BERKELEY, California: A new player in Syria has been in the news recently. It was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace this year. It has won the prestigious “Right Livelihood Award,” also known as the “alternative Nobel,” for 2016. Netflix has produced a slick documentary about it. TIME magazine published a cover story on it on Oct. 17. Several Hollywood celebrities have endorsed it.

This player first appeared on the horizon in Syria in March 2013. It is known as the “White Helmets.”

In the Western mainstream media, the “White Helmets” (WH) are portrayed as “heroic first responders,” whose primary task is to rescue injured civilians from the rubble of buildings bombed by the Syrian and Russian air forces in rebel-controlled areas such as eastern Aleppo. The WH say they have 3000 members spread across 120 centres.

The WH claim that they are “independent and impartial.” For quite some time now, they have also become the only source of news for Western media outfits from rebel-controlled areas, which are too dangerous for journalists to enter. And not just news; WH also provide images and videos to reporters, some of which have gone viral on global media, including online, social, and print media.

For example, the picture of a 5-year old Syrian boy Omran Daqneesh, rescued from the rubble of a bombed building in eastern Aleppo on Aug. 17 by WH and put in an ambulance, dazed and covered with dust, was widely published by Western and other media. It was posted by an Australian journalist on Twitter and retweeted 17,000 times.

The image appeared on the front pages of many publications including the New York Times and The Times of London, as an example of Russian and Syrian brutality. It was accompanied by calls for imposing a “no-fly zone” (NFZ) on Syria. Hillary Clinton tacitly endorsed the WH and US Secretary of State John Kerry said that he was “honoured to meet [the White Helmets] leader and Aleppo activists,” who he described as “ brave first responders on the scene.”

The fact of the matter, however, is that the WH is neither independent nor impartial. It is funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the British Foreign Office, and some EU countries, to the tune of around $60 million. In particular, the USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives (OTI), known for funding political subversion in Cuba and Venezuela in the garb of “democracy promotion,” is the largest donor to WH. It has disbursed $23 million to the WH since 2013.

Though not a large figure compared to the over $1 billion spent by the CIA on training and arming the Jihadi groups in Syria, it is still a substantial amount.

Behind the veneer of rescuing injured civilians trapped in bombed buildings, WH’s real agenda is to mobilize global public opinion for regime change in Syria. Its operatives have met with US, EU, and UN officials privately and urged them to impose an NFZ over Syria, which is usually a precursor to regime change. Civil defense organizations are supposed to help in rescuing people, not changing regimes.

It is also intriguing that the WH operate ONLY in rebel-held areas in Syria, the vast majority of which are controlled by Jihadi groups like ISIS and the Nusra Front. Does this suggest a cozy relationship between the WH and the Jihadi groups? Many well-informed observers think so. Some believe that the WH are actually “embedded” with these groups. That, too, makes sense, when you consider that both the Jihadi groups and the WH are funded and armed by the West, Gulf, and Turkey.

The WH have been trained since March 2013 by an ex-British army officer, James Le Mesurier (JLM), who was also involved in NATO’s “humanitarian intervention” in Bosnia and Kosovo. After leaving the military, he moved into the private mercenary industry. JLM’s task was to train a group of people who would rush into freshly bombed buildings to rescue survivors—while filming themselves— in opposition-held areas struck by Syrian aircraft.

In Oct. 2014, JLM set up his own company called “Mayday Rescue” based in Turkey, which received $300,000 from the US State Department to train first responders. Though they called themselves “Syrian Civil Defence”—a name stolen from the real Syrian Civil Defence—JLM’s operatives came to be known by their signature headgear—white helmets. In June this year, Le Mesurier was awarded the OBE by the British government!

The real Syrian Civil Defence, which was founded more than 60 years ago, works on a shoestring budget with real volunteers without video teams accompanying them.

Some actions of the WH clearly portray them in a very poor light. Websites and social media sympathetic to the Syrian government have posted videos and photos of WH which show them boasting about throwing the body parts of Syrian troops in dumpsters, posing triumphantly with the corpses of Syrian soldiers, waving the flag of the Nusra Front, and carrying weapons. One video in northern Aleppo shows two WH operatives assisting in an execution.

The WH itself is a part of a larger operation involving much bigger organizations with greater reach. Thus, the WH has close links to a New York-based PR company “The Syria Campaign” (TSC), which is related to a larger PR outfit called “Purpose.” This company, in turn, has links with an even bigger organization known as “Awaaz,” [or Voice], a global PR outfit which played an important role in mobilizing support for an NFZ in Libya in 2011. It has now started a new campaign for an NFZ in Syria.

TSC has a vast network of connections in media and centres of political influence such as Washington DC and London. It has mobilized large “donations” from anonymous sources. It portrays itself as an impartial, non-political voice for ordinary Syrians, dedicated to the protection of civilians. Its real objective, however, is to push Western governments towards imposing an NFZ in Syria.

For example, on Sept. 30, TSC organized large demonstrations across the West for a “weekend of action” to “stop the bombs” falling on eastern Aleppo. The protests reflected TSC’s ability to mobilize thousands of people on the streets of Western capitals. Again, as a result of aggressive action by the TSC, the “White Helmets” were nominated for the Nobel Prize and awarded the “Right Livelihood Award.”

The success of outfits like WH and TSC reflects two important phenomena in contemporary international politics. First, the use of propaganda and information warfare to create a virtual reality which would facilitate achievement of politico-military objectives such as regime change. The “achievements” of WH is a classic example of the success of propaganda, which almost won it a Nobel Prize.

Second, military action alone may not be enough to achieve politico-military objectives. It must be accompanied by favourable public opinion. In this regard, the West is miles ahead of other countries such as Russia, whose news channel (RTV) is no match for the West’s corporate mainstream media, which has global reach. What is disappointing, however, is that many unsuspecting people also continue to believe what it says!

The only hope of redressing this state of affairs lies in the internet and social media, which can present other narratives and facts, and debunk the “virtual reality” created by the Western corporate media. But for that to happen, more people will have to figure out where they should get their news and analysis from.

(Niraj Srivastava is retired Indian Foreign Service officer who has served long years in West Asian countries, including Syria.)