both went through at least one revision, and their theories were applied by independent journalists as well as media scholars to subsequent events and news cycles to understand and critique narratives delivered to the American public, especially regarding foreign intervention (Nichols and McChesney 2005; Stoneman 2008; MacLeod 2019). One of Herman and Chomsky’s media “filters” in their “propaganda model,” a national ideology of anti-communism, was revised in the years after the fall of the Eastern Bloc and Marxist movements throughout the globe in 1989–1991. With Soviet communism gone and the military and media industrial complexes looking for new enemies, particularly in the Muslim World, both the original authors and subsequent writers shifted focus to issues of cultural hegemony and Orientalism (Klaehn 2005, 6). With the rise of a new cold war with China now brewing, ideologies of anti-communism gain new relevance in media and propaganda studies. However, a focus on liberal hegemony and Orientalism is more appropriate for analyzing factors surrounding The White Helmets, as the Syrian state is more akin to Saddam’s Iraq, being led by a Ba’athist Arab nationalist socialist–oriented government, not a Marxist one.[1]

In her book The Cultural Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders (2000) provides an invaluable historical survey on the involvement of government agencies in the production of media and culture, and my article shows the continued relevance of her work in the context of the Syrian Civil War. Other writers covering the general planning, financing, production, editing, distribution, and exhibition of documentary film also provide insight into the major processes and actors that make up documentary film creation, marketing, and consumption (Jolliffe and Zinnes 2006; Chapman 2007). Lina Dencik (2012) details the British Broadcasting Corporation’s scope and reach, providing background on the BBC and its partner organizations such as Channel 4 and BRITDOC, now called Doc Society, which aided the financing, production, and distribution of The White Helmets. These works help clarify the production processes and funding sources behind The White Helmets, despite its implied grassroots origins, but to understand the meaning and instrumentalization of the film, one must understand the broader military and narrative conflicts of the Syrian Civil War.

The civil strife in Syria is a relentlessly complex web of competing interests and stories both national and international, and determining general narratives and facts about the conflict that most people, even those limited to English-language media and academic discourse, can agree with is virtually impossible (Boyd-Barrett 2021). Scholars and journalists highlighted the development of ethnic and confessional sectarianism and religious fundamentalism in the conflict that by 2013 dominated the armed rebel opposition, creating existential threats for the diverse minorities of Syria, particularly the Alawite community of which president Bashar al-Assad is a member (Glass 2016). Historians demonstrated the history of Western, especially US and British, weaponization of fundamentalist political Islam going back to the early twentieth century, particularly the Sunni Salafi variety propagated by the royal Saud family of Saudi Arabia (Cooley 2002; Dreyfuss 2005; Johnson 2010). Journalists showed these patterns repeating in the Syrian Civil War (Blumenthal 2018). Other scholars detailed the significance of Western corporate and state media for justifying, obfuscating, and silencing dissenting arguments against Western adventures in Muslim-majority nations like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya (Boyd-Barrett 2015; Zollmann 2017). Regarding Syria specifically, their studies stressed the fact that Western journalists often could not access rebel-held Syrian territory because they would have been kidnapped or killed by rebel forces. Despite writing as if they were on the ground in Syria, Western journalists relied on sources with deep ties to rebel militias and Western-created and -backed NGOs like the White Helmets to craft their narratives (Boyd-Barrett 2019, 89, 97). To obfuscate the problematic implications of this reality, Western government, corporate, and media agents portrayed these sources and the narratives they pushed as being a result of grassroots citizen activism.

White Helmets at War: Media and Militia Networks and Spaces Contextualizing the Film

 

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, Western powers led by the United States and their allies in Europe and the Middle East worked covertly and overtly to ensure the conflict continued until the Ba’athist Syrian Arab Republic government fell. The rebel backers spent billions of dollars flooding the country with weapons and fighters through the CIA-led Operation Timber Sycamore (Mazzetti and Apuzzo 2016; Mazzetti, Goldman and Schmidt 2017), which served to strengthen religious fundamentalist and ethnic sectarian terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Western agents complemented this hard-power strategy with a soft-power strategy, spending over a billion dollars to build up and cultivate relationships with militias, civil society groups, and specialists on the ground, as well as make propaganda for Syrian, regional, and home consumption.[2] From these enterprises emerged an organization providing services in rebel-held territories and creating raw information and news that Western outlets relied on for their stories. Its official name was Syrian Civil Defence (British spelling), popularly known as the White Helmets.

The formal name for the White Helmets copied the name of the Syrian state–organized Syrian Civil Defence Forces, an official member of the International Civil Defence Organization since 1972. In contrast, the White Helmets were started by a consultancy firm headed by a former UK Foreign Commonwealth Office employee. This private company, Analysis Research Knowledge (ARK), did extensive contract work in Syria for the UK government (Boyd-Barrett 2019, 98). The firm was founded in Dubai in 2011 near the beginning of the Syrian Civil War and created the initial search-and-rescue teams that eventually became the White Helmets in 2012 (ARK International, n.d.). Under the supervision and with the financial backing of the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office, ARK headed a massive covert propaganda and civil society scheme in Syria to support the rebels and justify Western intervention on their behalf, and the White Helmets became a key piece of that enterprise. A basic outline of some controversies of the Syrian Civil War puts these groups and their strategies in proper context.

The conflict in Syria is not just a civil war, nor a fight between secular, liberal democratic rebels versus authoritarian dictatorship. It developed into a bloody, drawn-out proxy war of attrition, in which each domestic faction’s best hopes for survival and success depended on intervention by foreign agents on their behalf. An effective way to prompt intervention was through highlighting one’s own victimization alongside the power and brutality of one’s adversary. Atrocity propaganda permeated the Syria conflict, with troubling and intensely confounding results (Smith 2019, 604). The perpetrators of various chemical weapons attacks, for instance, have been a heated subject of debate, where it is unclear if certain attacks were carried out by the Assad regime, or if they were false-flag attacks by rebels in their own territories of control, or something else (Porter 2016, 105). The White Helmets themselves were instrumental in popularizing several supposed chemical weapons attacks and blaming them on the Assad government (Boyd-Barrett and Mirrlees 2020, 69). Importantly, secular liberal elements of Syrian society that may have incited the initial uprising during the Arab Spring were supplanted on the ground by 2013 if not earlier (Allam 2015) by religiously and ethnically sectarian, fundamentalist Sunni Salafist groups. These are popularly called Wahhabis in the West, though adherents of Salafism consider that term derisive.

The extent of participation by Salafi militias formed a major debate in the narrative wars around the Syrian conflict, so it is necessary to give basic background for rebel-held Aleppo City, where The White Helmets is set. The Battle of Aleppo took place from 2012 to 2016. Rebels attacked the city in 2012 and by the end of the year had established themselves in the eastern half of the city, while government forces occupied the western half, and a Kurdish faction controlled a small piece of northern Aleppo. The documentary, filmed between February and May 2016, depicts events during the final stages of the battle that eventually ended in December 2016 when the Syrian government took complete control of the city, three months after the film’s release (Atlantic Council 2017; Garcia 2017). In an April 2016 press briefing, while the film was being shot, US Army colonel Steve Warren offhandedly said, “it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds [rebel-held] Aleppo” (U.S. Department of Defense 2016). Jabhat al-Nusra, or the al-Nusra Front, was the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria that became a major player in the war. Detailed accounts of the city battle lines show that Colonel Warren was oversimplifying things, as in reality the city held a veritable kaleidoscope of rebel factions dominated by Salafi extremists often competing with each other over individual neighborhoods (The Carter Center 2015). However, the comment shows what the US military perceived to be the major anti-Assad power working on the ground there at the time.

