IDLIB PROVINCE, SYRIA (Report) — In recently liberated Qalaat Al Madiq — 500 meters from As Suqaylabiyah, a predominantly Christian town near Syria’s embattled Idlib province — the White Helmets, a controversial rescue group financed primarily by the U.K. Foreign Office, was found to have an established presence in a network of tunnels. The tunnels zigzagged under a former wheat factory that had since been converted into a headquarters of Nusra Front/HTS — Al Qaeda in Syria.
This has been a pattern repeated in many of the areas liberated from extremist groups in Syria: a White Helmets presence alongside the Nusra Front, or whichever extremist group happens to dominate specific districts of the occupied territories. Invariably, the majority of the White Helmet operatives departed upon the seemingly endless stream of green buses that carried the various cadres of armed groups from liberated regions of Syria into Idlib.
In Eastern Ghouta, many of the temporary medical centers, which provided treatment almost exclusively to extremist armed factions, were also built underground. I visited a number of them after Eastern Ghouta was liberated in early 2018. They were linked by a vast maze of tunnels that snaked below most of the districts controlled by the armed groups, providing cover for the fighters during SAA military campaigns.
A recent video from occupied Northern Hama, neighboring Idlib, shows members of Jaish Al Izza, an armed terrorist organization, gathering in a series of underground tunnels and caverns used as meeting rooms. The video shows Jaish Al Izza General Commander, Major Jamil al-Saleh, congratulating a group of fighters on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr. At least one of the fighters is wearing an Al Qaeda armband in the video, which was apparently later doctored to conceal the Nusra Front affiliation.
Despite Jaish Al Izza’s well-established affiliation with Al Qaeda, South Front, a website that provides extensive coverage of the Syrian conflict, revealed that when Jaish Al Izza was established in 2013 it was initially listed among a group of “moderate” rebels eligible for U.S support through the CIA’s Timber Sycamore train-and-equip program, which was approved by then-U.S. President Barack Obama:
The group received loads of weapons from the U.S. including Grad rockets, as well as Fagot and TOW anti-tank guided missiles [ATGMs]. … Jaysh al-Izza’s ‘special relationships’ with HTS and its high-tolerance to al-Qaeda ideology confirms the radical views of the group’s fighters and leader. Jaysh al-Izza members are not even making much efforts to hide this after the suspension of the U.S. support in 2017.”
The hospital masquerade
This use of underground facilities as makeshift medical centers for fighters and the conversion of existing hospitals into Sharia courts, military centers, prisons and torture chambers was demonstrated in East Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta prior to the Idlib campaign.
In May 2017, I interviewed Ahmad Aldayh, who had been imprisoned by Jabhat Al Shamiya, another of Syria’s myriad anti-government extremist groups and an Al Qaeda affiliate, in the Eye and Children’s Hospital complex in East Aleppo. Aldayh described a hospital that had been converted into a Sharia court, prison and torture chambers and was simultaneously being used as a military center by the succession of armed groups that took control of the complex during the five-year occupation of East Aleppo. Aldayh gives a detailed account of the brutality and savagery of the armed groups towards civilians detained in the former hospital buildings.
This context is often airbrushed by Western press and NATO-aligned “humanitarian” organizations — including Amnesty International, which reported on the targeting of Idlib “schools, hospitals and blood banks” without mention of the daily war crimes carried out by the armed groups against civilians in government-secured border areas.
Media outlets affiliated with some of these terrorist groups have been exposed trying to recycle footage of hospitals allegedly destroyed in East Aleppo in 2016 to criminalize the Syrian government in Idlib 2019, but this falsification seems not to have deterred some in the Western press who persevere with the “Syrian-government-targeting-hospitals” narrative regardless of the questions that should be raised.
The Pulse of Life example
Recently, it was claimed that the Pulse of Life (POL) hospital in the town of Hass, south of Idlib, had been destroyed. Images of what looks suspiciously like an underground military bunker were shared liberally across a number of media platforms, including in the opening scene of a Sky News report from inside Idlib.
However, in September 2018, Al Qaeda supporter and journalist, Hadi Al Abdullah, informed us that the POL hospital had been ‘destroyed by Russia.’ In his report, members of the White Helmets can be seen clambering over the smoldering rubble of the alleged remains of the hospital. It is hard to imagine how such a structure could have been rebuilt in time to be re-destroyed less than a year after the initial reports.
If the POL was fully destroyed as a working hospital in September 2018, why have media outlets in the West not questioned what the underground complex is currently being used for? Is it still a makeshift medical center servicing armed groups? If it is a civilian hospital, as the media is claiming, why is there no evidence of civilian presence, no cars, no ambulances, no patients? In Saqba, Eastern Ghouta, I was told by civilians that the White Helmet center was out of bounds for civilians — is that the case for this alleged hospital? None of these questions have been asked or answered in the mainstream media reports.
This didn’t stop the likes of Sky News and EA Worldview from republishing the images in reports demonizing the Syrian Army and its allies for targeting hospitals. Here, the alleged second destruction of the POL leads a report from Sky News:
EA Worldview is managed by Professor Scott Lucas, an aggressive advocate of regime change in Syria. Lucas is employed by Birmingham University but is also a consultant at the The Toran Center for Strategic Research and Studies, which claims to foster the intellectual and scholarly understanding of modern-day geopolitics and to facilitate analysis of foreign policy strategy and outcomes. The Toran Center is comprised of a cartel of sympathizers and even former members of the various armed groups fighting Syria’s government and heavily promotes regime change in Syria.
Lucas was swift to employ images of the “destroyed” POL hospital to push “Russia-Regime war on Syria’s hospitals” headlines.
Author Janine Di Giovanni, another vehement supporter of NATO-backed regime change in Syria, recently penned an article in the New York Times entitled “In Syria Even the Hospitals are not Safe.” Di Giovanni claims that “Bashar Al Assad [personally] attacks medical facilities to break the will of the people — and to destroy evidence of his war crimes.”
Di Giovanni fails to mention the rebuilding and restoration of the hospitals in areas of Syria that were previously occupied by the multi-faceted armed groups, which had either destroyed or systematically taken over hospitals and schools before converting them into detention centers, sharia courtrooms, and torture chambers.
Di Giovanni also fails to mention, for example, the 2013 destruction of the Al Kindi hospital in Aleppo by armed extremist groups. Al Kindi had been one of the largest and most progressive cancer specializing hospitals in the Middle East prior to the double suicide truck attack that reduced much of it to rubble. Professor Tim Anderson, author of The Dirty War on Syria, outlined the Western-sponsored armed groups’ campaign to decimate health services and hospitals across Syria in his May 2016 article, “Aleppo hospital smokescreen:”
Dr al Nayef (former Health Minister) told us that, since March 2011, 67 of the country’s 94 national hospitals had been attacked and damaged, with 41 out of service. 174 health workers had been killed, 127 wounded and 33 kidnapped. Further, 1921 primary health centres had been damaged, and 678 were out of service. 421 ambulances had been lost or were out of service, and 197 support vehicles had been damaged, with 169 out of service.
In the New York Times article, Di Giovanni promotes a letter written by “medics” and the Al Qaeda-affiliated White Helmets, whose center was directly below the military center of the armed group in freshly liberated Qalaat Al Madiq, northern Hama. The letter, published by the Syria Campaign, calls for the cessation of bombing in Idlib, “which is supposed to be a demilitarised zone” — a misleading statement by Di Giovanni that encourages her readers to believe that all of Idlib is a demilitarized zone and that Al Qaeda offshoots are not legitimate targets of the Syrian allied forces.
Perhaps Di Giovanni didn’t comprehend the terms of the Russian/Turkish Sochi agreement, which created a 15-20 kilometer buffer zone that was supposed to be emptied of heavy weapons and hardcore radical groups such as HTS. Perhaps she doesn’t know that the demilitarization never happened, or that HTS and its affiliates have been systematically targeting towns in the Syrian government-protected territories bordering their enclaves.
