Fact checking Carla Ortiz's claims on White Helmets and Aleppo in Syrian civil war

Carla Ortiz is a Bolivian actress and activist who has dedicated herself to exposing what she calls “the lies” about the Syrian civil war perpetuated by major media outlets. Her main public platform is Twitter, where her 76,000 followers can read her supportive views of the Syrian government and her opposition to the Syria Civil Defense, commonly known as the White Helmets. 

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Ortiz has recently appeared on YouTube, where she shares her long-form footage of Aleppo, once the largest city in Syria. She says she’s traveled to Aleppo three times, and that one visit occurred during the height of the conflict between government-backed forces and rebel groups. Most of her clips were recorded after the government reclaimed the city.

One of the more popular YouTube pages that played her footage was the “Jimmy Dore Show,” which has begun to “debunk” claims made about the Syrian civil war as part of general left-leaning political commentary. Ortiz’s appearance on the Jimmy Dore Show has garnered at least 210,000 views.

In an off-script conversation with Jimmy Dore, Ortiz makes several claims about rebel forces and the White Helmets.

This WikiTribune story is dedicated to fact-checking Ortiz’s footage in Aleppo and her appearance on the “Jimmy Dore Show.”

It’s unclear whether these clips are part of Ortiz’s documentary “Voice of Syria,” which was released last year, according to IMDB. WikiTribune is unable to find the full documentary online. Please link to the documentary if you have access to it. 

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Fact-checking Carla Ortiz’s video on Syria

Time : 02:40 (Jimmy Dore studio)

Claim: The United States has provided weapons to groups linked with Al-Qaeda. Ortiz focused on Al Nusra as an example.

Fact check: Likely true. U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D) of Hawaii said on the floor of the House of Representatives that the U.S. government has “directly and indirectly” provided allies and partners of Al-Qaeda and ISIS with aid in the form of money, weapons and intelligence “in their fight to overthrow the Syrian government.”

Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a European Union-funded group, told the Independent that “Iraq and Syria have seen ISIS forces use large numbers of weapons supplied by nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United States, against the various international anti-ISIS coalitions that the two states support.”

CAR’s 2017 study, “Weapons of the Islamic State,” found that most weapons possessed by the Islamic State group came from Russia and China. But a “significant source” of IS weapons came indirectly from the United States and Saudi Arabia which purchased the items from Eastern European countries that belong to the European Union. These weapons were then “diverted” to Syrian opposition groups, and ultimately made their way into the hands of ISIS fighters, according to CAR.

The New York Times reported in 2017 that several members of Congress complained that “C.I.A.-supplied weapons had ended up in the hands of a rebel group tied to Al Qaeda.” President Donald J. Trump promptly ended the covert program, which allocated more than $1 billion to arm and train rebel groups, upon CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s recommendation. The same New York Times article said this likely included the Nusra Front, also known as Al-Nusra.

Time: 04:10

Claim: Syrian army pays its soldiers $50 monthly to fight terrorism. Typical Syrian citizens work 16-18 hours and make $50 dollars. White Helmets or Al Nusra are paid $1,500 a month. 

Fact check: This is likely false. According to Newsweek, White Helmet members receive a $150 monthly stipend. (Add additional sources to this claim.) 

Time: 05:20 (Jimmy Dore studio)

Claim: White Helmets repurposed a middle school in Aleppo as a base.

Fact check: Undetermined. Experts who spoke with WikiTribune have no knowledge of such a base. WikiTribune has reached out to the White Helmets organization for comment. Also reached out to director Orlando von Einsiedel. Include your questions for these sources in TALK. 

Time: 08:40 (Jimmy Dore studio)

Claim: The United States donated roughly $200 million to the White Helmets.

Fact check: Mainly false. The United States dedicated $200 million to Syrian “recovery efforts,” but on March 30 this aid package was frozen by President Trump before it could be fully distributed, according to The Wall Street Journal.  The U.S. State Department told Public Radio International (PRI) that the United States gave the White Helmets $33 million before the Trump administration froze the aid package.

Time: 08:50 (documentary footage)

Claim: The White Helmets have a division that only treats militants, not non-combatants. 

Fact check: Undetermined. The White Helmets have long faced accusations of being partners with extremist groups. The Snopes fact-checking service found these claims to be false in December 2016 and attributed them to unreliable news sources such as 21CenturyWire and Vanessa Beeley.

However, there is video evidence of one member of the White Helmets mutilating the corpses of pro-Government Syrian fighters.

There is also evidence of the White Helmets removing the body of a man immediately after he was executed by Jihadist militants. The White Helmets claimed that they removed his body but were never complicit or encouraged his execution according to France24, an international news service based in Paris and owned by the French government. 

