Ayman Asfari and his boat
Inside the Shadowy PR Firm That’s Lobbying for Regime Change in Syria – Posing as a non-political solidarity organization, the “Syria Campaign” leverages local partners and media contacts to push the U.S. into toppling another Middle Eastern government.
The shadowy “Syria Campaign” which is behind the regime change war being waged against President Assad and his government was initially founded and is sustained by Ayman Asfari, the CEO of the British oil and gas supply company Petrofac Limited.
Asfari is worth $1.2 billion and owns about 20% of the shares of his company, which employs near to 20,000 staff and has a turnover of around $7.5 billion annually. Through his Asfari Foundation, he has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to “The Syria Campaign” and secured a seat for his wife, Sawsan, on its board of directors.
Other very rich Syrian exiles routinely add their own significant financial contributions to the campaign. In the current year significant contributions have been received from The Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Annual income to the fund varies between 1.5 -3.0 billion
He is also a top financial and political supporter of the Syrian National Coalition, the largest government-in-exile group set up after the Syrian revolt began. A group determined to remove Assad, replacing him with one of its own. In London, his place of residence, Asfari has been a major donor to former British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party.
In May 2016, Cameron keynoted a fundraiser for the “Hands Up for Syria Appeal”, a charity heavily supported by Asfari that sponsors education for Syrian children living in refugee camps. Cameron was an unusual choice for the event given his staunch resistance to accepting unaccompanied Syrian children who have fled to Europe. However, Asfari supports Cameron’s exclusionary policy.
Asfari enjoys close relations with the Obama administration and has visited the White House many times since the start of the “Syria Campaign” until recently meeting with Philip Gordon, Obama’s Middle East policy adviser. Gordon was, at the outset, a keen supporter of Asfari and the “Syria Campaign” but after leaving the admistration he urged Obama to give up on the mission to overthrow President Assad. In September 2015 in a lengthy article for “Politico” he wrote, “There is now virtually no chance that an opposition military ‘victory’ will lead to stable or peaceful governance in Syria in the foreseeable future and near certainty that pursuing one will only lead to many more years of vicious civil war.” Asfari was livid and attacked Gordon accusing him of being fanciful and unrealistic.
Allepo before and after
September 2016: The bombing of Allepo
Demonstrators gathered in city squares across the West for a “weekend of action” to “stop the bombs” raining down from Syrian government and Russian warplanes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Thousands joined the protests, holding signs that read “Topple Assad” and declaring, “Enough With Assad.” Few participants knew that the actions were organized under the auspices of an opposition-funded public relations company called the “Syria Campaign.”
By partnering with local groups like the Syrian civil defence workers popularly known as the “White Helmets”, and through a vast network of connections in media and centres of political influence, the “Syria Campaign” has played a crucial role in disseminating images and stories of the horrors visited this month on eastern Aleppo. The group operates freely within the Obama administration in Washington and has the power to mobilize thousands of demonstrators into the streets.
The “Syria Campaign” presents itself as an impartial, non-political voice for ordinary Syrian citizens that is dedicated to civilian protection. The “Syria Campaign” strategy director James Sadri said “We see ourselves as a solidarity organization. We’re not being paid by anybody to pursue a particular line. We feel like we’ve done a really good job about finding out who the front-line activists, doctors, humanitarians are and trying to get their word out to the international community.”
But behind the lofty rhetoric about solidarity and the images of heroic rescuers rushing in to save lives is an agenda that aligns closely with the forces from Riyadh to Washington clamouring for regime change.
Indeed, the “Syria Campaign” has been pushing for a no-fly zone in Syria that would require at least “70,000 American servicemen” to enforce, according to a Pentagon assessment, along with the destruction of government infrastructure and military installations. There is no record of a no-fly zone being imposed without regime change following —which is exactly what the “Syria Campaign” and its partners want.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee said “For us to control all the airspace in Syria would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia. That’s a pretty fundamental decision that certainly I’m not going to make.”
While the military brass in Washington is reluctant to apply the full force of its air-power to enforce a no fly zone (N.F.Z.), the “Syria Campaign” is capitalizing on the outrage inspired by the bombardment of rebel-held eastern Aleppo to intensify the drumbeat for greater U.S. military involvement.
