Bringing the Syria Campaign out of Blumenthal's 'shadows'

Bringing the Syria Campaign out of Blumenthal's 'shadows'
6 min read
05 Oct, 2016
Critics claim that the Syria Campaign is a 'shadowy' operation, but they just don't look hard enough.
A young child pretends to lie dead at a protest in Brussels [Pacific Press]
There has been an airstrike on a residential building and a few family members have emerged alive. There is dust, rubble everywhere.

A photographer arrives at the scene. He starts taking pictures of people standing around ambulances. They are crying, they are scared. Some of the weeping mothers hold their dead children to the cameras. They are crying out to the world - look at what has happened here. Look at my dead children. Do not ignore this - do not turn away.

But there are those who do look away. They don't want the reality to be happening, and they try to remove themselves in superfluous debates.

A recent series of articles, criticising the Syria Campaign and the White Helmets, chose to focus on the wrong enemy. It also reported the organisation's finances incorrectly and, in a report on a Syrian campaign, contained only one interview with a Syrian.

Writer Max Blumenthal accused The Syria Campaign of being a "shadowy" PR outfit which supported western intervention in Syria through their support of a no-fly zone. He also, bizarrely, accused them of running a "shadowy" operation with anonymous funders.

In the interest of transparency, it should be added at this point that The New Arab's CEO is a trustee of the Galillee Foundation, which is managed by Sawsan Asfari of The Syria Campaign.

The story initially piqued the interest, as tales of purported deception and subterfuge always will. There were angles to some claims which warranted investigation.

I contacted Sawsan Asfari, one of the directors of the Syria Campaign, to challenge her directly on some of these.

Incidentally, for a "dark and secretive" PR company, they list their Companies House registration number openly on their "About" website page. It took nearly a whole ten minutes to read through their entire operation, their financial records and their history. For other background details, I consulted an interview they gave earlier this year with my colleague, Sheeffah Shiraz.

Anonymous donors do not necessarily make an organisation shadowy. Indeed, Alternet, the publishers of Blumenthal's article, receives donations from anonymous donors themselves.

Sawsan agreed to give me an additional interview quite readily, in which she informed me that she and her husband, Ayman Asfari, had indeed set up the Syria Campaign and that she had never tried to hide that.

"The Syria Campaign was initially funded by us [Sawsan and Ayman] and we managed to get some funding from other Syrian and foreign businessmen," she said. "Most of them wanted to remain anonymous though, because they are afraid of the regime."

I pressed Asfari on this point, alerting her to the fact that this was one of the main points of Blumenthal's article - no-one knew where this money was coming from and that was ultimately, rather "shadowy".

In response, Asfari said that this anonymity had everything to do with security, not secrets.

This is, after all, a regime that we know tortures innocent children, let alone someone who would help fund a political opposition campaign.

Their lives would be put at risk, it is not unreasonably suggested. If the regime found them, if the regime found their relatives, they would vanish into Assad's torture cells - perhaps never to be seen again.

Anonymous donors do not necessarily make an organisation shadowy. Indeed, Alternet, the publishers of Blumenthal's article, receives donations from anonymous donors themselves.

Of course, the real issue is not where the money comes from, it is where it is going. Critics of the Syria Campaign believe that the money is flowing towards a slick, US-backed operation that supports regime change and military intervention.

In doing so, they choose to disregard the facts on the ground in order to focus on the macro-view - and can't see the wood for the trees.

Instead of focusing on the murderous war criminals who torture and maim and rape and kill civilians - Blumenthal focuses his attention on the paramedics who work to save lives.

Blumenthal knows about this murder and torture and rape. In an interview he gave in 2012, upon leaving his job at the pro-Hizballah al-Akhbar news, he expressed repugnance towards the Syrian regime.

Think back to the pictures of babies emerging from the rubble in Aleppo. What makes you angrier? The bombs that killed them or the funding of the people who tried to save them?

In the interview he said: "the Assad regime [has] killed as many as 10,000 people in order to remain in power, possibly 13,000, according to people I know inside Syria who've come out.

"The Assad regime was running an institution of torture in prisons. Possibly 100,000 people are in prison right now. And this makes Israel look like, you know, a champion of human rights."

Blumenthal ultimately left al-Akhbar news because he "noticed the opinions in favor of Assad had grown more strident on the website". A few years later, he found himself working semi-regularly for that other, Assad-leaning news outlet, Russia Today.

Blumenthal has spent many years producing quality work that has earned him a solid reputation as a leftist "anti-Zionist" writer and commentator, but he did not respond to a request for an interview for this piece.

Think back to the pictures of babies emerging from the rubble in Aleppo. What makes you angrier? The bombs that killed them or the funding of the people who tried to save them? If you can, side against the paramedics for one second - and you will find yourself on a foundation of shaky logic at best.

A quick scan of social media reveals an undercurrent of frustration and anger at the position.


The Middle East is a region that is sick with war and insecurity. Wars which are propagated by governments and powerful generals, sitting in anonymous and sterile offices, far from the rubble and the dead babies. This is how wars are. This is how they have always been.

Blumenthal chose to divorce himself from this reality by writing this article. He seemingly forgot that there are people who are dying and he chose to focus on the concept of interventionism.

Many, if not all, of us here at The New Arab are also anti-interventionist. But attacking the few people who are actually doing some good on the ground to relieve the suffering of ordinary people in this particular circle of hell is myopic and attention-seeking.

Western military and political intervention has historically been one of the great plagues cursing the Middle East. It is true that the "the West knows best" mentality has caused uncountable strife since before Sykes-Picot through and beyond the days of "shock and awe".  

But the West is not the only threat to peace and justice in the Middle East. And to believe that such a threat comes from a small group of rescuers in White Helmets, working under some of the most challenging conditions, is misguided at best, and calculatingly disingenuous at worst.