From the Kosovo Protection Corps in the Balkans to the White Helmets of Syria, a group of well-connected people with the fundings of governments and elite billionaires have sought to wage a war on public opinion and have recently exploited Jo Cox’s death to do so.
by Vanessa Beeley and Whitney Webb
Part 5 - The White Helmets PR machine and the Jo Cox Fund
Having perfected the blueprint of “humanitarian” regime change in the Balkans, many of the same players, along with their proteges and the reincarnations of certain pro-intervention NGOs, have since been sought to apply this model to other “rogue” states deemed regime-change targets, such as Syria.
In Syria, the White Helmets have been crucial to these efforts aimed at disguising the destruction and plundering of the Syrian state as an exercise in “humanitarianism.” Unsurprisingly, the White Helmets’ reputation as “humanitarians” and “good-doers” has been promoted by a highly sophisticated and interconnected nexus of NGOs that have consistently perpetuated falsehoods about the Syrian conflict in service to reviving this blueprint — first developed in Kosovo — once more in Syria. Many of the NGOs at the heart of this nexus count among their most influential members the same four individuals who formed the Jo Cox Fund in 2016.
Of the organizations most deeply involved in this effort, several stand out for their capacity to shift public opinion, their creation and co-opting of popular movements, and their ability to manipulate popular sentiment through the use of petitions, social media campaigns and other related strategies. Groups like Purpose, Avaaz and Change.org are arguably the most notable of these organizations and two of the founders of the Jo Cox Fund are intimately involved in their leadership.
For instance, Tim Dixon, once a speechwriter for Australian prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, is an experienced corporate and political strategist who shifted his focus to “humanitarian” NGOs after 2010 — co-founding Purpose Europe after joining Purpose New York in 2011, and subsequently the pro-intervention Syria campaign. Dixon also shares deep connections to Avaaz, which helped create Purpose, through Dixon’s collaboration with his “professional associate” Jeremy Heimans, who helped found Avaaz and co-founded Purpose.
Dixon has also collaborated with Brendan Cox for years, as together they have been “instrumental” in reshaping the “refugee” narrative “through opinion research, message development, popular movement-building and campaigning to reach mainstream audiences.” Then, after Jo Cox’s death, Dixon, Brendan Cox and Gemma Mortensen — another Jo Cox Fund co-founder — created the organization More In Common, which claims to work “to build stronger and more inclusive democratic societies that are resilient to the threats of populism and division.”
However, as will be shown in a moment, the connections among these three significantly pre-date More In Common, as all three were intimately involved in the pro-intervention “humanitarian” group Crisis Action Network.
Avaaz and Purpose often focus the campaigns they develop at “rogue” nations that challenge U.S. empire. As journalist and researcher Jay Taber wrote for Cory Morningstar’s Wrong Kind of Green: “When challenges to U.S. hegemony arise — such as in Bolivia, Libya, Syria, Burundi and Congo — Avaaz and Purpose create campaigns to discredit and destabilize these independent governments.” By dressing up these campaigns that are American empire-driven in the illusion that they are entirely “people driven” by local communities, these groups are capable of falsifying narratives about a country’s political climate on a massive scale.
Avaaz and Purpose have used campaigns they have created to great effect within Syria, particularly through campaigns that sprang up early on in the Syrian conflict in support of the so-called “revolution,” as well as through their creation of the Bambuser platform that allowed Syrian opposition “activists” to upload video footage that on several occasions was later shown to be falsified. Eventually, in 2018, the platform was closed down but not before a number of the falsified videos had been downloaded by watchful researchers and journalists.
Shortly after the creation of Bambuser, Avaaz campaign manager Pascal Vollenweider had bragged that Avaaz had helped “kickstart” the Syrian “revolution” by equipping these “citizen journalists” and giving them the tools to produce multimedia used to further false narratives about the reality of the Syrian conflict.