The “Syria Campaign” has been careful to cloak interventionism in the liberal-friendly language of human rights, casting Western military action as “the best way to support Syrian refugees,” and packaging a no-fly zone — along with so-called safe zones and no bombing zones, which would also require Western military enforcement — as a “way to protect civilians and defeat ISIS.”
The White Helmets
Among the campaign’s most prominent vehicles for promoting military intervention is a self-proclaimed “unarmed and impartial” civil defence group known as the “White Helmets.”
Footage of the “White Helmets” saving civilians trapped in the rubble of buildings bombed by the Syrian government and its Russian ally has become ubiquitous in coverage of the crisis. Having claimed to have saved tens of thousands of lives, the group has become a leading resource for journalists and human rights groups seeking information inside the war theatre, from casualty figures to details on the kind of bombs that are falling.
But like the “Syria Campaign”, the “White Helmets” are anything but impartial. Indeed, the group was founded in collaboration with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Office of Transitional Initiatives, an explicitly political wing of the agency that has funded efforts at political subversion in Cuba and Venezuela.
USAID is the “White Helmets” principal funder, committing at least $23 million to the group since 2013. This money was part of $340 million budgeted by USAID for “supporting activities that pursue a peaceful transition to a democratic and stable Syria” — or establishing a parallel governing structure that could fill the power vacuum once Bashar Al-Assad was removed.
Thanks to an aggressive public relations push by the “Syria Campaign”, the “White Helmets” have been nominated for the Nobel Prize, and have already been awarded the “alternative Nobel” known as the “Right Livelihood Award.” At the same time, the “White Helmets” are pushing for a NFZ in public appearances and on a website created by the “Syria Campaign.”
The “Syria Campaign” has garnered endorsements for the “White Helmets” from a host of Hollywood celebrities and with fundraising and “outreach” performed by the “Syria Campaign”, the “White Helmets” have become the stars of a slickly produced Netflix documentary vehicle that has received hype from media outlets across the West.
Targeting the UN and aid convoys
September 2016: An aid convoy organized by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs came under attack on its way to the rebel-held countryside of West Aleppo.
The “White Helmets” pinned blame squarely on the Syrian and Russian governments. Indeed, a “White Helmets” member was among the first to appear on camera at the scene of the attack, declaring in English that “the regime helicopters targeted this place with four barrel [bombs].”
The “White Helmets” also produced one of the major pieces of evidence Western journalists have relied on to implicate Russia and the Syrian government in the attack: a photograph supposedly depicting the tail fragment of a Russian-made fragmentation bomb. (This account remains unconfirmed by both the UN and SARC, and no evidence of barrel bombs has been produced).
Ironically, the “White Helmets” have also figured prominently in the “Syria Campaign’s” push to undermine the UN’s humanitarian work inside Syria. For months, the “Syria Campaign” has painted the UN as a stooge of Bashar Al-Assad for coordinating its aid deliveries with the Syrian government, as it has done with governments in conflict zones around the world.
A Westerner who operates as a politically neutral humanitarian NGO in Damascus offered me a withering assessment of the “Syria Campaign’s” attacks on the UN. The source accused the “Syria Campaign” of “dividing and polarizing the community” along political lines.
Significantly, a few days before the aid convoy attack prompted the UN to suspend much of its work inside Syria, the “Syria Campaign” spurred 73 aid organizations operating in rebel-held territory, including the “White Helmets,” to suspend their cooperation with the UN aid program.
The Western press widely reported that, “The decision to withdraw from the Whole of Syria programme, in which organisations share information to help the delivery of aid, means in practice the UN will lose sight of what is happening throughout the north of Syria and in opposition-held areas of the country, where the NGOs do most of their work.”
Despite the “Syria Campaign’s” influence on the international media stage, details on the outfit’s inner workings are difficult to come by. the “Syria Campaign” is registered in England as a private company called the “Voices Project” at an address shared by 91 other companies. Aside from Asfari, most of the Syria Campaign’s donors are anonymous.
Looming over this opaque operation are questions about the “Syrian Campaign’s” connections to “Avaaz”, a global public relations outfit that played an instrumental role in generating support for a no-fly zone in Libya, and the “Syria Campaign’s” founding by “Purpose,” another PR firm spun out of “Avaaz.”
