How We Were Misled About Syria: the role of Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF)
I have unbounded admiration for the doctors who volunteer for the invaluable and often dangerous work of Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF). The question concerns MSF’s policy of ‘bearing witness’. MSF will speak out – even against governments – when it thinks a humanitarian situation could and should be dealt with differently by those it holds responsible. It has done so in Syria. But if none of MSF’s international doctors have been on the ground in Syria’s war zones since 2015, how can MSF claim to bear witness for what is happening there?
MSF has relayed reports from the rebel-held areas to which, exclusively, its supplies and support have been dispatched. The reports – including allegations of government attacks on hospitals and civilians – come from people working with the permission and protection of such groups as Al Nusra, Isis and other foreign jihadis and mercenaries. These anti-government forces are known to exercise a rule of terror and to be not overly concerned about ordinary citizens’ access to medical attention. That is precisely why the MSF doctors withdrew from the areas under their control. So there is scope to ask who the medics on the ground were, and who they were treating.
My question, though, simply concerns the reliability of uncorroborated witness statements coming from potentially compromised sources. For while press statements have been issued from various MSF offices around the world, it appears MSF had no independent access to verifiable information from Syria.
In fact, the public unavailability of detailed or verified information is a matter of record: even John Kirby of the US State Department could only assert that ‘relief agencies that we find credible are levelling these accusations’.
The most prominent relief agency, and visible in all video footage linked to the alleged bombings, is the White Helmets. It is a matter of record that the White Helmets are funded by the NATO and Gulf states whose avowed aim is regime change in Syria; it is generally believed that they work closely with terrorist organisations (how else could the Netflix documentary have shown them roaming so freely in a zone where MSF and Western journalists dared not set foot?). Their independence and integrity are widely questioned.
So while MSF has often been cited as an independent source of support for White Helmet testimony, its press statements have in fact merely repeated White Helmet claims!
Whether intending it or not, MSF thereby became complicit in purveying a particular narrative that suffused the Western media during the period from 22 September to 22 December 2016. Before September, the media had been perfectly clear that the citizens of eastern Aleppo were being held captive, effectively as human shields, by forces dominated by jihadist terrorists. That changed following the uncompromising statement by Samantha Power to the UN Security Council, in which she invoked the White Helmets as victims and witnesses of Russian and Syrian aggression.
Western governments and media re-designated the terrorist groups as ‘moderate rebels’. Concurrently, anti-government activists like Lina Shamy started tweeting in English, the celebrated twitter account in the name of the child Bana was created, and there followed a flow of ‘famous last webcams’ from purported ordinary civilians voicing fears of impending massacre by the Syrian government.
Those of us in the West who were uncertain about the authenticity of all this social media activity in a zone lacking basic infrastructure, let alone wifi, were coaxed to accept the mainstream narrative because a respected organisation like MSF apparently bore witness to it. Few of us realised that MSF was merely repeating White Helmet testimony, not independently verifying it.
The consistent testimony now coming from the people who have been liberated in eastern Aleppo suggests a quite different story from the one that Netflix and our media have promoted. The Helmets themselves appear to have melted away with the departure from Aleppo of the jihadists and mercenaries. If there were any genuinely independent doctors working with them in Aleppo, they too have yet to be heard from. But most telling, in view of White Helmet claims to have saved some 70,000 lives (or whatever exact number we are invited to believe), is that not a single person interviewed in liberated Aleppo has thanked them.
So, in seeking to bear witness against the Syrian government, MSF has made claims on a basis that is uncertain and contested. By so publicly associating itself with the White Helmets and their narrative it may have risked compromising the reputation it relies on to attract international doctors.
Those of us who deeply appreciate the service to humankind of MSF’s international doctors are left to hope the organisation coordinating their work can be more sure to avoid bearing false witness.