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Time: 11:50 (documentary footage)

Claim: A Red Crescent treatment center was designated as a “no-fly zone” or safe zone under NATO or the UN. Al Nusra and the White Helmets used this safe zone for protection

Fact Check: Likely false. An anonymous source told WikiTribune that Red Crescent indeed operated a treatment center in rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo. But “NATO is not involved as an entity in Syria,” International Law professor at the University of Notre Dame Mary O’Connell told WikiTribune.

NATO has not been involved in Syria in part because of Turkey’s NATO membership. Turkey and the United States have conflicting views on the Syrian Civil War, specifically the role of U.S.-backed Kurdish militias, which Turkey’s government sees as a terrorist threat (Newsweek). The United States, United Kingdom and now France (as of April 2018) are the Western powers that have intervened militarily in Syria.

“I have no knowledge of any attempt to set up no-fly zones or ‘safe zones’ anywhere in Syria by these NATO members,” said O’Connell, who’s studied the use of force in Syria.

Eliot Higgins from Bellingcat, a reporting project that partly specializes on the Syrian conflict, told WikiTribune he hasn’t seen evidence of “no-fly zones” or “safe zones” established in Aleppo.

WikiTribune has found no evidence of  U.S-backed forces, the Syrian government and United Nations agreeing to no-fly zones over Red Crescent operations. A Red Crescent warehouse was in fact hit with an aerial strike in western Aleppo province in 2016. It’s unclear who was behind the attack.

As part of a humanitarian organization, Red Crescent workers are “protected persons” under international law and are generally given preferable treatment in war zones. An anonymous source told WikiTribune that the Red Crescent receives “security guarantees” from rebel groups and conventional militaries whenever its personnel move supplies or open a new operation in Syria.

Time: 13:10 (documentary footage)

Claim: Rebel forces closed schools in Aleppo and used them as shelters. 

Fact check: Partly true. The BBC reported in October 2016 that, “Nearly half the people who live in besieged Aleppo are under the age of 18. Many of their schools have closed or moved. Some of the buildings have been bombed, while others are being used as shelters for displaced people, or fighters in the conflict are using them for military purposes.”

Another BBC journalist, who reported from Aleppo in 2012, said that schools were beginning to be used for military purposes back then as well.

A report from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria stated, “Anti-Government armed groups frequently use schools as barracks or offices. These occupations are not always justified by military necessity, and have spread the belief that schools are not safe.”

RT, the Russian-state media outlet, also said in 2017, after government forces retook Aleppo, that barrels with chemicals used to make explosive devices were found in buildings that were once schools.

“Destruction of facilities” was cited as the main reason children did not attend school in Aleppo, according to a March 2016 survey conducted by the REACH Initiative. REACH is a joint initiative of IMPACT, the UN Operational Satellite Applications Programme (UNOSAT) and ACTED. Similar reasons were given by families in Syrian communities outside of Aleppo, according to another REACH  report from October 2016.

There were 91 attacks on schools and education personnel in the province of Aleppo between March 11 and December 2017 according to Whole of Syria, a reporting group that uses primary source data verified by the United Nations. The same report found that there were 24 incidents when schools were used for military purposes.

Several schools reopened while under rebel control though students were hesitant to attend during aerial bombing operations, according to the 2016 BBC report.

In December 2012, nearly 38 percent of the schools in Aleppo were damaged or used as shelters, some schools have been used by combatant forces, as UNICEF reported.

2018 UNICEF reported that in Syria “one in three schools cannot be used because it is either damaged, destroyed or sheltering displaced families or used for military purposes”.

Unicef published photos and quotes from a child who attended school in Aleppo, under rebel control, “except for the times when [she] hear[d] the planes.”

Syrian government-backed forces also co-opted school buildings into military barracks in 2013, according to Human Rights Watch.

Time: 13:30 (Jimmy Dore studio)

Claim: Al Nusra used a hospital for its main base in Aleppo.

Fact check: Likely true. The Washington Post reported in March 2013 that Al-Nusra had used an eye hospital in Aleppo as its headquarters. One month later, this Al-Nusra base was taken over by a group around the head of the Islamic State group in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On the same time Baghdadi declared that the Nusra Front had joined forces with his group to become the group known as ISIS. The Nusra Front dismissed this assertion and distanced itself to the ISIS. The Time, The Guardian and the BBC reported.

The BBC cited The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a UK-based reporting project, that the rebel group Islamic Front, a rebel group took over a building in Aleppo that was once a children’s hospital from the Islamic State group. A New York Times journalist and photographer also reported in May 2017 that rebels converted the Aleppo Eye Hospital into their operating base. The Syrian media activist and reporter from the Shahba Press Agency, Milad al-Shihabi, was tortured in an ISIS base at a children’s hospital in Aleppo. This is evidenced by a video statement to Halab News, which Syria Direct provided an English translation of. Syria Direct described the hospital as ISIS’s chief headquarters in Aleppo which the SOHR “considered one of ISIS’s most important headquarters in Syria”. Further evidence is given by Omar al Muqdad in his documentary We left them behind, judged by Loretta Napoleoni: Merchants of men: how Jihadists and ISIS turned and refugee (2016), which referes the documentary as a source.

