The White Helmets walk through debris in a rebel-held neighborhood of Aleppo. Photo Credit: AFP.
By: Krystel Von Kumberg, Columnist
Information is a contested resource in today’s world. Perception has become the center of gravity, as humanity’s increasing interconnectedness means that controlling communications is critical to the pursuit of strategic objectives. The cyber domain presents the perfect arena for states to shape their version of events to further their goals. The conflict in Syria demonstrates that knowledge is not necessarily power, as images are filtered and truth itself becomes a casualty of war. The cyber-balkanization taking root highlights how nation-states battle to bolster their own narratives. For better or worse, this phenomenon, commonly referred to as the “splinternet,”[i] is likely to profoundly shape the future of conflict.
The West sold the Syria Civil Defense, or so-called White Helmets, as civil protection workers. Founded by a former British Army officer in 2014, the White Helmets portray themselves as an unbiased, humanitarian NGO. Their motto is “to save one life is to save all of humanity.”[ii] Garnering worldwide praise, the White Helmets were even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. One of their most celebrated missions took place in 2014, when Khaled Omar Harrah pulled a baby out of the wreckage of a building, after being buried for 16 hours. [iii] Since 2015, the year the Russians began fighting in Syria, the White Helmets have been filming attacks on opposition-held areas, exposing how Moscow targets civilians in schools and medical facilities. [iv]
It is unsurprising that the Syrian government and its ally, Russia, have accused the White Helmets of being tied to jihadist organizations. President Assad said the group uses “humanitarian masks and umbrellas just to implement a certain agenda.” [v] Similarly, Ilya Rogachyov, Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department of New Challenges and Threats, argues that “the leading Western countries have failed to place the struggle against terrorism above their self-serving political interests,” highlighting how the White Helmets, allegedly “linked with the terrorist group Jabhat al Nusra,” are in the process of being put on trial. [vi] The malleable term “terrorism” is used to legitimize Moscow’s dialogue with Hamas and highlight Washington’s hypocrisy, to undermine the US’s role as central power broker in the region. Terrorism is not a value-neutral label. The term is often lost in translation, as individuals, organizations, and states define it differently and conceptualize its moral and ethical dimensions in dichotomous ways.
The White Helmets have been criticized for working in areas held by the Nusra Front, a terrorist organization linked to al-Qaeda, in some instances residing next door to jihadists. In May 2017, the deputy Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, Petr Ilichev, submitted a paper entitled “Information on the Work of the White Helmets in Syria” to the UN Security Council, which questioned the White Helmet’s neutrality. [vii] In July 2017, eight countries on the Security Council rejected Iliichev’s submission, upholding the view that “Syria Civil Defense is an impartial, neutral group.” [viii] In December 2018, Russia again presented evidence to the UN that alleged the White Helmets are a terrorist organization. Maxim Grigoriev, director of the Russia-based Foundation for the Study of Democracy, claimed that the White Helmets were supplying terrorists with water and food, engaging in human organ trafficking, and carrying out chemical attacks. [ix] Additionally, Grigoriev alleged that social media accounts of White Helmets’ members provide ample evidence connecting some of them with ISIS and al-Qaeda. [x]
There is probably some truth to these claims. No organization can expect to act flawlessly in the midst of a messy civil war. However, looking at the larger picture, authoritarian states, as part of an information war, view Western soft power as destructive and unlawful – part of a broader, holistic effort to upend the status quo. Indeed, the Internet Research Agency, the infamous, Kremlin-backed troll farm, was founded in response to the emergence of social media as a platform for political mobilization during the Arab Spring, the color revolutions, and the wave of anti-regime protests that swept through Russia from 2011-2013. Putin himself argues that “information attacks are more powerful than conventional weapons” and “the militarization of…cyberspace is taking place.” [xi]
Authoritarian influence has been coined “sharp power,” as these states actively defend their version of events in order to discredit and vilify humanitarian assistance from the West. [xii] The geography of thought plays an important role in the dichotomy of soft and sharp power. Western nations try to make their adversaries certain that they are making clear, decisive decisions. [xiii] Russia, on the other hand, seeks to create epistemic chaos, undermining their opponents’ ability to perceive objective truths. However, to assume that every word can fit neatly into a wholesome narrative is, as Julian Corbett noted, “to fall…victim to abstract theory, and not to be a prophet of reality.” [xiv] Exacerbating and enhancing heroic acts is a natural human trait. At the same time, Moscow’s manufacturing of fake stories to discredit the White Helmets is a tactic to legitimize the Assad regime and Russia’s role in preserving Syria’s status quo. This is a battle of simulacra, masking and perverting reality – and a new approach to weaponizing information that may well be the future way of war.
[i] L.S.,“What is the “splinternet”?,” The Economist, November 22, 2016, https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2016/11/22/what-is-the-splinternet.
[ii] Robin Wright, “The White Helmets—Syria’s Noble Rescuers—Have to be rescued by Israel,” The New Yorker, July 23, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-white-helmets-syrias-noble-rescuers-have-to-be-rescued-by-israel.
[v] “White Helmets engaged in organ trafficking, aiding terrorists, looting in Syria: Watchdog,” PressTV, December 21, 2018, https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2018/12/21/583535/White-Helmets-guilty-of-heinous-crimes.
[xi] “Vladimir Putin: We need to strengthen the protection of the state against information attacks, Tass, July 5, 2013, https://tass.ru/politika/629732.
[xii] Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, “The Meaning of Sharp Power: How Authoritarian States Project Influence,” Foreign Affairs, November 16, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-11-16/meaning-sharp-power.
[xiii] Barton Whaley, Stratagem: Deception and Surprise in War (Norwood: Artech House, 1969), 135.
[xiv] Julian Stafford Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (New York: Longmans, Green and Co, 2014), 28.