Some free thinkers are Bothsidesing the Free Burma Rangers.
Note: The title of this post is intended to make clear my position. In spite of that, I will be as thorough about my process of coming to that conclusion as I possibly can so anyone else can draw conclusions for themselves. In that vein, my post explaining the Free Burma Rangers and the White Helmets (written before I became aware of the conspiracy theories surrounding the latter group) here.
So, to be more specific, we can call this a subset of Bothsidsing, “They’re No Angels-ing “ David Eubank and pals.
I don’t think I need a disclosure for how I feel about FBR given previous posts, but I’ll endeavor to be as thorough as I can in providing information so everyone can decide for themselves or, if interested, do further research on their own. I mean, that’s what I always try to do and have received positive feedback for it, but it seemed to bear special mention here.
So, here’s the spark to what is now a conversation, at times heated, on the twitters right now.
When I first saw this, I just sorta rolled my eyes and thought: Somebody’s always got to be That Guy.
Of course, I’m also sensitive to the demands of self-promotion in his field, so there’s that. But some hills still strike me as strange ones to die on, if you’ll pardon the expression.
Anyway, here’s the piece he’s referring to, which is actually an interesting read for a lot of FBR detail. But, as always, there’s some shit to parse.
<OK FOR SOME REASON MEDIUM PIECES DON’T EMBED IN WORDPRESS>:
Here’s what it should look like if I had the right plug-in or something.
So, let’s first dispense with the question which, based on previous experience and described in previous posts (The War on Twitter P1, P2, P3)) we should ask whenever we see anything like this (besides reading it, I mean 😉 ):
Is this an information op?
I don’t know. Or rather, I don’t know if it’s, say, a Russian planned op, for example. This doesn’t have the massive blunt force nature of the Russian ones I’ve been able to see unfold, but not all are like that.
Fundamentally, though, the Russian theory of military deception—it even has a name, Maskirovka (wiki link) as part of the deep operations theory (wiki link) they pioneered like 100 years ago—doesn’t require something like this to be a planned op.
To illustrate, here’s a great video that @Barbed Wire Bob found for me on the subject from War is Boring, also on Medium, which means it also won’t fucking embed and is messing up my formatting too:
Once something like this happens—when a story like this breaks—their agents on social media know to share and concern troll it, probably without being told, and their groomed assets just do that stuff anyway in predictable ways—sorta the definition of an asset.
So whether or not this was “intentional” drops out with what social scientists call “observational equivalence,” which means that looking at the outcome doesn’t allow you to discern what the cause is because two (or more) different causes will lead to the same effect, so how do you figure out which it was?
Well, sometimes, as per above and in this case, it doesn’t actually mater: We know that it’s happening. So let’s look at it.
To begin, there are all sorts of hand-wringing concern trolls—
—out there, some who appear to be legit people and while others are just trolls.
You can go online and tool around and see for yourself, but here’s the first of these types of Tweets I clicked through on:
(Note: The account has since been deleted and a porn account is in it’s place.)
Intriguing start. Let’s go to the Google translate app because stupid fucking Twitter app doesn’t have their translate functionality apply to descriptions—the website does—for reasons I cannot ken accept how many people care these days about verifying whom you’re listening, huh? Jerks.
So, here goes:
GAH! I mean, I guess at least it’s a philosophy.
Ok, good talk. Agent or asset? Dunno. Don’t really care. She’s retweeting as an agent would, so she’s effectively an asset to whomever wants this put out, even if it’s simply the authors.
Anyone can figure out a lot of this FakeNews crap with a few simple click throughs. I have to think a lot of this disinformation problem could be alleviated to a degree, except that people apparently just don’t want to click through even to save the Republic. But I digress.
So that’s the scene. Needless to say, the FBR supporters on the ground are apoplectic. But that doesn’t make them right, yeah? So it makes sense to look at the original piece a bit first or their response won’t make any sense because we don’t know what the various responses are referring to yet.
So, as I said, the piece is very thorough and has lots of interesting detail.