Perhaps Di Giovanni doesn’t understand that Turkey has been exploiting the ceasefires to reinforce and multiply the hardcore factions that could serve Turkey’s interests in the region. If so, Di Giovanni has a responsibility to her readers to inform herself of the facts rather than producing unsubstantiated and misleading narratives.
Di Giovanni dismisses Syrian government claims that targeted hospitals are occupied by the terrorists and armed groups, without addressing the evidence that hospitals and schools were occupied by militant factions in East Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Quneitra, Daraa, Homs, and across Syria. She seems to have forgotten that the U.S. Coalition excused their pulverization of Raqqa, Mosul and their targeting of hospitals in those cities and in Deir Ezzor because they claimed ISIS occupied those buildings.
In Yemen, 375 hospitals have been destroyed by the Saudi Coalition using bombs predominantly supplied by the U.S., U.K. and France. To date, Di Giovanni has not condemned how the United States supplies weapons to a Saudi regime that is conducting wholesale slaughter and waging a deliberate campaign of starvation against the Yemeni people, whose only crime is to reject Saudi colonization and decades of corruption.
Di Giovanni states, “the most threatening way you can terrorize a population is to bomb hospitals and kill doctors.” She is right, of course, but the doctors being targeted are in government-secured border towns like Mhardeh and As Suqaylabiyah, and districts of West Aleppo, where hospitals are routinely targeted by armed extremist groups. In May of 2019, the local hospital emergency room in As Suqaylabiyah was hit and damaged by Grad missiles fired by HTS from areas north of Qalaat al Madiq and the hospital and its perimeters were targeted multiple times.
The wanton destruction of medical facilities in liberated areas of Syria is irrelevant to Di Giovanni and the Western press. Medical centers in Syrian government-controlled areas are being crippled by economic sanctions that profoundly affect their ability to provide healthcare for civilians in wartime and in post-war Syria.
While the White Helmets and Western sponsored hospitals effectively serving the armed-group communities in Idlib receive endless supplies of materials and state-of-the-art medical equipment from their NATO member-state sponsors and associated organizations, Syrian hospitals in the 80 percent of Syria back under the control of the Syrian government are literally starved of even the most basic essentials needed to provide adequate health care for civilians.
The White Helmets’ role
During a 2018 visit to refugee centers in Hama that are harboring families that fled the armed-group invasion of Idlib province — particularly from Idlib City in March 2015, when the city was fully taken over by Nusra Front-led armed groups — I met with a young volunteer for Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). This volunteer had worked in the armed-group occupied territories until it became too dangerous. When I asked her for an informed opinion on the White Helmets as a supposed “humanitarian” NGO, she told me:
White Helmets are terrorists. They are specialists in acting & drama, not humanitarian work. The White Helmets abuse the “humanitarian” title to gain trust and to brainwash people in Syria and outside. They are a big lie. There are many foreigners working in the #WhiteHelmets.”
Her analysis was echoed by the Director of SARC in Aleppo when I interviewed him in January 2018. He told me:
We never saw them [White Helmets] operate in East Aleppo; they belonged to the terrorists. They received money from outside, from more than one country.”
A recent video has just been unearthed by an independent researcher on Twitter showing White Helmets demonstrating with Jaish Al Fatah (Army of Conquest) in Idlib 2015. Jaish Al Fatah were a coalition of extremist armed groups that included Nusra Front. The coalition was co-ordinated by Riyadh-trained and -financed Sheikh Abdullah Muhaysini, who has a reputation for training child suicide bombers in Syria and for orchestrating some of the most horrifying atrocites committed against Syrian civilians and army personnel.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Di Giovanni persists in the unequivocal defense of the U.K.-manufactured White Helmets accused by Syrian civilians of child abduction, organ trafficking, participation in executions of civilians and prisoners of war, and the faking of “chemical weapon” events in Douma, Eastern Ghouta, April 2018. Events that fraudulently facilitated the unlawful bombing of Syrian territory by the U.S Coalition on 13th April 2018. These “chemical weapon” events will be covered in more detail in another part of this Mint Press Idlib series.
The civilians affected by the daily missiles showered down upon them by the armed groups working alongside the White Helmets are to be ignored by Di Giovanni and written out of the script she presents to her Jackson Institute, Yale audience. For her, the children hunted down, maimed and killed in As Suqaylabiyah, Mhardeh, the surrounding villages, and West Aleppo simply do not exist.
Who created the cycle of violence?
War is destructive and during a war, it is sadly inevitable that civilians will die or be injured. They are caught up in its ferocity and their lives are devastated. What Di Giovanni fails to do is to explain who created the cycle of violence that has ravaged Syria for eight years. Di Giovanni fails to express outrage over the fact that the United States and its allies in the U.K., European Union, the Gulf States, Turkey and Israel have been equipping, arming, financing and promoting extremist armed factions that have laid waste to cities, historical heritage sites, and civilization across Syria.
The Syrian government has no choice but to liberate Idlib from the terrorist infestation it endures because Syrian civilians will keep dying if these groups are allowed to expand and put down deeper sectarian roots in the region
No other government in the world would tolerate such an invasion of its territory and persecution of its people by foreign mercenaries and hardcore radical factions among its own society. The fact that the Syrian government has offered amnesty and reconciliation to Syrian armed militants during all liberation operations is a testament to its ability to forgive and heal the country.
Meanwhile, the majority of Western states that sit in judgement of the Syrian government wage perpetual war against weaker nations that will not come into line with their globalist policies and engage in ever-increasing forms of repression of free speech and dissent at home and abroad. The recent hounding of journalist Julian Assange is a perfect example of the West’s hunting down and incarceration of those who challenge the establishment narratives or threaten their hegemony.
As Peter Ford, former U.K. Ambassador to Syria from 2003 to 2006, has said recently:
Geir Pedersen, the UN special envoy for Syria, continues to call forlornly for a ceasefire and a ‘political solution.’ A ceasefire would mean abandoning the people of Idlib indefinitely to jihadi control and allowing the consolidation of an Al Qaida caliphate and safe haven. HTS scoff at any idea of political negotiations.”
Idlib’s hospitals: the official statistics
As I was countering the “hospital” narratives in Aleppo, I highlighted the number of official, state-registered hospitals compared to the often sensationalist numbers being touted by media in the West, whose statistics were often provided by armed ‘opposition’ groups, their affiliated “citizen journalists/activists,” and the discredited White Helmets.
The official number of hospitals in Idlib province, as reported, by the Syrian Ministry of Health’s website, is 34, including private and public institutions. The names of the hospitals and the town or city where they are situated are also published by the ministry. These statistics were updated in 2017.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has been responsible for much of the sensationalist reporting on the Syrian conflict. SNHR are the primary purveyors of the “barrel bomb” propaganda and have recently been pushing the latest “chemical weapon” narrative during the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) military operations in Idlib and the surrounding countryside
SNHR statistics claim that 24 hospitals have already been destroyed or damaged by the SAA and its allies in Idlib. There is scant identification of the hospitals and no cross-reference to the official Syrian register of hospitals. On May 5, 2019, SNHR reported that the Kafr Nabel “surgical hospital” was targeted by Russian warplanes. According to the Syrian Health Ministry, there are two hospitals in Kafr Nabel: the Al-Khatib Hospital — general surgery, obstetrics, gynecology, orthopedics — and Dar Al Hikmah, a general hospital. Identification should have been clarified by SNHR.
Let us pause for a moment and compare the information I have just provided, on the hospitals in Idlib, to the recent information fed to Western media, NGOs, and governments by the White Helmet “propaganda construct:”
Another enterprising Twitter account pointed out that even Google maps show only two hospitals in the same area, while the White Helmets claim the existence of 15 hospitals and four White Helmet centers. That information should, at the very least, raise doubts over the veracity of their analysis
Many of the “hospitals” described by the Western media and “humanitarian” organizations may well be underground triage units serving armed extremist groups. They may be official hospitals that have been taken over and converted into military centers and civilian detention centers and torture chambers.