The problem with the false narrative is no trivial one, for it perpetuates a fundamental misrecognition of the causes of the war – and thus of all the casualities the doctors have to deal with. A false narrative not only gives impunity to the guilty but it supports them in moving ever onwards with their murderous designs. It distracts from the ethical truth, too, that the jihadis and the states supplying them with arms and opportunity are in fundamental breach of the law and morality of just warfare.
 The background for this founding principle – of témoignage (‘bearing witness’) – is cited on their website: ‘Hundreds of thousands of people died in the Biafran war because of a deliberate government policy. On their return from the region, a group of young French doctors were frustrated and outraged by the inability of the Red Cross to say publicly what had happened.’
 ‘MSF Voice from the Field in Syria: Dr. Nathalie Roberts’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61cmnPLk6uE  Dr Nathalie Roberts has described how in the earlier days of the war in Syria, MSF had followed its usual working procedures in opposition-held areas but with the arrival of Islamic State group that became impossible: “they were not allowing all the patients to access the hospital”, they then started appropriating MSF supplies and even kidnapping MSF staff. They could not continue to work in a place where the occupying groups would not allow the doctors to do their medical job. (Dr Roberts interviewed on 13 March 2015)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oQVUssxK-U  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/us-spokesperson-loses-temper-with-rt-journalist-over-syria-bombing-questions-a7423146.html  I personally first became curious about the White Helmets from viewing the Netflix documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wj4ncIEDxw), and the question I mention in the text here is the one I simply could not get past. I was therefore not surprised to find that others had already offered powerful critiques of the organisation.I also had trouble imagining how people working in such desperate conditions would have the leisure to keep up with the latest Western craze of the Mannequin Challenge, and also the insensitivity to do a facsimile rescue for the purpose. The video of this PR own goal was quickly removed by the White Helmets’ promoters but remains available elsewhere at time of writing, e.g.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zgl271A6LgQ . A discussion of it is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8bIupYSZeU
 The critical sources now on the internet are far too numerous to mention, but indicative examples include:
http://21stcenturywire.com/2016/09/23/exclusive-the-real-syria-civil-defence-expose-natos-white-helmets-as-terrorist-linked-imposters/  The spokespersons bearing MSF witness to the public are quite numerous and remote from Syria. They seldom make explicit the source of their information, but when they do we find it is the White Helmets. Sam Taylor, for instance, who is Syria communications coordinator for MSF and is based in Jordan, uncritically reproduced White Helmets material: ‘The civil defense, also known as the White Helmets, said the hospital and adjacent buildings were struck in four consecutive airstrikes.’ ‘Video posted by the White Helmets showed lifeless bodies, including children, being pulled from a building and loaded into ambulances amid screams and wailing. Distraught rescue workers tried to keep away onlookers, apparently fearing more bombs.’
http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/airstikes-aleppo-hospital-1.3556632 Taylor does mention another authority: ‘Shortly after midday Thursday, new airstrikes in rebel-held areas killed at least 20 people in two neighbourhoods, the Syrian Civil Defense and the Observatory said.’ By ‘Observatory’, he presumably means the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Although this sounds like an independent organisation, it is in fact a single individual named Rami Abdulrahman (sometimes referred to as Rami Abdul Rahman) living in Coventry in the UK; and he is presumably as independent as one can expect from an opposition exile whose small network of informants in Syria consists largely of anti-government activists.
Certainly, he is no more directly a witness than is MSF’s spokesperson. Needless to say, the Observatory’s credibility and independence is disputed:
Despite this lack of verified independent evidence, Taylor was prepared to state on behalf of MSF that a hospital attack ‘was deliberate’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebrpj689Ib8. While the basis for the accusation is not given, the cumulative effect of this sort of public statement is evident. Pablo Marco Blanco, MSF’s Operations Manager for the Middle East in Barcelona, effectively endorsed the accusation, while admitting that the basis of the information was unconfirmed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XI5KMAvfYDU. Similar communications came from Muskilda Zancada, ‘MSF head of mission in Syria’ in Barcelona. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4s9uEp6Ujs). Zancada also stated that ‘civilians are targeted’ http://www.msf.org/en/article/syria-update-airstrike-al-quds-hospital. Paul McPhun, Executive Director MSF Australia, speaking from Australia (10 October 2016) likewise makes categorial statements about targeted bombings in Aleppo, but without indicating the source of his knowledge. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHyPtcG5a6M It is even possible that the accusations are true. Yet it is also possible that they are not. The fallibility of MSF sources has been illustrated by how Teresa Sancristoval, Head of MSF’s Emergency Unit for Aleppo, was clearly being fed her information in Barcelona from people with an oppositional stance towards the Syrian Government because they were ‘afraid of the retaliations they can suffer’ http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/east-aleppo-ceasefire-fails-shelling-resumes-and-hope-fades (see note 7).