The White Helmets themselves, operating almost exclusively in Sunni Arab, mostly Islamist and Salafi, rebel-controlled areas, were not immune to the influence of militias. They drew their membership from locals, often former militants, and provided services to local powers administering theocratic laws. These affiliations show themselves in gruesome ways. Video and photo evidence gathered since the official founding of the White Helmets in 2014 reveals that group members celebrated the 2015 taking of Idlib province alongside armed Jihadists, facilitated public executions in Salafist-controlled areas, carried rifles, and mutilated dead Syrian soldier bodies alongside armed rebels (Mas 2018). In one spectacular event, over a dozen White Helmets marched in 2015 Idlib City street demonstrations and led chants supporting the newly established joint-command organization Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, led by major Salafi groups like al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham (Beeley 2019). It seems impossible to determine how widespread this behavior is, but key pieces of evidence show the White Helmets as more than a simple volunteer civil defense group trying to save all the lives they can.

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Figure 1: Screen capture taken from video of two White Helmet members (center and left) waving the flag of Jabhat Al-Nusra in Idlib,

March 28, 2015, alongside armed rebels (Norton 2019).

One of the Western journalists kidnapped by rebels during this conflict, British journalist John Cantlie who disappeared in November 2012, wound up in the hands of ISIS. He was drafted into making news stories and propaganda for them in English in 2015. One of these films, called “Inside Halab,” named for the ancient name of Aleppo, was the last of several short “inside” videos showing off areas under Islamic State dominion (The Guardian Press Association 2015; Hayden 2015). In the video, Cantlie shows the aftermath of an airstrike in a section of Aleppo City controlled by ISIS and briefly points out the “Islamic State fire brigade” cleaning up the mess there as a uniformed member of the White Helmets, who are trained in fire suppression, can be seen in the distance, and two more members then walk directly behind Cantlie (Maté 2019). While it may seem unpleasant, humanitarian groups working with militants like ISIS is not in itself malevolent or an abrogation of humanitarian principles. Doctors Without Borders also negotiated aid agreements with Salafi rebels in Syria (Mas 2018). However, other humanitarian groups did not simultaneously produce and disseminate pro-rebel propaganda or call for Western military and economic intervention as the White Helmets and their affiliates did. The Cantlie video also demonstrates, again, the kind of powers operating within rebel-controlled Syria generally and Aleppo City in particular.

Videos and media pieces covering the White Helmets’ work were easy to come by before and after the famous documentary, and one of the public arguments around the White Helmets besides their connections to terrorists was whether they faked videos of their members saving civilians from warzones. In one strange episode in November 2016 that prompted repeated accusations of the White Helmets faking rescue missions, opposition media outlet the Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office (RFS) released and then quickly deleted a White Helmets video. RFS portrayed itself as a locally grown journalistic platform for citizen activists, but it was directly run by a British corporation that did contract work for the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office alongside ARK. The RFS video portrayed a man covered in grey soot with fake bloody head wounds lying silently in rubble while two White Helmet workers stood completely still, holding him. After several seconds of the camera moving around the frozen men and zooming in on each one, sound effects of distressed men yelling in Arabic, sirens, and distant explosions can be heard in the background, after which the man covered in soot starts writhing and crying in pain as the two White Helmets remove pieces of rubble on top of him and carry him away. A photo was also released of the same man covered in soot posing for a “selfie” with the uniformed White Helmets. An official statement from the White Helmets said that this was a “Mannequin Challenge” video not meant to portray any real-life relief effort (Mas 2018). What was ignored in their statement and Western press coverage was the question of why they used said sound effects rather than the standard mannequin challenge soundtrack, Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles,”[3] and why they possessed such disturbing sound effects to put in the video in the first place.

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Figure 2: Screen capture  of the infamous “mannequin challenge” video (above), along with a “selfie” showing the man from the video and men in White Helmets uniforms (below) (Wright 2016).

This spectacle may have really been created as a Mannequin Challenge video, conceived by an RFS employee who thought it could go viral in the West and did not realize the bad publicity that could result. But the truth behind the outlet that recorded and released it reveals the manipulative tactics at the heart of all involved. Revolutionary Forces of Syria was part of the same propaganda network as the White Helmets, and RFS was especially active while The White Helmets was in production, for the same reasons it was made, directing media efforts to instigate more Western intervention to turn the tide of a losing battle in Aleppo City. One leaked ARK  document revealed that RFS was directly operated by an ARK consortium partner working with the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office, the Global Strategy Network (TGSN), directed by Richard Barret, former director of global counterterrorism at the British Secret Intelligence Service (Chartwell Speakers, n.d.; The Global Strategy Network, n.d.). ARK described the “TGSN run” RFS as the largest platform supported by the Foreign Commonwealth Office consortium. Its Facebook page, which is no longer findable, apparently had 608,000 likes and follows, and its Twitter account had 26,000 followers (1.2.1 Methodology c2017). In July 2016, RFS received positive attention by outlets like The Washington Post, The Guardian, Huffington Post, CNN, BBC News, Vice News, and Al Jazeera English after tweeting out pictures of Syrian children holding printouts of iconic Pokémon, exploiting the craze around the recently released Pokémon Go video game (Graham-Harrison 2016; Safdar 2016; Wang 2016; Capossela 2016). The Twitter images on the stories are now gone because the RFS Twitter account has since been suspended, but their Instagram, which stopped posting in 2017, and a story in The Indian Express (2016), saved the photos.

RFS was less successful with a similar effort in October 2016, when it released photos of children holding up printouts of characters from Marvel’s Avengers franchise that called on a superhero to save Aleppo along with a Twitter hashtag, #AvengersInAleppo. This did not line up with any Marvel movie release and only prompted one story in the New York Post (Perez 2016). These spectacles were designed to relate to a Western audience and offer atrocity stories committed against innocent civilians, particularly children, to motivate foreign interference in the conflict, specifically the battle for Aleppo City. RFS, ARK, and the White Helmets were all part of a Western government–funded, and UK government–directed, private contractor network coordinating the same strategies at the same time for the same reasons as the Oscar-winning documentary, making the film inseparable from this larger Western venture.

 

Making The White Helmets: Money, Oil, and Intelligence behind the Affect

The White Helmets portrays a group of heroic men (local Syrians and former builders, tailors, and blacksmiths) in uniform with large white plastic helmets saving lives in conflict zones in Aleppo, formerly Syria’s largest city. It is a story of average people who out of necessity and goodwill became humanitarian volunteers desperate to preserve life in the face of atrocities by the Syrian state and its allies who show contempt and disregard for the people they bomb. The film takes pains to demonstrate the selfless concern the White Helmet members have for not just their own children but for all children and families. Several scenes have the volunteers worrying over the safety of loved ones, and a “miracle baby” boy rescued from a bombed building in 2014, who later returns with his family to show appreciation for the White Helmets, forms the emotional center of the forty-minute film. Like the RFS stories, the playful innocence, traumatized expressions, and dead bodies of children became a key affective component of the film as well as other documentaries produced as part of the wider Western-funded propaganda campaign.