It also has lots of fuzzy and suggestive passages of the, “If that is your real name…” variety:
Interview with David Eubank, describing him as an aid worker. (source)
Despite this contentious and muddled history, the existence of the FBR and their actions across Syria consistently blur the line of humanitarian aid and targeted activism. While media and interviews with the FBR have framed the group as a humanitarian organization, this is an oversimplification of the actions and efforts being undertaken by the FBR on the front lines in northeastern Syria, much of which appears to actively endanger the safety of volunteers as well as that of Eubank’s family.
Anyway, within the intermingled breathless commentary and deep dives into facts which are pretty interesting—and there’s lots of images I hadn’t seen before, which is good work—there is this basic argument:
Conclusion: The FBR may actually be combatants in the conflict, and not just the humanitarian workers they claim to be.
- They are frequently armed and use military style equipment such as armored vehicles for ambulances.
- Members have been seen firing weapons in combat zones.
- Their ambulances frequently have poor markings and are often very dirty.
Obviously this matters because, as the authors lay out, although humanitarian workers are allowed arms and the right of self defense, they are not allowed to be partisan combatants and retain their status. The authors have helpfully (Seriously, this is way better than looking it up myself) supplied the relevant links.
CONDITIONS NOT DEPRIVING MEDICAL UNITS AND ESTABLISHMENTS OF PROTECTION
The following conditions shall not be considered as depriving a medical unit or establishment of the protection guaranteed by Article 19 [ Link ] :
(1) That the personnel of the unit or establishment are armed, and that they use the arms in their own defence, or in that of the wounded and sick in their charge.
(2) That in the absence of armed orderlies, the unit or establishment is protected by a picket or by sentries or by an escort.
(3) That small arms and ammunition taken from the wounded and sick and not yet handed to the proper service, are found in the unit or establishment.
(4) That personnel and material of the veterinary service are found in the unit or establishment, without forming an integral part thereof.
(5) That the humanitarian activities of medical units and establishments or of their personnel extend to the care of civilian wounded or sick.
Now, given that, if the FBR are ever involved in offensive action, they cease to be protected under international treaty.
DISCONTINUANCE OF PROTECTION OF MEDICAL ESTABLISHMENTS AND UNITS
The protection to which fixed establishments and mobile medical units of the Medical Service are entitled shall not cease unless they are used to commit, outside their humanitarian duties, acts harmful to the enemy. Protection may, however, cease only after a due warning has been given, naming, in all appropriate cases, a reasonable time limit and after such warning has remained unheeded.
We will, for the moment, put aside the incredibly important legal institutional issue of “Who the Fuck Do They Think Is Enforcing International Law in Syria?” for the moment.
(Law makes people so weird. Law in this absence of a state or umbrella organization to enforce it really isn’t a terribly practical approach to understanding the real world that we, as people, actually live in. I blame the lawyers for all of this. [Disclosure: My father was a lawyer.])
So, their third claim is a little different from the first two in that one is more about why Turkish forces might not actually be targeting the ambulances they have attacked, the strikes actually being the fault of the BMR for not doing a better job identifying themselves.
The idea has theoretical merit. The rejoinder is that we’ve had Green Berets over there for years with only 6 deaths and there have been few if any incidents of Russians or US forces being hit in any of the recent engagement (actually, some Russians were promptly shelled on Turkish incursion like a month ago, but Russia denied it despite video). So deconfliction plans are in place and have been very effective where implemented.
This all suggests to me that Turkish and Turkish backed forces can manage to identify who they don’t want to hit when they want to, and it’s worth mentioning that’s one of the primary reasons you use drones anyway. But yes, there is a theoretical possibility here and there are a lot of obvious reasons to try to keep your vehicle well marked and clean if you’re a rescue worker, even if you’re in a desert combat zone.
So, as the saying goes, I report, you decide, but that’s also the least important point because that’s more about Turkish responsibility or lack their of for attacking FBR units; the much more important issue here is whether or not the Free Burma Rangers have active culpability by virtue of being enemy combatants rather than drivers of dirty ambulances, which would be more about irresponsibility or negligence.
The main issue is obviously whether or not FBR are using their weapons to engage in offensive military operations.
Now, speaking of I Report You Decide, it is no secret that Eubank and the Free Burma Rangers work alongside combatants in their work, as has been thoroughly documented and, for that matter, praised.
