After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States had to get a little more creative to help justify and rally public support for its foreign interventions. Terrorism as a chronic threat helps improve public approval for military defense spending, but expensive foreign wars are rarely popular among civilians.
One theme we see pop-up anytime the United States attempts to justify a regime change or military intervention is the ambiguous “humanitarian concern” We see it every time: Iraq, Libya, and most recently Syria.
The United States finds anti-Assad propaganda useful for a few reasons. First, it helps convince the American public that Assad is a brutal dictator who must be overthrown; thus justifying intervention. Second, it helps minimize public back-lash over the United States’ own atrocities and war crimes. Citizens might find themselves thinking “who cares if the US has ulterior motives for overthrowing Assad; the guy needs to go either way, right?”
Lastly, since Russia is supporting the Syrian government against United States-sponsored rebels, the US gets to use any damage in rebel-held territory as anti-Russia and anti-Assad propaganda. Enter the Syrian Civil Defense aka the White Helmets.
Funded and Fueled by the US and UK
As of May 2016, the United States Agency for International Development provided over $23 million to Syrian civil defense teams– just like the White Helmets. USAID defines these teams as “impartial emergency responders” who do not support either side in the war. However, at the same time the USAID report states that the teams have a second purpose to “amplify the efforts of moderate actors and strengthen public support for moderate values.”
“Moderate actors” would be the US-sponsored “moderate rebel” fighters which in reality are the furthest thing from moderate. But this also includes “national, provincial and local level” civilians that probably The Syria Campaign manages the White Helmets’ website which also boasts a pro-intervention message.
A private non-profit organization in the UK called Global Voices manages The Syria Campaign. On the group’s website, White Helmet leader Raed Saleh openly pleads with the UN to establish a no-fly zone in Syria: “UN Security Council must follow through on its demand to stop the barrel bombs, by introducing a ‘no-fly zone’ if necessary.”
Establishing a no-fly zone in Syria would first of all prevent the Syrian Army from defending their own country. But this move would also essentially the United States in direct conflict with Russian and Syrian troops. Establishing a no-fly zone in Syria could and likely would be the catalyst for a major war directly between world powers.
Members of the White Helmets also travel for training to camps in Turkey— which just so happen to be a pro-intervention NATO ally. How can the White Helmets be apolitical and impartial when they are funded and trained by the countries trying to overthrow the Syrian government?
Unsavory Ties to al-Qaeda and other Extremist Groups
The United States sponsors various extremist groups which they publicly brand as “moderate rebels.” Some of these groups may include previous members of the former al-Nusra (Syria’s previous al-Qaeda affiliate) or a number of other intolerant extremist groups the US is relies on to fight the Syrian Army and ultimately overthrow Assad.
For example, in the iconic photo of Omran that made headlines last fall, one can see Mahmoud Raslan as well as two fighters who reportedly beheaded a 12 year old boy. These fighters are reportedly from the group known as Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki– a Turkish-backed opposition force which until 2015 received CIA funding.
After being dropped from the CIA’s payroll, al-Zenki has joined forces with abhat Fateh Al-Sham– an affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria.
Abdallah Muhammad al Muhaysini, a spokesman from al-Nusra, even praised the White Helmets as mujahideen.
Pro-war propaganda hasn’t gone away– it just isn’t quite as blatant anymore. As the public as gotten slightly more privy to identifying pro-war propaganda and combating it, the war machine has had to switch up its tactics a bit. The war in Syria is a very cloudy topic for most Americans: they know a war is taking place but aren’t quite clear who all the belligerents are or who-supports-who. It’s no coincidence that the war in Syria virtually gets no US media coverage unless Russia kills civilians.
As long as citizens aren’t educating themselves on the Syrian war and exactly how the US is involved, the US can continue to push out the heavy pro-intervention propaganda without virtually anyone noticing. The West can continue to glorify the White Helmets (even giving them an Oscar) while ignoring all the war-crimes and atrocities committed by NATO-friendly moderate-rebel allies.
The White Helmets give Western imperialism a friendly face; and then suddenly US intervention to topple Assad the tyrant doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. If the public is anti-violence and anti-mainstream media, the US has found a nice loophole around that disapproval with the White Helmets: an Oscar-winning humanitarian group who just so happens to be pro-intervention.
Also published on Medium.