In the documentary, the footage consists mostly of shaky high-definition video following the White Helmets while they respond to bombings or airstrikes, with quick edits portraying group members eating, running, driving, and carrying injured or dead people, often covered in grey soot. This is supplemented with lower-quality helmet camera footage of bombings, and high-quality footage of interviews with the volunteers. The White Helmets’ months-long training camp programs in Southern Turkey are demonstrated in the film, making no secret that they work with the Turkish state.

The film shows a city vaguely situated in time and space, bombed by a faceless air force for seemingly no reason other than to inflict terror on helpless civilians trying to live peaceful lives. The political message is that people and states of the West ought to do something about the human rights atrocities being committed against rebel-held areas in Syria by the Assad government and their allies, namely Russia. What exactly Westerners ought to do and how they should intervene is left unspecified, although the White Helmet members’ pleas to stop Russian and Syrian air strikes stand out over everything else. The on-screen portrayal of the beleaguered people is affective rather than informative. It decontextualizes the conflict to depict universalized stories of ordinary people trying to survive, speak their truth, and make a positive difference in their community against impossible odds.

Based only on the documentary film, a viewer could not possibly pick up the number and locations of factions involved in the Battle of Aleppo, as the only combatants mentioned are ISIS, the Syrian government’s Syrian Arab Army, and the Russian military (von Einsiedel 2016). Indeed, no armed members of any faction are shown on screen. No mention is made of the Kurds, the numerous anti-Assad rebel groups, or even the fact that the Syrian government controlled half the city for years. No mention is made of the theocratic and sectarian Sunni Arab Salafist militias, some of which were funded and armed by the CIA (Mazzetti and Apuzzo 2016), who dominated the rebel forces in Aleppo City (The Carter Center 2015; U.S. Department of Defense 2016). Importantly, these groups, which launched indiscriminate artillery and rocket attacks on government-controlled neighborhoods and were identified in reports of torture, kidnappings, and summary killings, had kept Western journalists from accessing the rebel-held spaces in the first place (Amnesty International 2015; Amnesty International UK 2016; Barrington and Dyomkin 2016).

The White Helmets was not the first propaganda documentary made as part of the Syrian regime change scheme. The Foreign Commonwealth Office state and private consortium that created the White Helmets and weaponized them for war and propaganda produced other documentaries before the famous 2016 film. Most of the material they initially produced were short twenty to thirty-minute Arabic language content for local and regional consumption. The private firms Analysis Research Knowledge and The Global Strategy Network reported producing and placing more than 2,000 news reports, vox pops, and documentaries on channels deemed “most trusted” by their target audience analyses. These included Orient News, Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, and Sky Arabic, all Arabic language outlets (1.2.1 Methodology c2017). ARK advertised an approximate fee of £43,000 for production and placement (exact pricing contingent on “channel, time slot, repeats etc.”) for one twenty-minute documentary in their list of services offered to their UK government clients (ARK 2.2.17 n.d.). A documentary ARK produced featuring the rebel Aleppo Free Police was first screened at several workshops attended by members of the broader Western-funded Free Syrian Police (FSP), and FSP officers completed mini-surveys after each screening to “inform its dissemination plan” (ARK 2.2.22 n.d.).

ARK worked its way up in views and international outreach, however, as ARK produced a 2014 documentary on the White Helmets titled Digging for Life that was broadcast repeatedly on the Dubai-based Arabic-language outlet Orient News, owned by Syrian expatriate and entrepreneur Ghassan Aboud. This video also apparently earned 200,000 views on YouTube, though it is no longer findable on the platform (ARK 2.2.3 n.d.). Another twenty-seven-minute documentary released in 2015, titled Champion, which also featured the White Helmets, demonstrated inspiring stories of sports fanatics in rebel-held Aleppo training against the odds of regime bombings. Champion was broadcast on Al Jazeera and had several international screenings as well, including in Washington DC (1.2.1 Methodology c2017, 6). For The White Helmets film production, ARK was not involved in any public official capacity, but their employees and White Helmet trainees already had the media and documentary film-making experience to make it before any Western filmmakers got involved.

Though the timeline is vague, the initiative for creating The White Helmets ostensibly began with English filmmakers Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara. Von Einsiedel and Natasegara are both graduates of the London School of Economics, with von Einsiedel receiving a Master of Science in Anthropology and Development in 2009 and Natasegara receiving a Master of Science in Human Rights in 2004. However, they did not meet until they worked together on their 2014 documentary Virunga, about conservation efforts and British oil company operations in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both Virunga and The White Helmets were produced by Grain Media, owned by von Einsiedel, and Violet Films, owned by Natasegara. The story von Einsiedel and Natasegara consistently gave regarding the inspiration behind making The White Helmets was that some friends showed them the 2014 White Helmets rescue video of Mahmoud, the “miracle baby,” which was reproduced in their own documentary (Garcia 2017; BUILD Series 2017). Struck by their heroism, this motivated them to reach out to the White Helmets in November 2015 to express their interest in making a documentary about the rescue workers (The Syria Campaign 2017b). Soon after this, in early 2016, they met with a firm that would become the main promoter of the film, The Syria Campaign (TSC) (The Syria Campaign 2017a, 10). A brief profile of TSC is necessary here, as it reveals the corporate, NGO, and state power and military intervention campaigns behind the emotional affect and supposed grassroots nature of the film.

The Syria Campaign, a self-described “human rights organization that supports Syria’s heroes in their struggle for freedom and democracy,” became a part of the larger Syria intelligence and propaganda campaign from the beginning of its existence. The group formed in 2013 and claims to accept “no money from governments, corporations or anyone directly involved in the Syrian conflict” (The Syria Campaign, n.d.a). Despite this claim, significant funding for TSC, including the initial seed money of £250,000, was provided by the Asfari Foundation. The Asfari Foundation was founded by the US-educated Syrian expatriate Ayman Asfari, a billionaire CEO of British oil company Petrofac who had extensive direct involvement in multinational efforts against the Assad government (The Asfari Foundation 2014, 5). The foundation gave another £457,034 to TSC in 2014 (The Asfari Foundation 2015, 15). In 2016, the Asfari Foundation also granted TSC £117,677 out of TSC’s total income of £530,000 that year (The Syria Campaign 2017a, 26; The Asfari Foundation 2017, 48). Asfari’s wife, Sawsan, sat on the board of TSC as well as the charity group that TSC processed donations through, called The Voices Project, registered as a non-profit in the UK, Germany, and the US (The Syria Campaign 2017a, n.d.a, n.d.b; gov.uk n.d.).