Di Giovanni featured one such “hospital” in her New York Times article. The Hope Hospital for Children was allegedly built in three months in 2017 by “British trained Syrian anesthetist Rola Hallam” in Ghandoura, “a small town in the northern Aleppo countryside.” Di Giovanni describes how Hallam passes through several “armed checkpoints” to reach the site of the hospital. Of course, she fails to explain that those checkpoints will be manned by Al Qaeda or one of the myriad affiliates operating in the area, and that Hallam somehow manages to pass through them unharmed or unchecked.
She also fails to remind us that Hallam featured in a 2013 BBC Panorama report, “Saving Syria’s Children,” which has since been forensically investigated and proven by researcher Robert Stuart to almost certainly have been a staged event. Hallam has a fiercely pro-NATO-intervention background and position. Her father, Dr. Mousa Al Kurdi, was “involved politically” with the controversial Syrian National Council originally supported by Hillary Clinton during the early stages of the U.S. war against Syria. While Hallam has denied these allegations, according to a report for Sputnik News, Al Kurdi personally confirmed his affiliations:
…[I]n a 2012 Al Jazeera interview, he [Dr. Mousa Al Kurdi] passionately advocated for the Syrian National Council’s recognition as the “sole representative” of all Syrians. He also boasted of how at that year’s Friends of Syria summit in Istanbul — attended by Hillary Clinton — he told the foreign ministers of several governments, including Victoria Nuland of the U.S. State Department, ‘either you defend us or you arm the Free Syrian Army to defend us — you have the choice.’”
Seeing through the lies and half-truths
It is important to remain vigilant amid what is effectively an emotive and misleading media “hospital” campaign designed to secure public support for the financing, arming and promotion of armed groups that threaten the lives of Syrian civilians on a daily basis.
We owe this vigilance to the families of the children killed or injured in As Suqaylabiyah, Mhardeh, West Aleppo, and all the towns and villages under threat of Grad missile attack by armed groups often idolized in the West as “rebels.”
On June 6, 2019, for example, armed groups, including Jaish Al Izza, attempted to infiltrate the surroundings of Kafarhoud and Tal Melh, villages in the northwestern countryside of the Syrian Christian town of Mhardeh. The threat against the already beleaguered civilians of this town was elevated until the SAA was victorious in driving back the advance.
A resident of Mhardeh has just informed me that during the armed-group attacks yesterday, Mhardeh Hospital was hit four times by Grad missiles — thankfully no injuries were incurred among the medical staff or patients, but two rooms were destroyed. We will not see outrage in Western media over these criminal militant attacks on a civilian hospital.
I was informed by civilians in the area that the SAA also simultaneously targeted armed-group gatherings in the area and destroyed essential supply routes of Jaish Al Izza (Al Qaeda-linked) in Morek, Kafar Zita, al-Arbaein and Hasraya, in Hama northwestern countryside. In my on-the-ground experience, this is the reality of this military campaign: a defensive campaign by the Syrian allied forces to protect civilian lives. Depicting it any other way or defending the armed groups is putting these civilian lives at risk.
If we fail to question and counter the overwhelming bias on display in the Western press, we condemn these civilians to the sustained threat of the deaths of more children and the destruction of more homes and hospitals that serve the majority of people across Syria who have chosen to reject the sectarian tyranny forced upon them by the neocolonialist governments in the West.
We should be outraged that these child murderers have been let loose by our governments to prey upon the people of Syria. We should not allow ourselves to be collectively hypnotized into believing the media hype that would portray murderers as heroes, and the Syrian people and government struggling to expel them from their country as the villains.
Feature photo | After liberation of East Aleppo from Nusra Front-led occupation, Russian medical teams established makeshift hospitals in Jibreen to treat civilians, the majority of whom had received no medical care during the five-year occupation. (Photo: Vanessa Beeley)
Vanessa Beeley is an independent journalist, peace activist, photographer and associate editor at 21st Century Wire. Vanessa was a finalist for one of the most prestigious journalism awards – the 2017 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism – whose winners have included the likes of Robert Parry in 2017, Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, Nick Davies and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism team. You can support Vanessa’s journalism through her Patreon Page.