How Syria’s disinformation wars destroyed the co-founder of the White Helmets
In November 2019, James Le Mesurier, the British co-founder of the Syrian rescue group, fell to his death in Istanbul. What led an internationally celebrated humanitarian to take his own life?
Just before sunrise in Istanbul on 11 November 2019, a determined thumping on her iron front door stirred Emma Winberg from a brief sleep. Blurry-eyed, she grasped at the empty space in bed next to her, pulled on a pair of trousers, fumbled with a bedside lamp, then ran across the bedsit to the kitchen next door. “James wasn’t there,” she said. “And that’s when I just knew.”
Winberg had slept briefly after an anxious night. As she drifted off, at about 4.30am, she had seen her husband staring at her from near the bedroom window of their third-floor flat. Now, startled awake, she dashed towards the same spot, her dread rising with every step. “I looked down and thought: ‘Thank God, nothing there.’ And then I looked left.”
Lying naked in the gloom below was James Le Mesurier, 48, a co-founder of the White Helmets, an organisation dedicated to rescuing civilians caught in the Syrian war. Worshippers who had been on their way to morning prayers at the nearby Kılıç Ali Paşa mosque now gathered silently around the body of a foreigner lying on a cobblestone lane. Plastic wrappings and bandages left by medics littered the scene. Not far away, freighters laden with cargo carved white wakes through the grey waters of the Bosphorus. Seagulls watched from a wall as the crowd of onlookers and police continued to swell. The autumn sun crept above the horizon.
Winberg stumbled down the staircase and opened the first of two security doors. She was reaching for the second door when five policemen rushed towards her. “I’ve since heard from someone else that I was crying ‘No, no, no, no, no’,” Winberg told me recently, speaking publicly for the first time about her partner’s death. “I grabbed a blanket because I wanted to cover him up. I could see him through the door and they wouldn’t let me touch him. I tried to get them to take the blanket to put it over him and they refused, and pushed me back upstairs. And then it just started. It was the worst moment of my life.”
News of Le Mesurier’s death travelled fast; it was quickly the talk of political circles in Istanbul and northern Syria. London and Moscow, where he was even better known, woke to reports two hours later. Senior officials in both capitals, including Boris Johnson, were briefed before breakfast; this was global news, with widespread ramifications. Johnson had met Le Mesurier during an earlier sweep through Turkey as foreign minister in 2014, and had remained a supporter of his work.
Since late 2013, Le Mesurier had been helping to coordinate teams of volunteers in north-western Syria, where most of those who opposed the country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, were located. The region was beyond the reach of state-backed rescuers, and so, out of desperation, local people – teachers, carpenters and other civilians – had begun organising themselves into groups to dig out family members and neighbours from the aftermath of airstrikes. Some of the rescuers had sought help from a UAE-based humanitarian consultancy, Ark, which Le Mesurier was then working for. After a decade in the Middle East, he had become disillusioned with big-budget foreign security firms, which he felt did more to enrich foreign contractors than empower locals. He thought that grassroots organisations, staffed by civilians on the ground, could do more good. The work of the Syrian civilian rescuers seemed to be a perfect fit. So Le Mesurier quit Ark, taking the project with him, and relocated to Turkey.
The idea quickly grew. Le Mesurier, who had served as a captain in the British army during the 1990s, would help train volunteer rescuers and secure international funding for their work. In early 2014, he established Mayday Rescue as a foundation to channel aid to rescuers, and made it his sole focus for the next five years.
Soon a concept became a brand. The White Helmets, as they became known, began using head-mounted cameras to record what was happening on the ground. Images of Syrian volunteers in white helmets, with gas masks and head torches, scrambling through rubble to save lives, resonated around the world. Footage of babies being lifted alive from bombed-out buildings and children being carried out of the smoking ruins of homes cut through the public’s fatigue surrounding the war. The White Helmets were celebrated by film-makers, celebrities and global leaders. At its peak, the organisation was funding 200 teams across Syria, totalling 4,000 rescuers and medics. It was also providing rescue trucks, ambulances and digging equipment.
Funding flooded in, with Britain, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Qatar and Canada donating a total of about $30m a year, as hundreds of thousands of people crammed into north-western Syria were bombed by Syrian and Russian jets. By mid-2015, around 500,000 people had been killed in the conflict. Those figures spiked when the Russian airstrikes intensified in late 2015, and since then the death toll has continued to rise.