Ayman Asfari established substantial ties with governments directly involved in arming, whitewashing, and making propaganda for rebels in Syria before and after establishing TSC. Between 2009 and 2017, Ayman and Sawsan Asfari donated nearly £820,000 to the ruling British Conservative Party of the UK while that party legislated over a propaganda war in favor of the Western backed rebels. Ayman and Sawsan Asfari even donated £100,000 to the Conservative Party just days before Ayman was arrested to testify for the UK Serious Fraud Office as part of its investigation into another company, Unaoil (Watt and Syal 2017). Ayman Asfari stepped down as CEO of Petrofac in 2020, though he stayed on as a non-executive director and remained the company’s largest shareholder. In 2021, Petrofac admitted to offering and paying the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq $80 million in bribes to secure oil contracts worth $7.5 billion between 2011 and 2018, which included $3.5 billion in contracts with the Saudi Arabian government (Hoppe 2021; Evans and Pegg 2021; Middle East Monitor 2021). These bribes coincided with Saudi Arabia aiding and arming Salafist rebel groups in Syria (Laub and Masters 2013). The scandal also revealed that former UK Prime Minister David Cameron as well as then incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May and her Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, personally lobbied the Bahraini Royal Family for oil contracts on behalf of Petrofac in 2017, with Cameron flying back to the UK on a plane owned by Ayman Asfari. Asfari also visited the US White House eight times between 2014 and 2016, meeting with President Obama’s Middle East Coordinator Philip Gordon, who was an early proponent of sending weapons to Syrian insurgents (Blumenthal 2016). While The White Helmets was purposefully vague about what it called on its audience to do, Asfari and TSC had a specific intervention goal to push in their publications and dealings with US and UK state officials.

In the two years leading up to the release of The White Helmets, TSC campaigned for the US and its allies to establish a “no-fly zone” over Syria even after the Russian Air Force entered Syria in September 2015 (Blumenthal 2016). Defense estimates said this no-fly zone, which might have entailed shooting down Russian planes, would have required 70,000 US army personnel to enforce, risked US military conflict with Russia, and would have represented an egregious violation of Syrian national sovereignty (Mazzetti, Worth, and Gordon 2013). Given this campaign for a no-fly zone, it makes sense why the White Helmets and their film would focus so heavily on the issue of Russian and Syrian air power. Besides the connections to oil and state interests involved in the Syrian Civil War, TSC early in its existence developed a direct relationship with the British-led firm that created the White Helmets, Analysis Research Knowledge (ARK).

In 2014, ARK and TSC began coordinating social media activities after TSC selected the White Helmets to “front its campaign to keep Syria in the news,” beginning with an August 2014 #WhiteHelmets Twitter drive. ARK also gave TSC access to the Turkish rescue-training centers that ARK set up, where parts of The White Helmets would later be filmed (ARK 2.2.5 n.d.). Asfari and TSC were well positioned to collaborate with ARK and the White Helmets because the Asfari Foundation was already funding civil society groups working inside Syria and groups influencing Western and Middle East policy toward Syria years before founding TSC.

The British-based Asfari Foundation in the years leading up to the Syrian Civil War had a philanthropic fund called “The Change Makers Programme,” which provided scholarships, internships, and vocational training to students in the UK and across the Arab world. In the latter half of 2011, while the Syrian uprising developed into an armed insurgency, the Asfari Foundation created a new fund, “The Civil Society Programme,” which distributed £107,933 in 2011, £105,983 of which went to the Orient Research Centre (The Asfari Foundation 2011, 2012). The Orient Research Centre is a Dubai-based think tank established in mid-2011 and self-described as a geopolitical “decision making support platform” for the Middle East. The Orient Research Centre was established at the same time as ARK and was even headquartered in the same Dubai development complex, the Jumeirah Lake Towers (LinkedIn n.d.a, n.d.b).

In 2012, the Asfari Foundation increased its civil society spending to £931,425, almost £630,000 of which went toward the November establishment of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. That same grant was matched in 2013. The Asfari Foundation then spent £1,016,770 and £1,036,527 on civil society programs in 2013 and 2014, respectively. They stopped funding the Orient Research Centre in 2013, shifting their donation to the UK’s Chatham House, also known as the Royal Institute for International Affairs.[4] Between 2012 and 2014, they also granted nearly £650,000 to Syrian civil society groups marked as “kept anonymous for security reasons” (The Asfari Foundation 2013, 14-15; 2014, 14-15; 2015, 14-15). Ayman Asfari and his foundation spent millions of dollars influencing Western and Arab officials and think tanks shaping policy toward Syria, as well as supporting civil society programs in and around Syria that organizations like ARK had weaponized to support anti-Assad militants and motivate more Western intervention in the Syrian conflict.

Through TSC, Asfari then developed professional and funding ties with media and philanthropic organizations possessing state and corporate connections. These helped provide the money and mainstream media support they needed to push their pro-rebel and pro-intervention public relations campaign through the White Helmets and their Oscar-winning documentary. In 2016, when The White Helmets was produced and released, TSC was also funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, founded in New York in 1940 as a think tank subcontracted by the state to study foreign affairs, with significant funding ties to CIA cultural front publishers and funds during the Cold War. The fund was started by the four Rockefeller brothers, including Nelson Rockefeller, head of American wartime intelligence for Latin America in WWII, New York governor from 1959 to 1973, and grandson of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller (Saunders 2000, 260; The Syria Campaign 2016). The Rockefeller Brothers Fund also granted TSC $140,000 in 2015 and $150,000 in 2017 through TSC’s donation-processing charity, The Voices Project UK office, and then another $400,000 in 2018–2021 through their US office (Rockefeller Brothers Fund 2015, 57; 2017, 60; n.d).[5] TSC early in its life developed a relationship with ARK, then marketed The White Helmets with significant support from private foundations with a history of supporting intelligence and regime-change operations, like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. After getting powerful and wealthy backers behind it, The Syria Campaign needed to make institutional media connections, which they did through a media organization that specialized in creating public-private partnerships for documentary film creation and dissemination.

Listed 2016 TSC funders included BRITDOC (renamed Doc Society in 2017), a non-profit documentary film fund and forum based in London and New York, which was started in 2005 by the Channel 4 Television Corporation, itself run by the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (Doc Society 2022a). BRITDOC secured funding partnerships from major corporations as well as public institutions like the British Broadcasting Corporation, which it used to network documentary creators together and give grants to help fund the creation and marketing of documentaries. TSC may have initiated their relationship with BRITDOC through director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara. BRITDOC previously connected von Einsiedel with Natasegara when they funded von Einsiedel’s 2014 documentary, Virunga. Natasegara specialized as an “impact producer” for Virunga, a then newly developed documentary film role focused on public outreach and engagement (London School of Economics and Political Science 2017, 24, 25). Natasegara’s experience was thus particularly relevant for what The White Helmets and TSC needed.

For The White Helmets, production costs would not be much of an issue. The White Helmets were already in Syria with the equipment and skills needed to create footage for the documentary, and they were only paid $150 a month. Like the ARK-produced documentaries, The White Helmets could be filmed at little expense. BRITDOC’s help was thus mainly needed for a public, media, and government lobbying campaign to spread word about the film and the group and to get institutional and eventually celebrity media connections and endorsements.

BRITDOC helped TSC gain access to other media production and marketing funders in their network for TSC’s outreach. They recommended The White Helmets for a Threshold Foundation “High Impact Documentary Films” fund grant, from which they received $50,000 (Doc Society 2022b; Threshold Foundation 2016, 15). For additional funding, TSC pitched their documentary at an event organized by BRITDOC and The Funding Network and hosted at Channel 4’s movie theater in July 2016 to solicit live crowdfunding pledges from the audience. It is unclear how much TSC received specifically, because three other films were also raising money at that same event which, in total, raised over £25,000 (The Funding Network 2016). TSC also received another £14,000 in 2016 from the London-based Network for Social Change to “raise the media and advocacy profile” of the White Helmets (Network for Social Change 2019, 17).