One of those Avaaz-sponsored campaigns, “Smuggle Hope into Syria,” was initially highly effective in promoting the false narrative of a people-driven revolution waged by heroic “rebels” and centered around “Danny” Abdul Dayem’s efforts to raise $2.5 million for communication equipment needed by “citizen journalists” who were promoting the “rebel” cause. However, one of “Danny’s” videos that had aired on CNN was exposed as fake soon after, as were similar Avaaz and Purpose-backed videos produced by other “citizen journalists” like Khalid Abu Salah.
Since then, Avaaz and Purpose have heavily promoted a NATO-imposed “no fly zone” in Syria, without ever mentioning the dangers such a policy would pose to the Syrian civilians or the fact that such measures are historically precursors to large-scale military action. Furthermore, without ever providing proof, Avaaz has routinely accused Russia and the Syrian government of committing “coordinated atrocities” against media personnel and journalists in rebel-held areas of Syria. In addition, Avaaz has directly raised more than $2 million for the White Helmets.
Another organization that has operated in Syria and elsewhere among similar lines is Change.org, whose Chief Global Officer from 2016 to 2017 was Gemma Mortensen, another co-founder of the Jo Cox Fund. Change.org has been found to deliberately manipulate petitions on its page when they challenge the Western narrative on Syria, such as their removal — during Mortensen’s tenure — of a petition campaigning against the White Helmets’ nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, despite the fact that the petition garnered more than double the number of signatures than had the petition calling for the group to be given the prize. At the time, Change.org claimed the petition rejecting the White Helmets’ nomination for the prize had “violated community standards.”
However, the most influential of this type, at least where Syria is considered, has been the Syria Campaign. The group was co-founded by Dixon and Mortensen in 2014 with funding from Ayman Asfari, the Syrian-in-exile oil baron living in England, who has donated almost £700,000 since 2009 to the U.K. Conservative Party. As was noted in Part I of this series, Asfari has been very influential in driving the false narratives about the Syrian conflict that are promoted by Western governments.
With Asfari’s funding, the Syria Campaign has officially sought to amplify “moderate” and “democratic” voices in the Syrian opposition. In practice, the Syria Campaign, along with its progenitor Purpose, have managed public relations for the White Helmets, creating high-quality multimedia content and even the group’s website, in order to promote the White Helmets in the mainstream media and on social media — essentially directing the group’s branding thousands of miles away from Syria, in their New York office.
Most notably, however, the Syria Campaign has led the lion’s share of White Helmet fundraising efforts from individual donations in the West in order to secure the “funding that they [the White Helmets] so desperately deserve.” Even though the White Helmets have received millions of dollars from NATO member states and Gulf states, the Syria Campaign urges would-be donors to “give generously.”
In addition, just like Avaaz, Purpose and the White Helmets themselves, the Syria campaign has actively pushed for a “no fly zone” in Syria, one that would require the deployment of 70,000 U.S. soldiers to enforce and would risk embroiling the U.S. in a full-scale war against the Syrian state and Russia. More recently, it promoted the hashtag #Act4Daraa, which sought to pressure the UN Security Council to prevent the Syrian government’s now-successful effort to eliminate Western sponsored extremist and ISIS pockets in Syria’s south.
Furthermore, the Syria Campaign has been intimately involved in attempting to silence critics of the White Helmets. In its report titled “Killing the Truth: How Russia is fuelling a disinformation campaign to cover up war crimes in Syria,” the Syria Campaign calls for technology and social media companies to block criticism of the White Helmets and pro-intervention narratives as they are “polluting the public debate central to any healthy democracy.” The report — which mentions Vanessa Beeley, co-author of this article series, by name — further urges news organizations to “not give conspiracy theorists a platform in the name of balance,” as alternative narratives “cloud the truth.” In effect, the Syria Campaign has been at the forefront of attempts to silence those who are exposing the murkier aspects of the White Helmets and the billionaire network pulling their strings.