While I have no doubt that all MSF statements are made from a standpoint of agonised human sympathy, and in good faith, they take on a life of their own when picked up by the media and disseminated for further purposes.
In the end, it is clear that what matters from the humanitarian point of view is that the bombing should stop. When MSF call for all sides to stop, they can claim to speak for humankind. When they complain of ‘targeted and indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian and Russian armed forces’ (http://www.msf.org/en/article/syria-crisis-update-28-november-2016) they create unnecessary controversy: if bombing both targeted and indiscriminate is to stop on the government side, that is as much as to say – from the government’s perspective – that it should simply allow the ISIS and Al Nusra terrorists free rein over the people and sovereign territory that it has a duty to defend. MSF do not want to say exactly this, I assume, but my point is that the organisation seems not to have a firm enough grip on its communications policy or a sufficiently coherent approach to defining its extra-medical mission.
 MSF statements from Syria condemning the Syrian and Russian governments have been demonstrably lacking in certainty or detail. For instance, in relaying reports of attacks on hospitals around Aleppo in May they note that ‘one was the MSF-supported al Sakhour hospital in Aleppo city, which was forced to suspend activities after being bombed at least twice on consecutive days.’ (https://www.msf.org.uk/country/syria) An inexact statement like this – being equivocal as to whether the number of bombings was two, three, or some other number – may or may not be true; it cannot claim to have been properly verified, since a verification would make clear whether or not a third or further bombings had occurred.MSF uncritically accepted the veracity of the ‘famous last webcams’ coming out of besieged eastern Aleppo. As late as 14 December 2014 MSF wrote on their own website: ‘Whatever hope remained is rapidly dissipating. People are terrified, almost certain that their own deaths are near. Messages in which they say goodbye to their love ones are proliferating.’ http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/east-aleppo-ceasefire-fails-shelling-resumes-and-hope-fades ]
MSF do not appear to have known as much as one might hope or expect about the doctors they supported in terrorist-held Aleppo and whose words they relay to the public. The doctors communicating from terrorist-held Aleppo whose testimony the MSF publicly cited just prior to the liberation of Aleppo were apparently not looking forward to the end of the siege, and MSF even believed that their forebodings were shared by the ordinary people of Aleppo: ‘Like the rest of the population, “doctors are terrified and losing hope,” says Teresa Sancristoval, Head of MSF’s Emergency Unit for Aleppo. “They are afraid of the retaliations they can suffer. For the last two days, our exchanges have been more about goodbye messages and requests for evacuation than anything else. They feel abandoned to their fate and with no way out.”’ http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/article/east-aleppo-ceasefire-fails-shelling-resumes-and-hope-fades
 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/02/us-syria-policy-tatters-moderate-rebels-disband  As Stephen Cohen has pointed out, the sea change came with the breakdown of negotiations between Obama and Putin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPp8eKBjcyA&t=974s The view was then forcefully asserted against Obama by Samantha Power. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/22/syria-obama-us-president-putin-russia In her speech to UN Security Council she singled out the White Helmets as victims and witnesses of Russian and Syrian attacks. She declared: ‘This is not the day, this is not the time to blame all sides, to draw false equivalencies. It is not the time to say that “airstrikes took place,” or “civilians were killed.” It is time to say who is carrying out those airstrikes, and who is killing civilians.’ https://usun.state.gov/remarks/7453  Some insights into the unreliability of the mainstream narrative have occasionally been heard from within mainstream media outlets. For instance:
‘Tulsi Gabbard tells the truth about Syria’ on CNN’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1B2xFqfEgY