BRITDOC may have also helped Ayman Asfari and TSC build ties with other philanthropic organizations with a history of collaborating with Western intelligence schemes. BRITDOC listed the Ford Foundation as a major partner, which granted BRITDOC $400,000 in 2016. The Ford Foundation is a private charity started in 1936 by Henry and Edsel Ford with extensive funding ties to CIA cultural front publishers and funds during the Cold War, similar to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund that donated to TSC (Saunders 2000, 142).[6] The Ford Foundation established direct ties with Asfari after the release of The White Helmets, giving $275,000 in 2017 to the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship in Beirut. TSC benefited from BRITDOC’s philanthropic and UK government–sponsored media networks for TSC’s hearts-and-minds campaign encouraging Western intervention in Syria. With their media connections and English film talent established, the documentary needed a media platform to distribute it. BRITDOC, von Einsiedel, Natasegara, and TSC thus made a deal with one of the world’s largest streaming services at the time: Netflix.[7]

The distribution deal provided a significant platform for the film’s general exhibition, as Netflix expanded its global reach from streaming only in the US in 2010 to covering over 190 countries by January 2016. The only countries today that do not offer Netflix streaming are China, North Korea, Syria, and, as of March 2022, Russia (Minaya and Sharma 2016; Brennan 2018). It was also a convenient choice, as Netflix already had a relationship with von Einsiedel, Natasegara, and BRITDOC, having released Einsiedel and Natasegara’s film Virunga in 2014 and being listed as one of BRITDOC’s supporters in 2015 (BRITDOC 2015). After gaining strong Western documentary film expertise and media endorsement and distribution deals, all The White Helmets needed was the right footage for their story.

To begin the filming process, TSC introduced von Einsiedel and Natasegara to the White Helmets’ leadership in Istanbul. The British film team then accessed the White Helmets’ Turkish rescue-training center with the help of TSC and the Mayday Rescue Foundation, a non-profit started in 2014 by ARK employee and former British military intelligence officer James Le Mesurier to handle funds for, and deliver training and supplies to, the White Helmets (The Syria Campaign 2016a, 10; Singh 2016; Garcia 2017; Boyd-Barrett 2019, 98, 99). The British team filmed their training sessions and ran interviews with several White Helmets. Luckily for von Einsiedel and his team, their Middle East adventure stopped in Turkey. They did not need to set foot in Syria to film anything.

Like many Western journalists writing on Syrian warzones at the time, von Einsiedel and Natasegara never actually went to Aleppo City where the Syria footage was shot. Von Einsiedel himself said shortly after the film’s release that “the risks to journalists in Syria at the moment are so high that for us to go there would have been frankly just reckless” (Singh 2016). British cinematographer Franklin Dow, who provided the cinematography for Virunga as well, only shot the portions of the film based in Turkey. People like von Einsiedel and Natasegara would be useful for editing and promoting the film, but footage set in Syria came instead from Syrians in Aleppo who already had connections with the Western-funded pro-rebel media and civil society apparatus.

Locals Fadi Al Halabi and Hassan Kattan, and local and White Helmet member Khaled Khatib (or Khateeb), shot all the Aleppo footage. Khatib, who is also credited as the film’s “location producer,” had the most public exposure of the three. There were friendly profiles on him and his documentary work in CNN, NPR, Cinema Escapist, Turkish state news agency TRT World, and Arab News, owned by Saudi prince Turki Bin Salman, brother of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Graduating from high school in 2013, shortly before joining the White Helmets that same year, Khatib was taught to take photos by the Aleppo Media Center (AMC). AMC is an opposition outlet set up in 2012, originally supported with money and equipment by the now-defunct NGO Syrian Expatriates Organization, based in Washington DC’s K Street, a place most famous for being the home of major federal lobbyists (Syrian Expatriates Organization 2014; Syrian Expatriates Organization 2015). The French government’s Syria Media Incubator office in Gaziantep, Turkey, just 120 km north of Aleppo City, provided funding and training for AMC radio and video production from January 2014 to December 2015, setting up a radio station in Aleppo for them in late 2015 (Canal France International 2015). The White Helmets also ran a coordination office in Gaziantep at the same time (Malsin 2016). AMC was subsequently funded by the European Endowment for Democracy from 2018 to 2019 (European Endowment for Democracy 2019).[8] Thanks to his Western training and connections, Khatib already had photographs published in outlets like the New York Times before getting involved in the documentary project (BUILD Series 2017).

According to The Syria Campaign, AMC’s Facebook page, and Kattan’s personal IMDb profile, AMC was co-founded by the other cinematographer for The White Helmets documentary, Hassan Kattan (The Syria Campaign 2019). Before starting work on the documentary, Kattan was a war correspondent for Western media outlets, and he received training and equipment from the French Syria Media Incubator at their base in Gaziantep, Turkey. In summary, Kattan created his own outlet funded by Western sources, then received essential skills and resources to make more professional media from Western government backers, and finally went on to train people like Khatib. This was what ARK referred to in their documents as their “train the trainer” strategy to achieve both greater deniability and more “value for money” for themselves and their client, the British government, by making their beneficiaries more locally led and self-sustaining (ITT Lot C – Technical Response 2015, 4). By the time The White Helmets was shot, Western-funded pro-rebel media outlets had already built the staff and equipment needed to make footage of sufficient quality and professionalism to win the documentary an Academy Award.

When von Einsiedel and Natasegara visited the White Helmets rescue-training center in Turkey in mid-February 2016, Khaled Khatib worked face to face for five weeks with British cinematographer Franklin Dow to coordinate messaging and sharpen his visual storytelling skills. Khatib then returned to Syria to finish filming the Aleppo City footage for the next six weeks (Garcia 2017; BUILD Series 2017). Kattan, Khatib, and Halabi shot their footage in Syria, sent it to von Einsiedel, told him what they thought the message of the footage should be, and got feedback in return (Kao 2017). In short, the people who shot the Aleppo footage for The White Helmets were funded, trained, and advised by not just the British filmmakers, but also Western state and corporate benefactors hoping to covertly influence their own governments and populations to support the rebel cause in whatever way they saw fit.

When the film was finally ready for release, the White Helmets already had support from powerful Western government and corporate agents, and favorable brand recognition among Western media outlets and philanthropic organizations. The general exhibition was their time to win popular support, as well as impress existing and potential backers for their cause. The Syria Campaign led the advocacy campaign for the film, organizing ten “impact screenings” at the UN Security Council with US ambassador Samantha Power, the US Senate, and several European parliaments (The Syria Campaign 2016).

The screenings set in legislatures and the UN Security Council suggest that the film may not have been meant for audiences on Netflix, at least not entirely. Instead, it was partially designed for the European and American political actors who had been diverting funds to the White Helmets and rebel militias. It was also meant for the corporate and state-funded media outlets that reported on those groups’ actions in the Syrian War, motivating the outlets to disseminate more of the narratives that the Western politicians wanted to hear. The broader public advocacy campaign for the White Helmets and their film targeted celebrities like George Clooney, Justin Timberlake, and Alicia Keys, who were then key to gaining the White Helmets international recognition, endorsements, and awards. The high-profile acclaim won cultural and social power for the White Helmets, their public and media supporters, and the Western filmmakers who could advertise their new awards and humanitarian bona fides on their websites and resumes. However, deeper investigations into the broader White Helmets organization detailed in this study also demonstrate their less-publicized campaign to build and maintain relationships with powerful, wealthy donor governments in the West, uniting political factions within them toward their cause.