All around, Syria was unravelling – a disaster that followed the monumental failings of the joint US-British invasion of Iraq, which hung like a pall over Whitehall and Westminster. For states with no appetite for military intervention, funding the White Helmets seemed like a risk-free way to help. A collaboration between the British government and Mayday Rescue became one of Britain’s few known interventions in the Syrian war.
The White Helmets’ work soon earned global accolades. The organisation was nominated multiple times for the Nobel peace prize. In 2016, Le Mesurier was awarded an OBE “for the protection of civilians in Syria”. The Netflix documentary, The White Helmets, won an Oscar the following year. But as the organisation’s international fame grew, it also attracted powerful enemies intent on destroying its reputation and hounding the people behind it.
As forensic specialists tended to Le Mesurier’s body, more police arrived at Mayday Rescue’s offices, which were located on the floor below the bedsit. Soon the work space was teeming with officials. Upstairs, Winberg was being swabbed by detectives, who were taking her fingerprints and DNA, and treating her as a murder suspect. Across town, at the White Helmets offices, employees were waking to the shocking news of Le Mesurier’s death. So, too, was the internet, where much of the organisation’s work, and that of Le Mesurier, had been contested since its earliest days.
In the years before Le Mesurier’s death, he and the White Helmets had become the focus of an online disinformation campaign led by Russian and Syrian officials and peddled by pro-Assad bloggers, alt-right media figures and self-described anti-imperialists. As their work in Syria expanded, the group became one of the most scrutinised and vilified organisations in the world.
The motivation was not hard to grasp. Here was a group that worked solely in areas of Syria controlled by the anti-government opposition, helping to save the victims of attacks carried out by Assad’s backers. At the same time, footage of rescue missions undermined the regime’s narrative and humanised its victims. These provocations were seen as intolerable.
From September 2015, when Russia entered the war to save Assad from defeat, bombing raids on civilian areas reached unprecedented levels. Vivid scenes of men, women and children suffering terrible injuries gave the lie to Russian and Syrian claims that their campaign to recapture Idlib province and the suburbs of Damascus only targeted Islamist terrorists and their sympathisers. Instead, as the videos showed, they were bombing civilian areas indiscriminately.
The disinformation campaign quickly grew, its aim to sow doubt about the White Helmets and the footage they collected. As the war progressed, north-western Syria became a magnet for extremists bent on using the chaos to launch a global jihad. Propagandists exploited the confusion on the ground. Soon, claims appeared online that the White Helmets had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda, which had supposedly seized on the group as a way to obtain foreign funds. There were also accusations that the group had been created by governments determined to remove Assad from power, and that the White Helmets volunteers were “crisis actors” staging scenes to discredit Russia and Syria.
Useful idiots promoting such conspiracy theories on YouTube, Twitter and their own fringe websites were given profile and flattering coverage by Russian and Syrian media outlets. Le Mesurier was himself the subject of near-daily state-sponsored attacks on Russian television and social media, calling him a terrorist, spy, paedophile and organ trafficker, among other scripted slurs. He was called an agent of western intelligence, using a rescue organisation as a Trojan horse for regime change. The smears even got an airing at the UN security council, via a panel put together by Moscow.
The aim was to flood the media ecosystem with falsehoods that would erode trust among supporters, especially donor governments. And it did indeed take a toll, both on the White Helmets’ reputation and on the morale of its volunteers and supporters. In September 2018, when I first met Le Mesurier, he talked about the growing burden and stress of the disinformation campaign. From then on, I followed his story closely.
In the last few years, the geopolitics of the Syrian conflict and the nature of the war itself grew more challenging than ever. North-western Syria had become the most densely populated corner of the country, as displaced populations from all regions sought refuge there among local communities. Some hardline Islamist groups had found their way to the area and based themselves there. The question of who controlled Idlib – the region where the White Helmets were most prevalent – had become increasingly fraught for governments, who demanded clarity on where their aid dollars were going.
“The situation on the ground had become increasingly complex,” said Ethan Wilson, Mayday Rescue’s former programme director. “From 2017-19, the [growing global] aversion to Syria, Russian disinformation and increasing western paranoid isolationist far-right politics were all contributing factors that led to much higher scrutiny than was the case in 2015-16.”
Throughout 2019, Mayday would come under increasing pressure. Diplomats dealing with the organisation faced more and more questions from politicians about how and where its money was being spent. Every penny of donor funding needed to be accounted for, and there were concerns that Mayday did not have adequate systems and structures to keep tabs on its many funding streams and accounts. An audit was requested by the British Government’s then aid arm, the Department for International Development (DfID) in late 2018, and delivered in June 2019.
