A British blogger accused of disseminating Russian propaganda about the Syrian conflict is currently touring Canada for a series of conferences. Described by the tour organizers as an “internationally-acclaimed independent journalist,” Vanessa Beeley openly supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is a blogger for various conspiracy theory and “alternative facts” websites.
Assad began a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy activists in 2011, which eventually erupted into a civil war that, over the past nine years, has left hundreds of thousands dead and forced millions more to flee.
Beeley has repeatedly claimed that terrorist attacks such as 9/11 and the 2015 mass shooting on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were “false flags” staged by the authorities. “Did you take one moment to reflect upon how many times you have been duped by your governments and their media megaphones?” she wrote on her blog in a 2015 article titled Charlie Hebdo Provocation.
The Guardian’s former Middle East editor Brian Whitaker said Beeley was “the Syrian conflict’s goddess of propaganda“ in a hard-hitting exposé about her journalistic methods.
Beeley did not respond to HuffPost’s repeated interview requests.
Syrian rescue workers “legitimate targets”
Titled “Canada’s Dirty War Against Syria: the White Helmets and the Regime-Change-War Billionaires,” Beeley’s conference series was organized by the Hamilton, Ont. chapter of the Stop the War Coalition, whose positions on the Syrian conflict have caused dissent amongst anti-war activists.
Beeley is expected to repeat accusations that the Syria Civil Defence, a volunteer search and rescue organization also known as the White Helmets, is associated with Jihadi terrorist organizations and has been staging bombings attributed to the Syrian regime in order to help topple the totalitarian government there.
The Russian authorities are particularly fond of this theory, delegitimizing the White Helmets, who, for years, have been documenting possible war crimes committed by Russian and Syrian military with GoPro cameras affixed to their helmets.
“The data they collect from the GoPros totally undercuts the Russian and regime narrative that they are only targeting terrorists,” says Kristyan Benedict, crisis campaigns manager for Amnesty International UK.
“It’s information that could be used in future prosecutions against Russian and regime pilots, and that’s the thing those governments are most afraid of,” he adds.
Beeley has often stated that the Civil Defence’s rescue volunteers were “legitimate targets,” since they are “members of internationally recognized terrorist organizations.”
With this rhetoric, she is attempting to justify a military tactic used by both Russia and the Syrian regime, says Benedict. Known as a “double-tap,” which consists of bombing the same public place a few minutes after a first strike in order to target first responders providing assistance to the victims.
“She’s basically advocating for a war crime,” he says. “A deliberate strike against humanitarian workers is a war crime.”
In 2012, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns labelled the practice of double-taps a war crime. The Syrian regime and Russia both continue to deny using “double-taps” despite damning evidence to the contrary.
According to Benedict, the disinformation campaign against the White Helmets has had at least partial success. “They’ve carried on getting some funding, but at the same time, the propaganda campaign managed to create doubt about the legitimacy of the White Helmets”, he lamented.
But Benedict also believes the relentless scrutiny they have been under has helped the White Helmets become more professional. “What started as a small group of volunteers is now a much more organized and thought-through organization with codes of conducts and sanctions. To some degree, it has helped increase their accountability.”
Controversy in Quebec
Beeley gave the first conference of her Canadian tour Tuesday in Hamilton and is expected to speak in Toronto, Ottawa and Mississauga later this week, before visiting Montreal.
Her Université de Montréal (UdeM) event has now been cancelled, however.
A spokesperson for the UdeM told HuffPost in a statement that the department providing the room for the event was worried the 20-person room would be too small and that the event would not go off peacefully.
History professor Samir Saul, who sponsored the event, has decided not to try to re-book the event, the statement said.
Her invitation to speak at UdeM had caused an uproar with well-established academics and reporters, including the Guardian’s former Middle East correspondent Kareem Shaheen, who now lives in Canada.
Aware of the allegations against Beeley, the University originally said it had no intention of banning the conference. Insisting that she was invited by Saul, and not the University itself, UdeM spokesperson Geneviève O’Meara told HuffPost that “a university is a place of debates and one of its cornerstones is academic freedom”.
In an email to HuffPost, Saul refused to say if he shared Beeley’s views on the White Helmets. “I believe in freedom of thought and critical thinking. Both are important in the academic world,” he wrote.
In an interview with Radio-Canada, Frédéric Mérand, director of the Montreal Centre for International Studies, where Saul is a researcher, clarified that his organization was not involved in organizing the conference. Asked if he felt uneasy about Beeley’s visit to the university, he said the line was very fine since she isn’t a researcher but calls herself a “journalist.”
“All points of view are welcome at the University, but it is not the place to spread lies, fake news or false truths,” he concluded.
Invited to University of Winnipeg
The British blogger was also set to give a conference at the University of Winnipeg on December 12th, at the invitation of Peace Alliance Winnipeg.
The University of Winnipeg did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment. On Thursday night, the university announced the event had been cancelled.
UPDATE: The story has been changed to note that Beeley’s Université de Montréal and University of Winnipeg events have now been cancelled.
Also on HuffPost: