James Le Mesurier : “The White Helmets have contributed to showing the world the reality of what Assad is doing”
James Le Mesurier, director of the NGO Mayday Rescue, who helped establish and train the White Helmets in Syria, was found dead on November 11 at the bottom of his Istanbul building where he worked and lived. An investigation has been opened by the Turkish police. A few days before his death, James Le Mesurier had been accused in a tweet from the Russian ministry of Foreign Affairs Foreign of being a former British intelligence agent and “linked to terrorist groups”. In August 2018 Syria Factuel had spoken with James Le Mesurier to allow him to respond to similar accusations made, among others, by Rachad Antonius on the daily Quebec newspaper Le Devoir against him and against the White Helmets. It was an exclusive interview that we are publishing in full for the first time (in French and in English) below:
Syrie Factuel : As you may know, you are accused, among other things, of being an Academi (ex Blackwater) contractor. Could you summarize your career?
James Le Mesurier : I’m accused of a lot more than that; I’m also accused of working for the CIA, and the Mossad, and MI6, and for DGSE and everything else as well.
I started my career as an ordinary officer in the British army, and I then joined the United Nations. I spent a couple of years working for the United Nations and for the European Union on their foreign missions. Then I worked for a private security company called the Olive Group, for about 4 years as vice-president for special projects. These were in the humanitarian sector. For example I conducted operations after the Tsunami in South-East Asia in 2004, and the evacuation of people from Lebanon during the war in 2006. And at no point during that period of time did I work in operations in Iraq or carry a gun. I was not an armed security contractor.
Much is made of this about me — that as the result of my work in Olive I’d therefore had a relationship with Academi or Blackwater. But it must be pointed out that Olive Group began to develop their relationships with Academi, Blackwater, and that kind of organisation many years after I left. So I can say I have never in my life had contact with anybody from Blackwater.
And in these activities, were you related directly to, for example, British or American government, or State Department or any other state organisation ?
I worked as a contractor for the British foreign office for three years in the Middle East, so during that period of time, yes, I did, but there is nothing unusual about that, and I reject most strenuously any of the accusations that I was ever an intelligence officer.
What did you do after Olive Group ?
After Olive group, I did works in Abu Dhabi, for an American consultancy company, a strategy and consulting company called Good Harbour, where my primary role was dealing with urban security. This was to do with the security design for Abu Dhabi city, dealing with a lot of different architecture, firms and urban planning firms and then when I left Good Harbour, I started to work in Syria in late 2011/early 2012.
Why did you go to Syria in 2012 ?
I had visited Syria before. I thought it was a beautiful country and the people I had met there were extraordinary. And I was moved by what was going on, and so I had the opportunity to do some consulting work which was looking at different ways support could be provided to Syrian civilians. And then that led to my starting the White Helmets and starting my own NGO, Mayday Rescue Foundation. There was no linkage between this new activity and the one in Abu Dhabi as I left my job there and then started my new job in Istanbul in 2012.
When you went to Syria in 2012, you just did that because you knew there was a war there and you wanted to do something for them, to be helpful?
In 2012 it wasn’t a war, the war came later. In 2011 and 2012 it was a popular civilian uprising against a very well established and brutal dictatorship. And it was a cause that I believed in, and I felt that it was something I would like to contribute. Throughout the course of 2012 the government of Syria responded with increasing levels of violence, turning the uprising into a civil war. But when I started it was really a peaceful uprising demanding political change in Syria.
In my career I spent a lot of time working the Middle East. I speak a reasonnable level of arabic, and much of my work has been in difficult environments. Therefore, I started working for a company called Analysis Research and Knowledge (ARK) which was a private sector stabilisation consultancy.
Why did you create the Mayday Rescue Foundation and contribute to found the Syrian Civil Defense ?
By the end of 2012 the nature of the environment had changed in Syria, and particularly in areas that were in opposition to the Assad regime : from the rebels perspective they had taken territory, from the perspective of Damascus they had formed military organisations. Battles had ensued by the end of 2012 in areas that were not under the control of Damascus. Damascus responded by withdrawing or ceasing all of its government services, including medical services and also foreign rescue services.
“They left us on a friday and then on sunday they sent us a video of a family of five people that had been buried under the rubble. With the training and with the equipment they had managed to save them.”
At the same time, these areas effectively gave the Assad regime free fire zones. They could use all of the weapons at their disposal against those civilian areas. And so they first started to use attack helicopters, then they began to use planes, artillery and rockets and were conducting aerial bombings and air raids on these civilian areas.
The response to these raids was community-based. In communities that were bombed, groups of men would go to the site of the explosion if a bomb was dropped and using whatever materials they had, which was frequently only their hands, they would go through the rubble trying to find people who were alive. I became aware of this towards the end of 2012. In January 2013, I was in a meeting where I heard a very clear description of what the conditions were like in some of these towns and villages that were being bombed by Assad.
A meeting with ARK ?