‘Carla Ortiz Speaks about her Experience in Aleppo and The Little Syrian Girl’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAE3WawgOX0&feature=shareCriticisms have of course been extensive in the Russian media. Since promoters of the Western narrative do not regard the Russia Today (RT) channel as a reliable source, I mention just a couple of interviews that they might concede have some credibility – one from a Church of England clergyman and one from a former UK ambassador to Syria:
‘Consistent stories of brutality at the hands of the Syrian rebels’ – Rev. Andrew Ashdown’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8iM_eY2viQ
‘U.S. effectively siding with Al-Qaeda in desire to get rid of Assad – former UK ambassador to Syria’ https://www.rt.com/news/345636-us-siding-al-qaeda-ford/
 Common sense scepticism on this point is supported by the first hand testimony of Carla Ortiz about trying to get internet connections in Aleppo
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=il7I1FTRSwY.  I have seen MSF cited as a source to discredit the account of Syria given to the UN by Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uap0GwBYdBA). In fact, I was first prompted to do the research that led to writing this blog because a respected and well-informed friend on Facebook invoked MSF as a refutation of Bartlett’s claims. I believe it has since become clear that events have entirely vindicated Bartlett.  Some examples of interviews with newly liberated citizens in Aleppo:
https://www.sott.net/article/338019-Bolivian-actress-Carla-Ortiz-exposes-what-went-wrong-with-Western-media-coverage-of-Syrian-conflict  Stronger criticism of MSF than I am making is found in Miri Wood’s ‘Guide to Understanding How ‘Unhospitals’ Cannot Be Bombed’ http://www.syrianews.cc/guide-understanding-unhospitals-cannot-bombed/ ; MSF’s relationship with the Syrian Government is known to be an uneasy one: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/12161437/Medecins-Sans-Frontieres-run-by-French-intelligence-says-Assad-regime.html  MSF takes a certain pride in fostering debate and allowing some plurality of political views to be aired within the organisation: it does not attempt, as ICRC does, to hold a single public line. (Rony Brauman, ‘Médecins Sans Frontières and the ICRC: matters of principle’, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 888, 31 December 2012: https://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/article/review-2012/irrc-888-brauman.htm)Yet the public hears MSF-branded messages and thinks they represent the honest and considered position of a respected organisation. They are encouraged to do so by the fact that press releases and comments are issued by the organisation and not as independent opinions of particular members.
While it is not my place to tell MSF how to conduct its affairs, I would say that their internal plurality of opinion is not necessarily a virtue: if they cannot agree on certain matters of principle about bearing witness, then the wise option might be simply to refrain, as ICRC do. At any rate, some of their internal philosophical debate strikes this reader as unhelpfully verbose and analytically unclear. More specifically relating to Syria, it is reasonable to believe that the geopolitics of the region and the machinations of its various protagonists are as complex and challenging, in their way, as are the medical emergencies in a war zone. Even the most judicious political analyst would not be much use in dealing with the latter. The people in MSF offices might reflect on whether the converse does not also apply.
We are not in a position to know if Syria or Russia should answer any charges in respect of the conduct of war. We do know that their enemies must, and, more crucially, that they face the more fundamental charge of having attacked Syria and its people without just cause.
I find a rather bitter irony in the MSF position that they distinguish themselves from the ICRC in not being willing to patch up victims simply in order to make possible further harm to them; for that could be said to be what they are doing by wishing that a sovereign people should not use full lethal force against merciless invaders on its soil.
Tim Hayward is a Professor of Environmental Political Theory, founding Director of the Just World Institute and the Ethics Forum, Convenor of the Fair Trade Academic Network, and Programme Director of the MSc International Political Theory.
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