In the last week of Le Mesurier’s life, the years of stress came to a head. On 7 November, four days before he died, he sat with a new team of auditors for a fateful meeting. He walked away fearing that somehow he had lost control of Mayday Rescue. In his mind, all that he had worked for was about to be suddenly and shockingly challenged in unfathomable ways. Worse still, the reputation of his foundation, and the White Helmets, appeared to be at stake. He feared that history might judge him as the man who destroyed their legacy and jeopardised aid for embattled Syrians. By the time Le Mesurier fell to his death, in what friends, family and the Turkish police believe was a suicide, the pressure had become unendurable.
The life and death of James Le Mesurier is the story of a man who became a lightning rod in a war of narrative over the Syrian conflict – someone who helped build one of the war’s most iconic groups, and unwittingly became a central figure in a global information war fought over the ruins of a crumbling world order. It is also the tale of how a foundation that ran one of the most successful collaborative aid interventions in recent times collapsed, and how, in his final days, Le Mesurier unravelled under the weight of claims that would later prove to be false.
When Cornelis Vrieswijk arrived in Istanbul in the second week of January 2020, he had little idea of what to expect. A veteran of business in the Netherlands, Vrieswijk had made his name rescuing companies in financial trouble. Over the course of a long corporate career, he had evolved into a finance version of Pulp Fiction’s Mr Wolf – a go-to guy who fixes the trickiest problems. This assignment appeared to fit the bill.
The 62-year-old Dutchman had been called in to go through the accounts of Mayday Rescue, a foundation he knew nothing about, operating in a field he had no exposure to. “But no matter the background, it was a good fit for my experience,” Vrieswijk told me. “I work in a world where everything is under stress.”
Vrieswijk had been hired by Mayday Rescue’s chief financial officer, Johan Eleveld, at the urging of donors. They had become alarmed by an email sent by Le Mesurier in the days before his death, in which he raised several financial issues that had been flagged during a meeting with Eleveld and the audit firm. On 7 January 2020, Vrieswijk met with Eleveld in Rotterdam, and on 12 January they travelled to Istanbul with another Dutch businessman, Rob Van Eck. In both meetings, Vrieswijk was presented with a series of concerns about Mayday’s finances. They stemmed partly from the preliminary findings of an advisory assessment presented to Le Mesurier in November by the Dutch auditor SMK – in that fateful meeting four days before his death – which was later summarised in draft minutes. The assessment raised questions about a number of cash transactions and identified several areas of concern in Mayday’s books. According to Vrieswijk, Eleveld raised further questions in addition to those covered by SMK.
“I sat down for that first meeting, and I must say my impression was that James and Emma were really bad people; that James was the leader of a mob,” Vrieswijk said. “I was told by [Eleveld] that Emma had spent $90,000 on a wedding dress, they’d both spent $250,000 on a speedboat, and they’d enjoyed a year-long honeymoon with pearls and handbags, all at the expense of Mayday. I thought this was going to be quite a challenge.” Eleveld told the Guardian that he did not recognise the description of the meeting, insisting he did not mention anything that wasn’t covered in the SMK minutes.
Vrieswijk was to chair a three-person supervisory board – along with Van Eck and a lawyer – to get to the bottom of things. (Le Mesurier had, at the time of his death, been attempting to relocate Mayday Rescue from Istanbul to Amsterdam, hence the Dutch connection.) “There were allegations of remuneration benefits being extreme, of unauthorised cash payments for personal reasons, of differences between the amounts received and disbursed by Mayday, and of income tax liabilities,” said Vrieswijk.
The allegations, if proven, would be ruinous for Mayday, and damaging for donor governments, who had, until late 2019, maintained their support for the foundation – and crucially the White Helmets – despite the disinformation surrounding the group’s work.
Not long before he died, a distressed Le Mesurier had told friends that the claims had seemed to come from nowhere. While the June 2019 audit, conducted at the request of DfID, had recommended introducing more stringent accounting controls and tighter governance, there had been nothing to suggest that Mayday’s future might be at stake. The November 2019 meeting with SMK, the Dutch auditors, raised questions about cash withdrawals, tax positions and grant agreements, but made no formal findings. Nevertheless, the nature of the issues it flagged shocked Le Mesurier to his core.
One transaction in particular had remained unresolved since the June audit, and was raised again by SMK in November: $50,000 in cash that Le Mesurier had withdrawn from the Mayday safe in July 2018, to support a mission to evacuate up to 400 White Helmets members and their families from southern Syria to Jordan. Whether that money had been properly accounted for was flagged earlier by the DfID-ordered review, and was now being scrutinised once more.
