The Syrian Crisis is one of the greatest tragedies of the twenty-first century – nearly ten years after protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, the violence has still not ended. Instead, after a decade of bitter civil war, perhaps as many as 585,000 people have been killed, including tens of thousands of children, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Almost six million Syrians are believed to be in refugee camps after fleeing the country, with a further 6.2 million people displaced inside the country itself.

This is the terrible toll of a conflict that has disfigured the country’s historic cities and wrought destruction on the lives those who live there. In a chilling inversion of Thomas Hobbes’ famous phrase, the lifecycle of this war has been nasty, poor, brutish, and long.

Because of social media, digital technology, and smart phones, this tragedy has taken place before the eyes of the world in an unprecedented fashion. Yet, despite the Syrian civil war being among the most thoroughly documented conflicts in human history, the evidence of war crimes and atrocities committed by the Assad regime and its Russian allies (from 2015) has frequently been distorted.

“Wars are fought with guns and bombs and stories”, says Chloe Hadjimatheou in the opening episode of Mayday, a gripping new podcast from BBC Radio 4. Her aim is to uncover one particularly mysterious story, the details of which are entangled within the blurred battle lines of Syria’s long and bloody civil war — the strange death of James Le Mesurier in Istanbul in December 2019.

Le Mesurier was a former British army officer who helped to mobilise and lead the famous White Helmets, a celebrated volunteer civil defence organisation that has provided humanitarian aid throughout the Syrian Crisis. Hadjimatheou follows the trail left behind by his death, tracing the life of a figure who comes across as a classic British “adventurer” in the mould of T.E. Lawrence, as well as a committed humanitarian. The name of the podcast itself, “Mayday”, comes from the name of the organisation that Le Mesurier helped to build from 2014 in order to coordinate the White Helmets as they came under increasing pressure with the escalation of Syria’s civil war.

The heroism of the White Helmets is well documented in videos and in the testimony of the war’s survivors. Most of them are ordinary Syrians who, with awe-inspiring courage, put their lives at considerable risk to help civilians and combatants caught in the most dangerous of circumstances. Their work received international acclaim – in 2016, the White Helmets won a Right Livelihood Award, a prestigious international prize given to those who promote peace, environmentalism and human rights. In 2017, a Netflix documentary about the White Helmets was awarded an Oscar.

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, carry a wounded child pulled from the rubble of a building after a reported airstrike by pro-government forces on the village of Shinan in the northwestern Idlib province, on 12 November, 2019. Photo by ABDULAZIZ KETAZ/AFP via Getty Images.

This all came at a price, however. Slowly but surely, Le Mesurier and the White Helmets were dragged into a warped disinformation war. As Hadjimatheou explains, “there were others that wanted to shape the way the war was seen too – the Syrian and Russian governments. And to do that, they’d have to flip everything on its head. They would have to pull the war into a bizarre mirror world, where everything would be inverted, where heroes become villains, and where we begin to doubt everything we think we know.”

Early on, Hadjimatheou concludes, the Syrian government – and then its Russian backers – decided that the White Helmets were a threat. As witnesses to the atrocities committed by the Assad regime against its own people, including chemical and bombing attacks against innocent civilians, they had to be neutralised and discredited. Otherwise, it was feared that they would fuel international outrage and possible western armed interventions. President Assad, the Kremlin, and their loyal press organisations have since pursued a relentless mission to muddy the waters, presenting the White Helmets and James Le Mesurier as sinister tools of foreign governments, sectarian terrorists, and legitimate targets for military strikes.

In Mayday, the darkest sides of humanity are examined alongside moments of extraordinary courage. We are taken through the twists and turns of how the conflict in Syria quickly created a struggle to control the narrative. Caught in the middle of this information war, Le Mesurier discovered that his idealistic mission was being distorted by state-sponsored misinformation cults and celebrity conspiracy theorists.

Throughout this extraordinary podcast, Hadjimatheou combines her highly impressive skill as an investigative journalist with a compelling narrative and slick production. It is quite simply a triumph for Radio 4’s production team. The song “Zamilou” by Syrian rap and indie artist Bu Kolthoum is an apt musical score running through the series and it lends an evocative atmosphere to the podcast throughout its eleven episodes.

With the upcoming ten-year anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian Crisis and of the Arab Spring more generally, Mayday gives us cause to reflect on the legacy of these uprisings after a decade of upheaval, protest, and counter-revolutions. This tale of twenty-first century conflict explores that tragic old truism — that the first casualty of war is truth.

For more of the best podcasts of 2020, check out this list from podcast guru Nick Hilton.