To refresh our memory:
You need to click through to the article to see this next video.
FOXNews (Video): US aid worker helps displaced civilians in northern Syria
Oct. 30, 2019 – 1:49 – David Eubank of the volunteer group the Free Burma Rangers says it’s not too late for the U.S. to intervene; Benjamin Hall reports.
So that part is no secret. The issue is whether they are affirmatively engaging an enemy in offensive combat.
So that’s what needs investigating.
In that vein, as a brief aside, I love the way they describe in their article “tooling around on InstaGram” as though it’s some complex research technique:
In order to identify the man in the video and confirm whether he was a foreign fighter, a medic with the FBR, or a member of the YPG, we began by mapping out the FBR’s online networks via SOCMINT sources. By looking at conversations, friends lists, and different interactions via publicly available social media pages, then cross-referencing various visual and contextual elements within these sources, we were able to determine that the man seen firing in the video is Jason Torlano, a volunteer medic with the FBR.
Honestly, to me, this sounds like a precocious teenager trying to explain to his parents how he wasn’t actually screwing around on the internet instead of doing his homework. Please: That’s a working description of FaceBooking. Nice job, Encyclopedia Brown. I used to see this nonsense all the time when I taught, though I admit, this is some rarefied high quality nonsense.
It might be elite FaceBooking, but anyone who’s graded papers is gonna raise an eyebrow here. Since that’s really essentially what we’re doing here—evaluating an argument and evidence—I felt I needed to point out that that set my bullshit detector off.
But even more than that, I zeroed in on this (emphasis added):
Similarly, under IHL, medics may carry arms and defend themselves and those under their care with force if attacked. These protections are lost if medics use their arms offensively rather than defensively. The FBR appear to be privy to this fact, as their spokesperson noted that while some of their volunteers carry arms and actively engage in combat, “at no time in Iraq, Burma, or Syria have we taken offensive action.”
The authors are implying saying-not-saying-just-saying style that if they made that claim, it’s probably be to cover their own ass and not the truth.
In legalese, this is called an “impermissible adverse inference.” In regular terms, nobody who takes rights seriously believes that we may draw negative conclusions from someone asserting their own human rights, of which the right to self defense is a primary fundamental right, and this goes all the way back to frickin’ Hobbes in the 1600s.
People know this instinctively in practice, and it spans political affiliation among people who believe in rights.
Check two common versions in America:
- Liberal: Exercising one’s right to a lawyer does not mean someone is a criminal.
- Conservative: Exercising one’s right to bear arms does not make one a criminal.
Now, do people lose sight of the rights of others in the heat of disagreement? Sure. But the basic premise holds that adverse inference is basically a shady tactic attempted by attorneys to sow doubt.
It is wholly inappropriate to a professional researcher or analyst, and doubly so when one is discussing rights as a central issue to the argument.
So, those are my criticisms, I linked to the piece above for anyone interested in diving deeper for themselves. As I said, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in it and some cool pics.
But stuff like this makes me want to check the authorship.
I’ll make it as easy as possible for you to check it out for yourself:
Now, bracketing the intellectual dishonesty I pointed out before, this piece is being shared around by, among others, people who explicitly believe SDF=YPG=PKK=terrorist, which has been the position of Turkey and its partisans used to justify the incursion into Syria and which has been essentially rejected by the US military.
If you think the Free Burma Rangers are providing humanitarian relief exclusively for terrorists, then you’re going to be skeptical of them.
I get that. Although the little girl Eubank saved in that video above didn’t look like a terrorist to me.
(As an aside, while I’ve stated previously that here is a special corner of hell for people who shoot at medics—a popular theme in war movies [Saving Private Ryan has a particularly good version]—I realized this morning that I’d never thought about, say, ISIS having medics. But they must, right? And the proto-caliphate must have had hospitals? How do I feel about these as targets? Bombing a hospital is probably still fucked up, but… it’s not so much that I think it’s OK or not OK to shoot an ISIS medic but that it never occurred to me think of bad guys having medics. I had a GIJoe medic action figure: Lifeline!—
—but not a COBRA one. I need think about this.)
So yeah, I can see how, bracketing a whole bunch of issues, helping terrorists is going to make you question even a humanitarian’s intentions. And even if their intentions are good, you might find them misguided and harmful. Machiavelli would probably say shoot the medic for the greater good.
So that’s my analysis. Given the magic of social media, the people on the ground who feel, let’s call it antipathy, for the argument,can speak for themselves. And they do.
Here are two Tweets, the first refers to the second from our friend Dani Ellis of Marie Claire.uk fame, who has rather more to say.
Here’s the whole thing so you don’t have to keep clicking:
Seen a bunch of hatchet jobs and ignorant chat about @FreeBurmaRangrs and trying not to get too pissed off about it. Here’s what I have experienced working both around them and directly with them:
Firstly, and I thought obviously, they are not part of or even politically aligned with any of the structures, either civil or military, here in Syria. They give out arm patches & tshirts and likewise fly YPG flags etc out of mutual respect from a year of working alongside locals
I have never witnessed any kind of proselytising. Many in the group are christian, but some are not, and while I have often seen them pray and sing christian songs, never have I seen them require or even include religion in their interactions and work with people on the ground.
They are unashamedly armed and most of them are formed soldiers or at least have combat training. They are operating in some of the most dangerous environments on the planet; just watch some of their videos from Mosul to understand what they go up against to save lives.
Similarly they do not hide the fact that they have armoured vehicles, and the lives of several of their members (including @DaveEubankFBR ) were saved by this fact when Zau Seng was killed by a mortar which landed a few metres away from them.
When they first arrived their vehicles were white w/large red crosses & crescents painted on them, as well as ‘ambulance’ in English and Arabic. Only after multiple local ambulances were destroyed & many medics killed by Turkish air strikes they switched to camouflaging with mud
Here is a basic fact that none of the OSINT or armchair analysts seem to want to take into account: short of a Turkish flag 🇹🇷 nothing painted on your vehicles will save you from attack here. If you want to save lives you *must* have protection & be prepared to defend yourselves
And FBR have done exactly that: they have saved 100s of lives. They have delivered tonnes of aid and worked 24/7 to improve the miserable situation that the Turkish state has created here. They have never asked for anything in return and even lost one of their dearest friends.
Does anyone else here agree with their politics or methods 100%? No, of course not. But they are not part of some sinister plot or conspiracy either. They are defying bureaucratic understanding of what aid is & many people are alive today who would not be, if it weren’t for them
And then there are the Twitter wars. Again, you can check this out for yourself—there are a few people outright excoriating FBR, but in general there are two main groups.
The “against FBR” Tweets are mostly super Concern Troll-y (I need to remember to make screen caps this time; I need to get better about my receipts now that I know how often Tweets get deleted in this quagmire.)
The “pro FBR” side is mostly Fuck You:
(Note: One man’s opinion, but that blue hat next to the name where a blue check would go is disingenuous as fuck. And pretty clever. I just wanted to point out that this Tweet is representative, but I don’t want anyone thinking that’s a validated account.)
My personal 2¢ is that the fact that one “side” is attacking through concern trolling and bothsidesing it and saying “Who is to know?” or wringing hands and clutching pearls in ways that are so fundamentally similar means that it’s a play—a disingenuous information operation. This matches very closely to the process I mentioned before. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, of course. It does mean that the story is consistently being weaponized in a certain familiar way that is used to distort information.
But the real way to figure things out is to get at the data and to fit it to the arguments, which I have endeavored to do as far as possible here.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t conclude with my first impression, from even before I did all this research:
Who the fuck looks at an armored ambulance and doesn’t immediately think, “Who the fuck shoots at an ambulance?”
I just read that Medium article about the FBR. I agree that their sourcing is very thin. You have one video of a guy firing a few rounds, that may or may not be Jason Torlano. There is no context for the firing, but appears to be cover the rescue effort.
I especially liked how the authors managed to claim that teaching locals how to clear land mines and battlefield communications implies that they’re up to nefarious activity. That’s…something.
Now that you mention it, while perhaps theoretically sound in terms of the prudence of avoiding “a bad look,” there are serious practical flaws in the argument that land mine removal should only be conducted by non-military trained personnel.
Like: It’s stupid.