Yes, in the offices of ARK, but the meeting was with a number of people from Aleppo who had travelled to Istanbul and we were meeting with them to understand the conditions on the ground. What for me was very important and interesting was the extent of the bombings by the regime. I realized that there was a complete lack of an organized form of ambulance and fire-fighting services. There was no search and rescue capability. So I developed a concept for a pilot project to train and equip volunteer rescue teams in Syria. In very early 2013 that project was funded by the government of the USA through the State Department’s Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization, which provided a small amount of money.
A couple of weeks later, we ran a training course for a group of volunteers who came from northern Aleppo and we gave them equipment and training. In the course of about 10 days we gave them the very basics for how to do search and rescue from bomb attacks. And that group then went back into Northern Aleppo. They left us on a Friday and then on Sunday they sent us a video of a family of 5 people that had been buried under the rubble. With the training and with the equipment they had managed to save them. That was a really important moment because it demonstrated that a little bit of training and a little bit of equipment could have a very rapid effect.
So we went to a number of other governments and we asked for their funding and their support in continuing to train volunteer teams. And so, over the course of 2013, we trained and equipped a total of about 15 different teams. We saw that the demand from the communities for the establishment of these local rescue teams, was very, very strong. It seemed to be very worthwhile, it had a lot of support from the communities on the ground.
In my experience of working in conflicts or fragile states there are a lot of things that the international community does that are not very effective. A lot of money is wasted on programs that are being designed in capital cities or designed by people who really do not understand the environment of the country and that are not supported by the local communities. And this program was one that really seemed to work. It was really simple, it was training and equipping local volunteer teams to take people out of the rubble, there was a huge community demand for it, and it was saving people lives.
And so I believed in this idea enough that I quit my job with ARK and set up my own non-profit organisation, Mayday Rescue Foundation. The purposes of the organisation were to train volunteer teams in conflict environments and that was the beginning of Mayday Rescue. That explains why the first training and equipping of the teams that then became the White Helmets started before I founded Mayday Rescue.
So the White Helmets are separated from Mayday Rescue Foundation ?
Yes. Mayday is a small international NGO. What we do is we set up, we establish, locally based rescue organisations, like the White Helmets. The White Helmets are their own organisation. They are 100% Syrian. One of the things that we try to do is to ensure that they have everything they need to be completely independent, so that in the future they can operate without need of Mayday rescue — that they are completely self-sustaining, operationally and financially.
Is there any ties between your foundation and the Syria Campaign (SC), which is accused of being the PR firm for your foundation ?
Not quite. The Syria Campaign is accused of being the PR foundation of the White Helmets. But there is no contract relationship that exists between Mayday Rescue and the Syria Campaign. They are two entirely separate organisations. Clearly we know the SC people really well. The relationship with SC started in 2014 with an e-mail and we then met for discussion. I appreciated what the SC objective was: to highlight the conflict in Syria, to make people around the world aware of what was going on inside. We viewed that as being entirely compatible with the work that we were doing and the work that the rescue teams were doing.
SC is accused of being this sort of Soros funded network of organisations and so on, and that’s incorrect. Mayday Rescue or the White Helmets have never paid the SC any money; we never had a contract with them. It’s simply organisations that share similar goals and similar missions working collaboratively together.
Those who are imagining a particular relationship betwen the Syrian Campaign and the White Helmets sees it as a regime change conspiracy, helmet cams used by the White Helmets being a tool to fullfill this agenda by demanding a no-fly zone. Why are White Helmets are wearing helmet cams ?
I’m well aware of these accusations saying that the White Helmets are an organisation for regime change. These accusations are made all the time. What I don’t understand though is how helmet cameras are a tool of regime change. What is the linkage between rescuing people from under the rubble and regime change? How does rescuing people under the rubble topple Assad?
White Helmets have helmet cams for a simple reason. We originally deployed helmet cameras so that we could look at the footage to help with their training, so that we could debrief their interventions and feed those in as lessons to the training programs. When we began to see the footage, we saw that it really showed the reality of what was happening on the ground in Syria.
And because there were not many journalists that had access to the same footage, then we would post that footage on Twitter, and it was then picked up from Twitter, and used by journalists to show the reality of what was happening on the ground. The White Helmets role in this was simply to take the footage and to post it on Twitter. Anything that happened after that was with international media.
The White Helmets have helmet cameras just to film rescues. The Syrian government, in the past five years, has indiscriminately bombed its own civilian population. To me, that is proven beyond any questionable doubt. Assad is bombing civilians areas in which he claims residents are all terrorists. Yet there are tens of thousands of videos, taken by the White Helmets and taken by others, that show that the targets of these bombs are women and children as well as armed groups.
“What has happened in Syria is that conspiracy theorists who are anti-White Helmets have been given a platform, which is a political platform, both by the government of Syria and by the government of Russia, and they have been presented as though they are mainstream.”
So, I agree, what the White Helmets have contributed to, is showing the world the reality of what Assad is doing. He claims publicly that it is a war against terrorism, yet his actions are an indiscriminate bombing campaign against the Syrian civilian population, and that is why half the Syrian civilian population has been moved. This is why 8 million refugees are living in foreign countries: because they were bombed in their homes, by their government.