But, a careful examination of the origins and operation of the “Syria Campaign” raises doubts about the organisation’s and its supporter’s self created image as an authentic voice for Syrian civilians, and should invite serious questions about the agenda of its partner organizations as well.
Avaaz – Purpose – Syrian Voices – Syrian Campaign – The Voices Project – All interlinked smokescreen organisations
Best known for its work on liberal social issues, the New York – and London-based public relations firm “Purpose” promises to deliver creatively executed campaigns that produce either a “behaviour change,” “perception change,” “policy change” or “infrastructure change.”
As the Syrian conflict entered its third year, this company was ready to effect a regime change. In February 2014, “Purpose,” placed job adverts seeking “two interns to join the team at “Purpose” to help launch a new movement for Syria.” and third intern for the PR firm’s new “Syrian Voices” project. “together with Syrians in the diaspora and NGO partners,”
The sales pitch said, “Purpose” is building a movement that will amplify the voices of moderate, non-violent Syrians and mobilize people in the Middle East and around the world to call for specific changes in the political and humanitarian situation in the region.” The post-holder would be based in London reporting “to a Strategist based primarily in London, working closely with “Purpose” teams in both London and New York.
“Purpose” founder Jeremy Heimans drafted articles of association for the “Syria Campaign’s” parent company “The Voices Project”, and registered the company at 3 Bull Lane, St. Ives Cambridgeshire, England. It was one of 91 private limited companies listed at the address. An explanation has not yet been forthcoming explaining why the “Syria Campaign” had chosen the location or why it was registered as a private company.
“Purpose” Europe director Tim Dixon was appointed to the “Syria Campaign’s” board of directors. So was John Jackson, a “Purpose” strategist who previously co-directed the Burma Campaign U.K. that lobbied the EU for sanctions against that country’s ruling regime. Anna Nolan became the “Syria Campaign’s” project director, even as she remained listed as the strategy director at “Purpose.”
In summary; the job adverts for its “Syrian Voices” project boasted that “Purpose” grew out of some of the most impactful new models for social change” including “the now 30 million strong action network “avaaz.org.”
The “Syria Campaign’s” founder, “Purpose” co-founder Jeremy Heimans, was also one of the original founders of “Avaaz”. In an interview with Forbes magazine he said, “I co-founded Avaaz and “Get Up”, [the Australian activist group] which inspired the creation of “Purpose.”
Enforcement of a No Fly Zone – Exposed – The “Syria Campaign’s” ties to “Avaaz”
In 2011, “Avaaz” introduced a public campaign for a no-fly zone in Libya and delivered a petition with 1,202,940 signatures to the UN supporting Western intervention.
John Hilary, executive director of “War On Want,” the U.K.’s leading anti-poverty and anti-war charity, warned at the time, “Little do most of these generally well-meaning activists know, they are strengthening the hands of those western governments desperate to reassert their interests in north Africa… Clearly a no-fly zone makes foreign intervention sound rather humanitarian—putting the emphasis on stopping bombing, even though it could well lead to an escalation of violence.”
John Hilary’s dire warning was fulfilled after the NATO-enforced no-fly zone prompted the ousting of former President Moamar Qaddafi. Months later, Qaddafi was sexually assaulted and beaten to death in the road by a mob of fanatics. The Islamic State and an assortment of militias filled the void left in the Jamahiriya government’s wake. The political catastrophe should have been serious enough to call future interventions of this nature into question. Yet Libya’s legacy failed to deter “Avaaz” from introducing a new campaign for another no-fly zone; this time in Syria.
“To some a no-fly zone could conjure up images of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and illegal Western interventions. This is a different thing,” “Avaaz” insisted in a communique defending its support for a new no-fly zone in Syria. The “Syria Campaign’s” support for a no-fly zone was being proposed as the product of a “deep listening process” involving the polling of Syrian civilians in rebel-held territories and refugees outside the country. “Avaaz”. was a “solidarity organization,” not a public relations firm, and if and when a no-fly zone would be imposed over Syrian skies, it would be different than those seen in past conflicts.