Yet while successful overall, this media storm suffered a setback due to the vagaries and factionalism of US domestic politics. When The White Helmets was nominated for an Oscar on January 24th, 2017, leader of the White Helmets Raed Saleh and cinematographer Khaled Khatib were invited to attend but never made it to the February 26th awards ceremony. This was because recently inaugurated President Donald Trump had issued Executive Order 13769 on January 27th, popularly known as the “Muslim Ban,” which severely restricted travel to the US from several Muslim majority countries, including Syria (Garcia 2017). After back-and-forth court fights over the legality of the executive order, the visas of Saleh, who had visited the US previously, and Khatib were provisionally revoked. Khatib, who was at the Istanbul Airport in Turkey when he was denied the right to embark, was then detained for three days by Turkish authorities. Turkish officials said he would henceforth need a passport waiver to enter Turkish territory and released him on February 25th. The Department of Homeland Security reported finding “derogatory information” about Khatib, which could be anything from passport irregularities to suspected terror attacks (McGuire 2017; Wilkinson 2017).

Perhaps wanting to get ahead of the story with something more on message, Saleh and Khatib tweeted statements on February 24th and 25th, respectively, saying they needed to stay in Syria for urgent humanitarian work. The day after, however, when the Academy Awards ceremony began, Khatib and an official Syrian Civil Defence statement said Khatib’s passport had been cancelled by the Syrian government, despite him already being at the Turkish airport when he was denied (Reuters in Beirut 2017; Singh 2017). Strangely, outlets like The Guardian, CNN, and Vox either printed the White Helmets’ two versions of the story, or all three explanations as if they were not contradictory (Britton 2017; Wilkinson 2017; Reuters in Beirut 2017). The shift in federal policy put the Syrian filmmakers in an awkward situation, but they could depend on a Western media to be sympathetic to their stories, and the Islamophobic nativist orders from Trump were only a small hiccup in the West’s partnership with the White Helmets. In fact, this episode may have only strengthened the White Helmets relationships with liberal media figures who could stand with them against the bigotries of the Trump administration.

Documentaries featuring the White Helmets and made with the help of White Helmet members and other rebel activists continued after their smash hit in 2016. A feature-length documentary on the White Helmets released in 2017, Last Men in Aleppo, directed by Feras Fayyad, was perhaps their most successful. This film was produced by the Danish Film Institute and presented by Aleppo Media Center. All three cinematographers for The White Helmets came back as well. It listed Fadi Al Halabi as director of photography, Hassan Kattan (also founder of AMC) as assistant director, and Khaled Khatib as production coordinator (Fayyad 2017). The Western-funded media production networks in Syria were still functioning despite the loss of Aleppo City. They still maintained ties to Western media funding, distribution, and outreach networks, which allowed them to disseminate their messages favoring Western intervention in Syria among Western publics, business and media figures, and policy makers.

Last Men in Aleppo also received outreach support from BRITDOC, renamed Doc Society in 2017, through their Flex Fund. The Flex Fund was a joint initiative by Doc Society, the Ford Foundation, and the Skoll Foundation, the founder and chairman of which was Jeffrey Skoll, a Canadian billionaire and first president of eBay. The Flex Fund was granted to Crisis Action, a global civil society NGO dedicated to civilian protection in conflict zones and an associate of The Syria Campaign and other Western-led civil society groups operating in Syria. Crisis Action used their Flex Fund grant to develop an impact strategy to “build US support for newly-proposed no-fighting zones,” an even greater intervention than a no-fly zone, which would have entailed US forces stopping ground as well as air attacks on Syrian rebels (Zenko 2013). Their strategy also included educating “hundreds of newly elected MPs across Europe about Aleppo and the power they have to prevent it from happening again” (Doc Society 2022). This included delivering “bespoke websites” to all members of the UK, French, and German parliaments that detailed “what their constituency would look like had the tragedy of Aleppo happened there” (Crisis Action n.d.).

The director of Last Men in Aleppo, Feras Fayyad, was himself a Syrian national but held residence in San Francisco and Copenhagen at the time of the film’s release. Fayyad personally attended a screening of the film at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. The film then aired on PBS, earned an Oscar nomination, and won the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival (Solon 2018). One of the Last Men in Aleppo creators, Kareem Abeed, another Syrian national who resided in Gaziantep, Turkey, and served as a producer and public relations manager for Aleppo Media Center, could not attend the Academy Awards because, like Khatib in 2017, he was denied by President Donald Trump’s travel ban (Siegel 2018; LinkedIn n.d.c).

Fayyad wrote and directed another documentary in 2019 named The Cave, which only briefly featured the White Helmets (Fayyad 2019). This film profiled a woman doctor working in a makeshift underground hospital nicknamed “The Cave.” Produced by Danish Documentary Production and distributed by National Geographic, the documentary took place in rebel-held East Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, from 2016 to 2018 (Lang 2020). The film was shot near the end of the battle for East Ghouta, which was retaken by the Syrian Arab Army in April 2018. It should be noted what occurred after the Syrian government reestablished control of East Ghouta and Western journalists could, at last, enter the area safely. Some British reporters were struck by how many civilians they talked to described living under the rebel groups as a “hell” with stories of forced conscription, torture, summary executions, underground prisons, and militias cutting off food, water, and electricity and killing anyone who tried to leave the area (Thomson 2018). Given how hard it would be to whitewash and valorize groups engaged in such brutality, there is good reason why The White Helmets, Last Men in Aleppo, and The Cave never show the rebel militias administering the spaces in which these films are shot. The Cave premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival where it won a People’s Choice Award, and in 2020 it won two Emmys and was nominated for an Oscar. Even if Western interest in the Syrian Civil War waned as the military situation tilted in favor of the Assad government, the ostensibly grassroots Syrian pro-rebel civil society and media groups, particularly the White Helmets, had, among Western media, become darlings who consistently released award-winning content.

The White Helmets, Last Men in Aleppo, and The Cave, shared many similar traits. Like von Einsiedel with The White Helmets, Feras Fayyad did not actually go into Syria to direct Last Men in Aleppo and The Cave. Instead, he managed production from the safety of Turkey, though unlike von Einsiedel, Fayyad had the excuse of having personally experienced persecution by the Syrian state years earlier. The Western filmmakers again subcontracted local offices like Aleppo Media Center to film everything. They also did a poor job compensating their workers for the dangerous labor, but the workers stayed quiet so they would not taint or distract audiences from the message they wanted the films to make (Tarnowski 2020).

The three films also made extensive, manipulative use of children in persuading audiences and motivating responsive action. Children are framed on screen to show what good parents and rescuers the main subjects of the documentaries are, and their suffering faces and dead bodies are used as horror props to stir Western people and governments to exercise their “Responsibility to Protect” (Robinson 2020, 109). Backed up by their inherent innocence and vulnerability, the children, and the White Helmet members and doctors who kept them safe, became a stand-in for the entire rebel opposition. This makes perfect sense when one learns that the actual armed opposition was dominated by violent sectarian theocrats with ideologies and programs fundamentally at odds with the liberal values dominant in the West. Realizing what that responsibility to protect would have entailed makes the manipulation all the more troubling.