The term “no-fly zone” is politically loaded because it is used by conspiracy theorists as being a first step for regime change and a NATO invasion. But when the White Helmets call for a no-fly zone, they call for a cessation of aerial bombardments of the Syrian civilian population. It’s not the same as regime change. There was an operation in Northern Iraq that protected the Kurds, for example. (Editorial note: from 1992 to 2003).
What was the nature of their relationships with armed groups; maybe it’s different in every city but generally speaking did they have good relationships, were they able to operate freely?
Anybody who works in a conflict zone has to have relationships at some points or has to meet with armed groups. This is not specific to the White Helmets. Whether you are the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or the UN, if you’re trying to do something in a conflict zone, you have to talk to the armed groups. So, in that regard, yes White Helmets had contacts with armed groups, but everybody operating inside Syria has to have some contacts with the armed groups. The relationship between the WH and extremist armed groups has always been bad. With those more moderate armed groups, those in the FSA, the relationships were better and that’s something that is on a very local bases. The relationship between the WH and extremist armed groups as always been bad. With those more moderates armed groups, those in the FSA, the relationships were better and that’s something that is on a very local basis.
But what I think it’s critical is that there is written in the White Helmets statutes that they have no organized association with any political or armed groups. If they developed a formal relationship with one of those groups, all the others would turn around and say “Ok, if you’re with them, you cannot be with us and therefore we are against you and we will not let you work in our areas”. So they have to remain distant, very even-handed, with all political actors and with all armed actors, so that they can have the access they need to save as many lives they can.
In Aleppo for example the work that White Helmets did was popular with the armed groups, with the political factions and it was popular within the population. All of them had families living in Aleppo and everybody was living under the same risks. If a bomb fell then all those entities knew the White Helmets would come and take them out. On several occasions, different armed groups applied pressure, trying to get the White Helmets to work for them, but that was resisted.
A humanitarian organisation has to be politically neutral. Can we say that White Helmets are neutral by accusing the syrian regime and Russia of bombarding civilians ?
They expressed their neutrality in their willingness to save everybody. And there were multiple different examples when they saved regime fighters, they saved Iranian fighters. People on all sides of the conflict have been saved by the actions and activities of the WH. But the fact remains that their primary response on the ground is to aerial bombing by the Assad regime
Yes the White Helmets have accused Russia or Syria, but they have also accused the coalition of bombing mosques for example. Telling somebody that they’ve just bombed a civilian facility is not a violation of neutrality; it is a statement of fact.
Have you ever been aware of misbehaviour from some White Helmets ? Has information about misconduct, corruption in some cases, or collaboration with armed groups come to the surface ?
I think we’ve always been open and transparents. The White Helmets are a volunteer organisation of 4,000 people. In some cases — and in the great scheme of things it’s a very very small number of cases — a small number of White Helmets, on a very individual basis, behaved in a way that was not in keeping with the principles of the organisation. When the organisation was made aware of these cases, they were investigated and disciplinary actions followed. In some cases individuals were dismissed, in some cases they were suspended for a period of time, and in other cases there was salary or financial penalties.
Now, that is the case in any organisation around the world. We have to keep in mind that this is an organisation operating in a middle of an absolutely horrific civil war. The types of actions that are going on amongst fighters on all sides, regime side and on the opposition side, are truly horrific — murders and all the most awful behavior you can imagine. But there are no proven allegations of White Helmets being involved with anything or being even close to the typical form of behavior amongst armed actors.
There is on the contrary an absolutely overwhelming amount of evidence of their courage, their determination, their selflessness and the risks they take to save other people. What they’re being subjected to is a smearing campaign. For example there is, I believe, one photo or one video of a White Helmet carrying carrying an AK-47. And from that one video, Vanessa Beeley and her colleagues are saying that White Helmets are an organisation where all of 4.000 of them are armed. That’s the sort of manipulation they apply to the WH.
From my perspective there are always conspiracy theorists. They exist in every country around the world and there are comparatively small number of western conspiracy theorists around Syria. They’re anti-establishment, they’re anti-government, they claim to be anti-war, etc.
What has happened in Syria is that conspiracy theorists who are anti-White Helmets have been given a platform, which is a political platform, both by the government of Syria and by the government of Russia, and they have been presented as though mainstream. There is, I think, something very damaging about the propaganda and the disinformation about the White Helmets. A very small number of fringed and slightly unhinged fringe individuals are being given this platform, particularly by Russia, because it’s aligned with Russia’s objectives.
One of the key detractors against White Helmets is Vanessa Beeley, who also believed the attack on Charlie Hebdo was faked and didn’t happen, that 9/11 should be questioned over what really happened. I think it’s important that when people are trying to assess how credible she is, they need to take those things into account as well.
But more importantly I think it’s a global societal problem that we are having to work out how to solve. It’s more important than ever to check facts. It requires the mobilization of citizens to be sure they know where the information they are consumming comes from. If it is claimed to be trustworthy, it needs to be fact-checked.
Interview conducted on August 3, 2018 by Syrie Factuel