Both audit teams had wanted to see the paper trail. In a wartorn country like Syria, where everything runs on cash, the lack of electronic records made old-school bookkeeping essential. According to Mayday’s former head of compliance, Nadera al-Sukkar, the balance of the money that Le Mesurier had not used – $40,800 – was returned, but was recorded in a ledger that had made it hard to locate on Mayday’s books. Le Mesurier had not kept receipts for the incremental sums, comprising the $9,200 he had spent in Jordan, and he couldn’t remember returning the balance.
In late May 2019, Le Mesurier met his finance team to try to resolve the issue, and decided to backdate a receipt to provide to the auditors. “It was not illegal, but it was shady,” al-Sukkar told me.
On 8 November, after being presented with draft minutes of the meeting with the Dutch auditors, Le Mesurier, facing what he feared could be an unravelling of Mayday, chose to tackle what seemed to him to be a quick win: explaining the circumstances behind the $50,000 withdrawal and the decision to backdate a receipt. Ignoring the reservations of his colleagues, he wrote a long email to donors in which he acknowledged that the bookkeeping in relation to the $50,000 had technically constituted fraud. Le Mesurier believed that by being transparent about what was ultimately a case of sloppy bookkeeping, he could reassure donors and safeguard future funding.
According to multiple sources, Eleveld made the mea culpa about the apparently missing $50,000 central to his discussions with Vrieswijk and others. The forensic accounting firm Grant Thornton was retained in the week after Le Mesurier’s death. For the next four months, the firm’s investigators pored over emails and logs of phone chats, and interviewed staff, including Eleveld.
In the week before Christmas, Winberg received a letter from Mayday’s lawyers, accusing her of “unlawfully enriching yourself and others at the expense of the foundation” and suspending her from her position as chief impact officer. “The Mayday Rescue Foundation, represented by its board member, Mr Johan Eleveld, has requested me to inform you as follows,” the letter began. Eleveld was the sole board member at the time. It went on to suggest that “following a recent investigation a serious suspicion had arisen” that Winberg had withdrawn $55,000 in three sums in June and July 2018, and not returned them.
So, in mid-January, Vrieswijk began the most politically sensitive role of his life, as chair of the supervisory board of Mayday Rescue, largely oblivious to the political scrutiny that had been a constant drumbeat to Mayday’s work. An organisation funded by so many governments, each answerable to their own politicians, was complex enough. Add in a series of transactions that may be irregular, and this could have implications for the future of aid in Syria.
On 21 January, amid the investigations by Vrieswijk and Grant Thornton, the shutters at Mayday Rescue came down. “The donors collectively told me that none of them would support Mayday any longer,” said Vrieswijk. “From that point, it became all about a closure plan.”
One of the first things Vrieswijk looked into was the missing $50,000 and the allegations of other withdrawal for personal use. “I kept my opinions to myself until around mid-March,” said Vrieswijk. “And then I began to interact with the donors on a one-to-one basis.”
From then, Vrieswijk’s views began to shift.
From the moment that Emma Winberg first sat down with Le Mesurier, their lives changed. It was March 2016, and Winberg had sought a meeting in Istanbul with a man to whom she had twice been briefly introduced to at garden parties, and had considered charming, and intense. Winberg, a former British diplomat, arrived at Mayday’s Istanbul offices with work in mind. At the time she was working for a communications firm in northern Iraq, devising grassroots strategies to disrupt Isis, which was running rampant through the region. She hoped to convince Le Mesurier to help with a project raising teams of locals to safeguard communities above the Mosul dam, which engineers had feared might collapse.
The plan went nowhere, but the meeting lasted long into the night. “By the time we finished our fourth bottle of wine, I knew we were going to be together,” Le Mesurier said in late 2018. “She was the partner I wanted.”
Le Mesurier’s two previous marriages had ended in divorce, and Mayday had become his sole focus. “I gave up on love,” he told me in November 2018. So, too, had Winberg. “I’d basically given up on ‘life’ when I met James,” she told me months later. “We’d both accepted our fates of being warrior nun/monk types. We had chosen purpose over personal fulfilment. And then we met and it all changed. Hope returned.”