All three films, in the visual shots and spoken lines, continuously emphasized the issue of Russian and Syrian planes and helicopters bombing rebel held areas of Syria. Like other quirks of their filming styles, this was not a simple artistic choice. The focus tied in with the lobbying campaign for establishing a US-enforced no-fly zone that promoters of these movies engaged in, the same no-fly zone intervention that shifted the 2011 Libyan Civil War in favor of the rebels, overthrew Muammar Gaddafi and threw Libya into a decade-long turmoil it still has not emerged from.

Six days after the release of The White Helmets, the importance of documenting Russian and Syrian air power was further driven home to the White Helmets and other propagandists for Syrian rebels. This occurred in a secret September 22, 2016, meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Syrian rebel civil society representatives, including White Helmet leaders, at the Dutch Mission to the United Nations. In that meeting, after being told of Russian airstrikes hitting Syrian Civil Defence teams, meaning White Helmets, Kerry asked if they had any video of these strikes, saying, “I’ve been looking for videos for ages, I’ve been asking for them.” US officials wanted verified footage and photos of the aircraft and the munitions being dropped to build a case for intervention, not simply footage of victims (Barnard 2016; Angel North 2016). Each key shot of these documentaries had both a political as well as an affective calculation behind it in a coordinated campaign to instigate American intervention which could have ended with American forces shooting down Russian planes and provoking a hot war with the nuclear-armed Russian Federation.

 

Conclusions

This account grapples with a robust, largely covert infrastructure of media production both in Syria and the West, in concert with public and private media outlets, corporations, non-governmental organizations, and state agencies. The various entities provided the money, technology, expertise, and exposure necessary to access spaces like rebel-held Syrian territory and to create and strategically distribute cutting-edge images and didactic narratives to the media and entertainment industries, political leaders, and the public. The White Helmets grew out of public-private partnerships of parties substantially involved in the Syrian conflict, from the film’s production to the very groups it portrayed.

The White Helmets themselves were created by Analysis Research Knowledge (ARK), a company that from its beginnings worked hand in glove with state actors, particularly the UK government, and rebel militias, including theocratic and sectarian Salafi groups, to undermine and topple the Syrian regime. ARK’s purpose was to provide Western-backed civil society services for rebel-held areas while creating raw information and propaganda stories, which ARK and its consortium partners then fed to Western outlets that could not access these spaces themselves. The Syria Campaign (TSC) and its founder, former Petrofac CEO Ayman Asfari, cultivated oil, NGO, and media connections early in the Syrian Civil War. This helped TSC connect with experienced documentary creators like von Einsiedel and Natasegara, as well as respected philanthropies like BRITDOC, to distribute their propaganda to some of the most powerful policy makers in the world and to Western publics through a massive streaming platform like Netflix.

The White Helmets formed a small but key piece of a larger propaganda and civil society operation led by Western government contractors and media producers. Professional interpretations of said media, and the narratives they support, should consider this premeditated, methodical propaganda program in their final analyses. The White Helmets was calculated to seem authentic and to look like an effort of everyday citizen activists simply speaking their truth and concerned Western filmmakers merely helping them to do so. Other pieces of media created by the White Helmets, as well as media producers set up and directly managed by Western contractors working under the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office such as the Revolutionary Forces of Syria, or outlets funded, equipped, and trained by Western sources but run by pro-rebel Syrians, such as Aleppo Media Center, exploited similar aesthetics of grassroots activism.

As leaked ARK documents explain, these outlets and their “media products” were created to fit and hammer home a “core narrative” (ARK 2.2.7 n.d.). That core narrative was one of demons (the Assad government and its military and political allies) against angels (the White Helmets, “moderate rebels,” and anti-Assad citizen activists), and the helpless civilians caught between them who needed Western intervention for the angels to triumph. The ideal Western intervention that they tried, and failed, to instigate was decisive military engagement, specifically a “no-fly zone,” to secure a favorable military outcome for the Western-backed rebels. It failed partially because the rise of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria, and later the Russian intervention on Assad’s behalf, complicated the viability and even the desirability of that outcome. Barring that, Western-funded and -led media agents promoted deadly economic sanctions and airstrikes to delay the Syrian government’s victory, weaken the Assad administration, and strangle and destabilize the country, to which the West and its allies did commit.

This article shows that questions of media imperialism are relevant to studies of news outlets and cultural products that motivate public consent for intervention abroad. The dependence of the news media on Western governments, or NGOs and other groups with connections to Western states, for raw news sources can still be observed in the Syrian conflict. In the case of The White Helmets, hegemonic and Orientalist narratives about the West’s unique concern for, and ability to promote, human rights and democracy facilitated propaganda agents’ efforts to highlight the plight of “worthy victims” and urge so-called humanitarian intervention (Herman and Chomsky 2002, 37; Massad 2015). As previous studies have demonstrated, with a critical eye, much of the truth can be parsed in the ongoing reports of Western journalists, governments, and NGOs. Yet it is buried under so much hegemonic narrative, shockingly disciplined in its consistent, unquestioned repetition across major outlets, that one must spend great time and energy searching for information to compile something approaching a full, coherent counter-narrative (Parenti 1993, 214). Or the case could be, as with the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office documents, key pieces of the truth can be easily located on the internet, but major media writers do not report on them.

While historical patterns of twentieth-century propaganda still echo today, contemporary strategies and means have changed in important ways. Media infrastructure and major platforms are still concentrated in a few hands, yet the number of media creators has exploded, and consumers can easily cultivate their personal media bubbles to suit their interests, needs, and biases (MacLeod 2017, 45–48). This study of The White Helmets demonstrates a disturbing new trend of weaponizing that perceived decentralization of media production, embodied in the scrappy entrepreneurial truth seeking “citizen journalist,” or citizen activist, which became so important in Western coverage of the Syrian Civil War (Wall and Zaheed 2015; Boyd-Barrett 2019, 88). Media and information producers celebrated in the West as the epitome of citizen activism such as the White Helmets, Aleppo Media Center (Mollerup and Mortensen 2020, 735), and Syrian Revolutionary Forces, were designed to seem like authentic, grassroots community groups. Deeper critical study reveals them to be mouthpieces for external state agencies, violent sectarian theocratic militias, and powerful corporations. This reality illustrates how established powers find ways to dominate and direct not simply the outlets that filter information to the public, but also the creation and framing of raw information itself before it even meets the eyes and ears of a journalist (Robinson 2020, 106, 107).

Given the powerful and wealthy institutional support maintained by agents of propaganda and intervention detailed in this study, and the lack of public accountability or consequences for their destructive and manipulative programs, it is likely that state- and NGO-generated political media ventures disguised as community media will continue to occur. Whether it be in the Middle East or other Global South countries targeted by the US and its allies, liberal values of humanitarianism, democracy, free flow of information, and decentralized grassroots political activism will be used for violent, imperialist ends. Turning back this trend will require a long-term effort of activists and scholars of media imperialism dedicated to uncovering these schemes wherever they are and contributing to any social, economic, and political force aimed at preventing them.

Notes

[1] It should be noted that two Syrian communist parties occupy several seats in the Syrian legislature and operate within the National Progressive Front political alliance, which includes the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party led by Assad.

 

[2] I am currently working on publishing another article detailing the broader propaganda and civil society industry that the White Helmets and the documentary formed a part of. When adding up the money given to the White Helmets, funds spent by ARK for various media and civil society programs, and the money the US spent for stabilization and security aid, particularly for the Free Syrian Police, the money spent on rebel media and civil society programs in Syria easily exceeds $1 billion (Ford 2018). For a briefer introduction to this topic, see Benjamin Norton’s article on the leaked ARK documents at The Grayzone (Norton 2020).

[3] Searching “Mannequin Challenge” on YouTube will result in dozens of videos from late 2016. Most of these, including the most-viewed videos, play “Black Beatles” by Rae Sremmurd featuring Gucci Mane while a camera moves through a group of people holding still in amusing poses, which was the main characteristic of the viral sensation.

 

[4] Chatham House is an international policy institute that receives significant funding from the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, the US State Department, the governments of Japan, Netherlands, and Canada, the European Commission, and a host of American and European oil companies, including Asfari’s own Petrofac, which donated £10,000–£24,999 (Chatham House 2021). The Asfari Foundation donated just under £136,000 to Chatham House in 2013, and £570,000 in 2014 (The Asfari Foundation 2013, 14; 2014, 14).

 

[5] Despite The Syria Campaign listing the Rockefeller Brothers Fund as a funder in their own report for 2016, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund tax returns do not have records of donations to The Voices Project in 2016, though they do have records of donations for 2015 and 2017.

 

[6] As of 2022, Doc Society still lists the Ford Foundation as a major partner, alongside two newer major partners, the BBC as well as the British Film Institute, itself sponsored by the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Both the Rockefeller Foundation, which is technically a separate organization from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund that funded The Syria Campaign, and the Ford Foundation are also historically connected by John J. McCloy, former president of the World Bank, US High Commissioner for West Germany, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank (of which the Rockefeller family was the largest shareholder at the time), chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, member of the Warren Commission, and prominent adviser to all presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. McCloy was trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation 1946–49 and again 1953–58, and then chairman of the Ford Foundation 1958–1965 (Saunders 2000, 143).

 

[7] When I asked via email correspondence about where the money to produce The White Helmets documentary came from, The Syria Campaign media team kindly responded, “The White Helmets documentary was produced by Grain Media and Violet Films, award-winning UK independent film companies with full funding providing by Netflix. The marketing of the film was coordinated exclusively by Netflix. The Syria Campaign provided support to the White Helmets by organising an accompanying film impact campaign, this work was supported by a range of foundations and individuals, please find details in our 2016 Annual Report” (TSC Media Team, email to author, March 4, 2022). This suggests that Netflix was more financially involved than simply providing the platform for general distribution, but I have been unable to confirm or disprove these statements.

[8] The European Endowment for Democracy was itself initiated in December 2011 by the Council of the European Union under the Polish presidency of Donald Tusk, and it was fully established by 2013. The EED’s history fits with the pattern of intelligence operations and regime-change schemes established in the rest of this study. The organization was motivated by the EU’s inability to quickly and efficiently respond to, and aid favored factions active in, the Arab Spring. It was inspired by, and named after, the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The EU even aimed to maintain an EED budget “comparable” to the NED (Kostanyan and Nasieniak 2012, 8; Škoba 2013, 1). The federally funded NED was established in 1983 by the Reagan administration to fund and aid political parties, unions, and civil society NGOs in places with regimes the US sought, and continues to seek, to undermine like Cuba, Venezuela, China, Iran, and Zimbabwe. Previous enterprises of these in the 1950s and ’60s detailed in Saunders’s book The Cultural Cold War were tainted by their associations with the CIA and covert operations. The NED took these formerly covert, CIA-led operations and whitewashed them as public, benevolent civil society and democracy promotion initiatives, with cofounder Allen Weinstein saying in 1991, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA” (Ignatius 1991).

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U.S. Department of Defense. 2016. “Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Warren via Teleconference from Baghdad, Iraq.” U.S. Department of Defense. https://www.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/739157/department-of-defense-press-briefing-by-col-warren-via-teleconference-from-bagh/.

 

von Einsiedel, Orlando. 2016. The White Helmets. Digital. 40 min. Netflix. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQM6t1oSQkE&t=566s.

 

Wall, Melissa, and Sahar El Zahed. 2015. “Embedding Content from Syrian Citizen Journalists: The Rise of the Collaborative News Clip.” Journalism 16 (2): 163–80. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884914529213.

 

Wang, Nanfu, and Jialing Zhang, dirs. 2019. One Child Nation. Digital. 1 hr., 29 min. Amazon Studios.

 

Wang, Yanan. 2016. “How Syrians are using the popularity of Pokémon Go to draw attention to children’s plight.” The Washington Post, July 23, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/07/23/how-syrians-are-using-the-popularity-of-pokemon-go-to-draw-attention-to-childrens-plight/.

 

Watt, Holly, and Rajeev Syal. 2017. “Tories receive £50,000 from man questioned by Serious Fraud Office.” The Guardian, May 18, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/may/18/tories-receive-50000-from-ayman-asfari-businessman-questioned-by-serious-fraud-office.

 

Wilkinson, Alissa. 2017. “The White Helmets cinematographer Khaled Khatib had a visa to attend the Oscars. He never made it.” Vox, February 26, 2017. https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/2/26/14742386/khaled-khateeb-white-helmets-oscars-denied-entry-syria#:~:text=Biden%20Administration-,The%20White%20Helmets%20cinematographer%20Khaled%20Khatib%20had%20a%20visa%20to,has%20accused%20of%20faking%20footage.

 

Wilson, Tom and Kate Starbird. 2020. “Cross-platform disinformation campaigns: Lessons learned and next steps.” Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, January 14, 2020. https://misinforeview.hks.harvard.edu/article/cross-platform-disinformation-campaigns/.

 

Wright, Dan. 2016. “Video Shows White Helmets Staging Fake Rescue In Syria.” Shadowproof, November 24, 2016. https://shadowproof.com/2016/11/24/video-shows-white-helmets-staging-fake-rescue-syria/.

 

Zenko, Micah. 2013. “Don’t Know Much About History.” Foreign Policy, July 10, 2013. https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/07/10/dont-know-much-about-history/.

 

Zollmann, Florian. 2017. Media, Propaganda, and the Politics of Intervention. New York: Peter Lang.

Appendix: Select UK Foreign Commonwealth Office Files

ITT Lot C – Technical Response, Part A: Methodology, Circa 2015, folder 011 Syria Rapid Response ARK, Complete FCO, https://ufile.io/c97tfzhv.

 

1.2.1 Methodology, Untitled, Circa late 2017, folder 017 MOR Resilience ARK, Complete FCO, https://ufile.io/j11m22xe.

 

ARK 2.2.3, ARK F.Z.C. 2.2.3, n.d., folder 019 Acquisitions Framework ARK, Complete FCO, https://ufile.io/iuvt0zeu.

 

ARK 2.2.5, ARK F.Z.C. 2.2.5, n.d., folder 019 Acquisitions Framework ARK, Complete FCO, https://ufile.io/hhdnezl4.

 

ARK 2.2.7, ARK F.Z.C. 2.2.7, n.d., folder 019 Acquisitions Framework ARK, Complete FCO, https://ufile.io/1rygxhzw.

 

ARK 2.2.17, ARK F.Z.C. 2.2.17, n.d., folder 019 Acquisitions Framework ARK, Complete FCO, https://ufile.io/3chwn5et.