Death of James Le Mesurier – White Helmets founder raises questions

By: Joseph Lyttleton
Reading Time: 4 minutes



James Le Mesurier, co-founder of the White Helmets – a humanitarian organization operating in Syria – was found dead on the street outside his apartment in Istanbul, Turkey on November 11. The former British Army captain was discovered with fractures to his head and legs.

Le Mesurier was reported to be under considerable stress as a result of his humanitarian work and a barrage of attacks from a disinformation campaign. The cause of death is being officially investigated as a suicide. However, due to the nature of Le Mesurier’s work, there have been calls for a more thorough investigation into the details surrounding his death.

Who was James Le Mesurier?

The Singapore-born British citizen James Le Mesurier had achieved a decorated military career that led him to extensive experience in the Middle East. As a soldier and private contractor, he spent time in Kosovo, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Syria. He also took part in post-tsunami recovery efforts in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

In 2014, amidst the Syrian Civil War, he co-founded the Syria Civil Defence, more commonly known as the White Helmets. It has been claimed that the humanitarian efforts of this organization resulted in Le Mesurier becoming the subject of a negative propaganda campaign, which led him to seek treatment for stress and depression. The day before he died at the age of 48, Le Mesurier had been diagnosed with severe hypertension.

The Syrian conflict

The Syrian Civil War began in March 2011 and has been an ongoing source of conflict and destruction in the region ever since. On one side of the conflict is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters. On the other is an uprising of pro-democracy forces that oppose the president and do not believe he has been rightfully elected.

Although al-Assad originally took office in 2000 with 97% support and has been consistently winning re-election with similar numbers, some suggest the elections are rigged. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in the region, Syrians who had opposed al-Assad unified to protest the leader in 2011 – which led to a military response by al-Assad.

Since the conflict began, 5.7 million Syrians have left the country – most as refugees. In the first five years of the war, there were 400,000 confirmed deaths and hundreds of thousands more missing. Although the opposition forces in Syria have received support from outside groups, including the United Nations, al-Assad has been supported both rhetorically and militarily by Russian President Vladimir Putin.


Who are the White Helmets?

The White Helmets is a humanitarian organization of 3,000 volunteer recovery workers on the ground in Syria. Made up mostly of Syrians, the group seeks to rescue people who have been caught in the crossfire of the Syrian Civil War. This often involves entering into recently decimated areas to save lives out of the rubble.

These rescue efforts are considered to place the lives of volunteers at great risk, yet has reportedly resulted in the saving of over 60,000 lives. The organization is supported by donations and, in addition to rescue missions, provides medication and protective gear.

The White Helmets have been praised by groups throughout the world and even received a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2018. In 2017, a Netflix-produced documentary about the group won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. 

Rumors about the White Helmets

Rescue workers also often carry cameras, which is how footage of the devastation has reached Western countries – including that of a chemical attack in April 2017. Shortly after this footage emerged, there arose a smear campaign to portray the White Helmets as allies of al-Qaida. This campaign has been viewed as an effort to create doubts over the findings that al-Assad’s forces had committed the chemical attack. It appears that the organization’s efforts have resulted in considerable backlash, including the prolonged smear campaign aimed at discrediting both their work and their footage from inside Syria.

Pro-Assad propagandists appear to be one of the main sources of misinformation and manipulated images. They have helped spread the dubious narrative – mostly online – that the White Helmets are associated with terrorists. This has been further shared by conspiracy theorists and anti-imperialists who believe Western support of the White Helmets represents an effort to control the region. One of the biggest propagandists is British blogger Vanessa Beeley who has been labeled “the Syrian conflict’s goddess of propaganda.”

Just as al-Assad’s military operation has been supported by Russia, the spread of this information has been boosted by Russian posters utilized in political campaigns in the United States and United Kingdom – a seemingly regular tactic of Moscow.

With Syria’s considerable propaganda machine – reportedly driven by military support from Russia – and the opposing international support for the White Helmets, the issue has become increasingly hazy.