They married in the summer of 2018 in the stateliest hotel on the island of Büyükada, two hours from Istanbul by ferry. The White Helmets’ leader, Raed Saleh, was one of Le Mesurier’s best men. Representatives from donor countries travelled from all over the world to be there. So did friends from the earlier incarnations of the couple’s lives, including officers from Le Mesurier’s 1993 class at Sandhurst, where he had won the Queen’s medal for leadership. Holding a ceremonial sword, the groom was carried around the reception on the shoulders of his friends. Contrary to the later claims, Winberg wore a £1,795 dress, a gift from her mother, who bought it from a secondhand shop in west London. After the ceremony, the reception spilled on to the waterfront lawns of their nearby home, where friends, colleagues, and family celebrated into the early hours.
The couple’s connection was obvious to anyone who visited their rented home on Büyükada, which Winberg painstakingly redecorated and filled with furnishings and knick-knacks, some shipped over from London and others bought in Istanbul bazaars. Their lives became integrated in nearly every aspect, including the running of the foundation. Winberg had taken a seat on the Mayday board in February 2018, before standing down in May 2019. From that point on, she had joined the payroll as an executive.
For several years, even under the relentless attacks of vested interests, it seemed Le Mesurier, Winberg and the White Helmets were managing to navigate the constant disinformation. “But it was always there. James, without knowing it, had woken an army,” said Eliot Higgins, the founder and CEO of Bellingcat, an investigative journalism organisation that has focused on Russian influence in Syria and elsewhere. “The core of the provocateurs was a fringe anti-imperialist community that existed for a while alone. Russia took these people under their wing and used them to start lying constantly about the White Helmets.” Dealing with these critics was difficult, Higgins said, “because the more you engage with them, the more people were hearing what they were saying”.
“For me personally, I can’t ignore the weight of the disinformation, not only on me but on all of us at the White Helmets,” said Saleh. “We put all our energy into saving lives and easing the living conditions in Syria. But this humanitarian work threatens Russian and Syrian regime narratives of what is really happening on the ground. We get called terrorists that are funded by the west. This is a burden that affects us emotionally and it takes a tremendous effort to deal with.”
While the disinformation seemed containable, management issues at Mayday Rescue were mounting. The foundation had grown quickly, and was handling millions in donor funding each month. By mid-2018, when donor funding reached its peak, it was clear that Mayday required more robust financial supervision, and that its executive team needed to be expanded. Eleveld was hired by Le Mesurier in August 2018 to help achieve that.
But the problems persisted. There were delays in grant reporting, and headaches about sourcing equipment for the White Helmets and paying suppliers. On top of that, Mayday’s executive salaries had been higher than industry standards. “They were not off-the-scale high,” said a source familiar with the details of the Grant Thornton forensic audit report commissioned after Le Mesurier’s death. “They were acceptable, but they added to the noise. They were using Excel to run the finances of a multi-million-dollar NGO,” the source said. “They had never done ‘periodical closings’ – checking assets and liabilities every month – until the end of 2018.”
Other stresses had been piling up, too. Working in Turkey was becoming fraught, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government grew less tolerant of foreign NGOs, forcing some of them to close. Although Ankara supported the anti-Assad opposition, its sympathies had been tested by their failure to get organised, and its tolerance for the nearly 3 million Syrian refugees in its territory was waning as hopes of an end to the war dwindled.
By November 2019, Le Mesurier was exhausted and emotionally frail. The meeting with the Dutch auditors had become a catalyst for a breakdown. “It’s been a very rough couple of days,” he told me at the time. “It’s looking like the end of us, and possibly Mayday as well.”
Winberg watched helplessly as her husband disintegrated. “We had both been so stressed for so long,” she said. “The stakes were so high and the operating environment was getting riskier by the day. We felt as though we were just trying to dodge the bullets, but always anxious about the one that would ultimately get through.”
Nadera al-Sukkar, the Mayday compliance officer, met Le Mesurier the next day. “James was very stressed,” she said. “On Friday [8 November 2019], we all had a meeting and at the end of it he gave me a hug and said: ‘I’ve really enjoyed working with you.’ I got goosebumps then, and I get goosebumps now thinking about what happened.”
In the weeks after her husband’s death, Winberg, then under house arrest, took refuge by herself in what used to be their marital home. Framed photos of Le Mesurier were all around. Wooden floors that had creaked under the feet of friends and guests were silent. A long dinner table remained unused, and the couple’s old German shepherd sprawled across an antique carpet. The house echoed with a crippling loss.
