Directing the Moderate Rebels: Syria as a Digital Age Crucible for Information and Propaganda Warfare

Ben Arthur Thomason

A decade into Syria’s catastrophe as one of the deadliest wars of the 21st century, we can take greater stock of its effects not just on geopolitics and Syria itself, but on imperial management strategies, information warfare, and popular culture, particularly when considering the interventions by the West and its regional allies. A key pillar of Western imperialist projects next to the hard power of bombs and economic sanctions is the soft power of diplomatic maneuvering, media and cultural imperialism, manufacturing public consent for war, and inventing realities to maintain ideological hegemony. The complementary dialectic between hard and soft power in the US led imperial project in Syria built on historical ventures in Muslim majority countries and evolved propaganda and civil society hybrid warfare strategies that may become foundational for 21st century warfare.

COMPLEMENTING HARD AND SOFT POWER: THE UK FCO MEDIA AND CIVIL SOCIETY CONSORTIUM

Early in the Syrian conflict, through a scheme code-named Operation Timber Sycamore, the CIA partnered with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar to flood Syria with weapons, many of which ended up on the black market or in the hands of extremist groups. In an echo of the CIA’s Operation Cyclone, where Mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan were supplied with billions of dollars in arms including Raytheon manufactured anti-aircraft guided Stinger Missiles, the US and its allies supplied Syrian rebels, including Salafist groups like the Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zenki Movement, with Raytheon produced anti-tank guided BGM TOW missiles.

Supplementing the hard-power pressures of sanctions and lethal aid to militants was a soft power strategy that combined diplomatic pressure, propaganda, and civil society programs. Western governments and NGOs funded, supplied, and trained pro-opposition Syrian journalists, newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV stations. Pro-rebel outlets that sprung from this support were needed because Western journalists largely stayed out of reporting from rebel-held Syria for risk of being kidnapped or killed, despite the purported moderation of the Western backed Free Syrian Army and attempts to downplay the strength of extremist forces in Western media. Perhaps the most important organization, at least that we have significant documentation of right now, was a consultancy firm, Analysis Research Knowledge (ARK), and their search and rescue and media production group, Syria Civil Defence (British spelling), popularly known as the White Helmets.
Figure 1- An example of ARK’s “rebranding” projects for armed militias to sell the “moderate rebels” image (CPG01737 ARK 1.3.1, n.d.: 1)

ARK’s modern form was established as ARK FZC in 2011 and is based in Dubai, though its roots go back at least to 2009 when it was formed in Beirut, Lebanon as ARK Group or ARK Lebanon. The United Arab Emirates avoided full involvement in the arming and support of Syrian militants, instead opting to become an important partner in diplomatic and civil society efforts against the Assad government. ARK was started by former British Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) employee Alistair Harris, who got his start serving in the Yugoslav Wars. Contracting under the UK FCO, ARK first established a program for collecting and documenting alleged war crimes and set up an opposition media program called Basma Syria (Basma meaning smile in Arabic). In 2012 ARK, led by employee James Le Mesurier, a former UK military intelligence officer who also got his start in the Balkans during the Yugoslav Wars, established the search and rescue teams that would become the White Helmets. The group sold itself as a grassroots citizen activist humanitarian group and became media darlings in the West.

The White Helmets were the bridge between the civil society and propaganda aspects of these soft-power pro-rebel operations. Not only did they provide services such as search and rescue, medical transport, fire suppression, and post-battle clean-ups and reconstruction, they filmed and photographed themselves doing all these things. They were often first on the scene reporting on bombings, skirmishes, and alleged chemical weapons attacks. The most famous accusations against the White Helmets, lobbed by Russian and alternative Western media, were that they collaborated with terrorist groups and staged fake attacks and/or rescue missions. Yet perhaps the more interesting and revealing thing about the White Helmets that can be confirmed is that they were a key part of a wider propaganda and civil society operation to support anti-Assad forces in Syria and justify and encourage foreign intervention led by corporate contractors working under the UK FCO.

As the military war dragged on, Western backed militias needed to administer the areas they conquered as well as fight an information war. Since these rebel-held spaces were too dangerous for Western journalists, Western states raised a local media infrastructure through local proxies. US and European NGOs and governments funded, trained, and supplied outlets like Aleppo Media Center while ARK and its fellow UK FCO contractors set up their own media outlets like Basma, Moubader, and Syriagraph, establishing TV, radio, and magazine production for themselves or partner organizations. Other FCO contractors like Albany Associates Ltd identified and trained select spokespeople from and developed communication strategies for violent sectarian Salafi militias like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. One prominent ostensibly grassroots media outlet for the Battle of Aleppo, Revolutionary Forces of Syria, was directly run by an FCO consortium member that partnered closely with ARK, The Global Strategy Network (TGSN), directed by Richard Barrett, former director of counterterrorism at MI6. These outlets then fed propaganda to their “well-established contacts with numerous key media organisations [sic] including Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Orient, Sky News Arabic, CNN, BBC, BBC Arabic, The Times, The Guardian, FT [Financial Times], NYT [New York Times], Reuters and others.”
Figure 2- One of several maps of Syria showcasing ARK’s media and civil society operations in Syria. “ICSP Beneficiaries” refer to local Free Syrian Police units while “Media Stringers” refer to freelance journalists trained and or employed by ARK (ITT Lot C – Technical Response)

UK FCO contractors like Adam Smith International and ARK tried to create civil society infrastructure to provide essential services that could compete with Syrian state services. They set up a Free Syrian Police (FSP) as well as municipal governance, education, and sanitation services, while the White Helmets provided emergency fire, transportation, and rubble clean-up services. The FSP alone received hundreds of millions of dollars through US and European funding and had its own scandals of corruption and connections with terrorist groups. The White Helmets alongside media outlets set up with extensive help from Western governments and NGOs like Aleppo Media Center, or media outlets directly run by Western government contractors like Revolutionary Forces of Syria, audio-visually recorded and disseminated these services from local Arabic speaking audiences to global, particularly Western Anglophone audiences. For ARK, their civil society services and “media products” were one and the same. The US and European states spent over $1 billion on these media and civil society initiatives refined through constant polling, focus groups, data analysis, and target audience segmentation to maximize their media and public opinion impact.
Figure 3- ARK “Project Schematic” showing how civil society initiatives immediately became propaganda for local and Western audiences. The events for September-November were planned by ARK to both provide rebel governance and turn their services into pro-rebel, anti-regime propaganda. (ARK 1.2.1 Methodology, c2017)

TARGET AUDIENCES: THE HOME FRONT

The White Helmets became the star group of this initiative not just because they provided local services and produced propaganda at the same time; they also gave the opposition to Assad a singular humanitarian face that could shroud the sectarian and theocratic violence that characterized the bulk of the Western backed armed opposition that eventually coalesced into ISIS. Among Western media and celebrities, that’s exactly what the White Helmets became.

The program of influence peddling and manufacturing public consent for intervention in Syria made it to the highest levels of Western entertainment with the 2016 Oscar winning documentary The White Helmets, profiling the ARK created group. The documentary created a narrative of Russian and Assad military devils bombing helpless civilians who relied on angelic White Helmets as their only line of defense, scrubbing all rebel militias from the conflict except ISIS. It was made possible by the cheap labor of the White Helmet workers, with whom ARK had previously produced several Arabic-language documentaries, the money and government connections of oil and industrial interests through philanthropies like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the enthusiastic endorsements of US and UK media. The organization that led the impact campaign for the documentary and the White Helmets targeting celebrities and the media as well as Western halls of power was The Syria Campaign (TSC). TSC was started and heavily funded by a Syrian expat, US educated billionaire oil CEO and major UK Tory party donor, Ayman Asfari, whose company was convicted and fined in 2021 by a UK court for paying millions of dollars in bribes to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE for oil contracts. Even before the Syrian Civil War started Asfari had his hands in dirty influence peddling with the UK who led the propaganda and civil society war against Syria, the UAE, who served as a regional conduit for those efforts, and the Saudis, who helped lead the hard power militia war against Syria.

While The White Helmets documentary tugged at viewers’ heartstrings over the brutality of Syrian and Russian air power, the Syria Campaign and the White Helmets pushed for the US and its allies to establish a no-fly zone over Syria. This was the same kind of intervention that was instrumental in lynching Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and throwing that country into chaos and strife it still has not emerged from. Despite the risk of inciting a hot war with Russia that a no-fly zone in Syria implied, this policy was pushed by powerful political leaders, including the 2016 Democratic party presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Cynical weaponization of real and alleged atrocity stories to justify intervention and create easy good vs. evil stories for the benefit of US backed rebel factions in Muslim countries is not new. Journalist Joel Whitney (2016) showed that the weaponization of refugees and training pro-rebel activists to encourage and film atrocities has historical precedent in Operation Cyclone in Afghanistan. The resumes and CVs from leaked UK Foreign Commonwealth Office documents also point to these programs repeating and building off each other through history, particularly in the destabilized Muslim majority regions of the world in the past 30 years. Several prominent employees with leadership roles in these government contractors in Syria have long resumes before joining ARK and other FCO contractors. Their employee profiles demonstrate a pattern of receiving military, media, civil society, and government transition positions in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, sometimes in that order and often including several sub-Saharan African countries like Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Mali, and Nigeria as well. These ventures have occurred before and will continue.

Many details of the Western propaganda and interference schemes in Syria are still unknown, locked in classified internal government and corporate documents. Yet the few leaks and investigative reports we have reveal an extensive, well-funded, years-long propaganda and disinformation warfare campaign waged first against the Syrian government but perhaps more intensely against Western publics. Through groups like the White Helmets and the media they produced, Western governments and corporations backed up their multi-billion-dollar effort to flood Syria with weapons and fighters with propaganda and civil society campaigns worth about a billion dollars. These facilitated rebel administrations on the ground and helped sell a simplified whitewashed narrative of the Syrian Civil War and build war fervor for Western intervention. This built off historical precedents, committed by the same people who engaged in similar campaigns in other Muslim majority countries.

It must be said that these efforts failed in important ways. While nearly all Western mainstream corporate media and politicians fell in line behind the White Helmets and the consortium’s pro-intervention narratives, war weary Western publics, particularly in the US and UK, were skeptical and unconvinced. Outlets like the Syria Campaign, the Guardian, and the BBC were quite troubled by the popular pushback they got which, despite their best efforts, could not be smeared as all Moscow agents or their useful idiots spreading disinformation. Russia and Syria did have their own propaganda strategy to counter Western media, and this is an inevitable reality of modern warfare. Their tactics included accusations against the White Helmets that, while containing important grains of truth, were overly simplistic and designed to paper over the brutal acts they engaged in as belligerents in a generally brutal war. Yet it is striking that, after so many criminal imperialist adventures in the region, public skepticism and disillusionment toward institutional narratives pushing humanitarian intervention in another Muslim country would be dismissed by political and media professionals with such pious Cold War style deflection and finger-pointing. These went so far as to include a sting operation and media smear campaign led by yet another organization created by ARK against academics investigating Western intervention in Syria. This ideological disciplining of public discourse is particularly outrageous when critical investigations into what Western states and their allies were doing in Syria without substantial, if any, public consent or knowledge reveal disturbing patterns of violence, manipulation, and good-old fashioned corruption and self-aggrandizement.