It is still unclear which resources the reports of the several times mentioned SOHR rely on.

Time:  18:27 (documentary footage)

Claim: About 800,000 people have returned to Aleppo from neighboring countries and from within Syria.

Fact check: Undetermined. The figure Ortiz cited comes from Sputnik news, a Russian-state media outlet, and is considered unreliable by WikiTribune. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that 440,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their homes in Syria, nationwide, between January-June 2017. January 2017 is a significant date because the Syrian government recaptured Aleppo in December 2016.

The same UNHCR report also estimated that from 2015 until June 2017, 230,000 Syrian refugees returned from abroad, mainly from Turkey. So while 800,000 people returning to the city of Aleppo is a high figure, it’s a possible one.

WikiTribune emailed UNHCR for comment on May 21. Include your questions for these experts on TALK.

Time:  26:00 (Jimmy Dore studio)

Claim: Syrians “looking for refugee in Europe” are mainly single men in their twenties and thirties. Ortiz estimates 80 percent are in this category. 

Fact check: Mostly false. Men make up the majority of Syrian asylum seekers entering Europe since 2008, which is when the European Union started to collect data for public use. This general gender imbalance was supported by Geoffrey Mock, a Syrian country specialist for Amnesty International, in an interview with Politifact in a 2015.

But the number of male Syrian asylum seekers has never reached 80 percent. Also, when adjusted for age (18-34 years) the male population has never exceeded the 40th percentile since 2011, according to Eurostat. Only 9,240 Syrians entered Europe in 2011, compared with 383,685 Syrian asylum seekers in 2015.

The asylum statistics of the Member States of the European Union do not cover single events. They reflect the overall situation as follows: In 2015, 38.88 percent of Syrian asylum applicants were men between 18 and 34; by 2016, the percentage was 28.09, by 2017 it was 16.25. In terms of male asylum seekers, regardless of age (including children and elderly): in 2015, 71 percent were men; in 2016, 61.4 percent were men; and in 2017, 52.7 percent were men.

The percentages were calculated on the basis of absolute figures delivered by Eurostat, including the total number of Syrian applicants, and filtered by sex and age.

Time: 31:00 (Jimmy Dore studio)

Claim: Thirty percent of Syrian government ministers are women. The vice president is a woman. The “advisor” to the president is a woman. The “president of the parliament” is a woman. The first female judge in the Middle East was Syrian.

Fact check: Some of these claims are false, other claims are true.

In a 2016 presidential decree, President al-Assad appointed four female ministers out of a total of 34, according to Syrian Arab News Agency, a state-run media outlet. Syria announced it would raise female participation in “decision-making” roles to 30 percent by 2010, but failed to reach this threshold (Freedom House). Only 13 percent of parliament are women (33 of 250) as of April 13, 2016, according to Inter Parliament Union.

Vice President Najah Al-Attar is a woman. Another prominent female is presidential advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, who gives advice on political and media matters.

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Time: 33:00 (Jimmy Dore studio)

Claim: A Syrian law proclaimed a girl must finish high school, or she and father would be sent to prison.

Fact check: Partly true. Parents in Syria could be punished under law if their daughter failed to attend school, according to the United Nations University. This law appears to have been enforced. Syria had a 100 percent attendance rate for primary school and secondary school before the war. More women were enrolled in higher education institutions than men, according to ICEF Monitor, which tracks international students around the world.

Time: 34:00 (Jimmy Dore studio)

Claim: LGBT Syrians are protected by law under the constitution.

Fact check: Inaccurate. Article 520 of the Penal Code criminalizes homosexuality with prison sentences up to three years, according to the Equal Rights Trust, a civil rights group that focuses on gender, sexual orientation and race inequity. ERT states that it’s not known if this law is ever enforced, or if anyone has been convicted under this law.

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People to interview

  • Shari O’Donnell – O’Donnell is an Irish filmmaker. A community Buzzfeed piece claimed she helped produce “Voice of Syria,” Ortiz’s documentary.
  • Orlando von Einsiedel – von Einsiedel made the film “The White Helmets,” a 2017 Oscar Winner for Documentary (Short Subject).
  • Syria Civil Defense (direct email to verify claims i.e salaries of workers)
  • Bilal Abdul Kareem – Kareem is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who has carried out extensive reporting from the ground in Syria, especially during the Aleppo bombings.


Sources to help with fact-checking

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