Although still officially a suspect in Le Mesurier’s death, Winberg was allowed to leave Turkey to attend his funeral, held in a tiny chapel in Surrey near the family home on 27 December 2019. His body was cremated, and she keeps his ashes with her. In late January 2020, back in Turkey, Winberg received a call from her Turkish lawyer, who informed her that she was no longer being investigated for murder and she was free to leave for good. Winberg packed up the house and moved to Amsterdam, where she remains, trying to pick up the pieces nearly a year on.
“James was everything I had always longed for,” she said from her new home, surrounded by the memorabilia of the life they built together. “He inspired me, made me howl with laughter, made me believe anything was possible, and made me feel so loved I knew I would never be lonely again. His integrity, his passion and his deep belief in the power of human courage and industry has left a unique signature on everyone who knew him. The impact of his death cannot be measured, cannot be told.
“The world is suffering from a crisis of hope. Our hope that a normal person can be heroic, that they can make a profound difference, is constantly under attack by dark and powerful forces. James stood up to those forces unflinchingly time and time again in the name of what was right. That he was ultimately felled by petty jealousy and grave injustice makes his loss even more absurdly painful.”
As Winberg was trying to restart her life, Vrieswijk was making headway in the investigation of Mayday Rescue’s finances. By mid-March, he was starting to doubt the tales of fraud and self-enrichment that he had heard when he first arrived in Istanbul. “It gradually became obvious that these allegations could not be true,” he said.
“We could not find a single penny spent that was not justified, or could not be explained,” he added. “My impression of James and Emma changed wholeheartedly. In the end, it was obvious that neither Emma, nor James, or any of the staff had embezzled money. I went 180 degrees on this. From starting out thinking he was a mob leader who had enriched himself in outrageous ways, I came to see him as somebody I really admire.”
Vrieswijk’s view was corroborated by the conclusions of the forensic accounting investigation by Grant Thornton, delivered in May 2020, which found no evidence of misappropriation. “The key finding of our investigation of the flagged transactions leads us to believe that there is no evidence of misappropriation of funds,” a summary of the report reads. “For the most part we have been able to refute the alleged irregularities. In particular, the cash withdrawals by James Le Mesurier and Emma Winberg were justified and are accounted for. The events surrounding the ‘50k Emergency Fund’ appear to be a result of a misunderstanding.”
However, the report also noted “significant gaps in the administrative organisation and internal control environment of Mayday” and “identified significant cash transactions that have not been (fully) recorded in the cash books and/or general ledger”. It added that because Mayday’s working environment was “informal”, with discussions sometimes taking place “orally and over WhatsApp”, the auditors “had to reconstruct a number of financial events and are unable to provide certainty in those cases”. In short, Mayday Rescue’s bookkeeping had certainly been shoddy, but the auditors had found nothing to support any of the far more serious allegations that had been made. Eleveld claimed that the Grant Thornton report determined there was insufficient evidence to draw conclusions.
Asked in August to respond to the findings of the Grant Thornton report, after weeks of delays the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office offered the following statement: “The UK government has suspended its funding agreements with Mayday Rescue and an independent investigation found no evidence of fraud or misuse of UK funds. The UK is proud of its support to the White Helmets and its life-saving search and rescue activities in Syria, which has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.” Since the start of the partnership with Mayday, numerous foreign secretaries had come and gone. Those who took the job in recent years were less invested than their predecessors in Britain’s work in Syria, a reality reflected by the anodyne statement and the length of time taken to produce it.
By August, Eleveld’s contract with Mayday came to an end. Eleveld said he was bound by a nondisclosure agreement, and declined to comment on what he said were interviewees’ personal opinions and narratives. He said he declined to comment further because the Guardian did not allow him to read the complete article ahead of publication.
In August, Mayday Rescue was declared bankrupt and formally dissolved. The White Helmets, meanwhile, have secured direct funding from the US, Canada and several European governments, and are continuing their work. “We are grateful for all the support and training that Mayday, and all our partners, gave us over the years,” said Saleh. “They’ve helped us grow into a strong and sustainable organisation, which means we are now in a position to be partnering with international donors.”
In Syria, the conflict has stagnated, with Russia and Iran having pushed Assad into a winning position on the battlefields and allowed him to claim a pyrrhic victory. Idlib remains out of the Syrian leader’s control, its people caught in a kill box, bombed by warplanes from above and threatened by competing groups of fighters on the ground. More than half the country’s prewar population remains internally displaced, or in camps across the borders of neighbouring countries.
“I’ve never seen an event where so many who tried to do good were destroyed,” said the source familiar with the Grant Thornton report. “Everything that this conflict ever touched ended up damaged.”