The British man behind the Syrian civil defence group, the White Helmets, found himself at the centre of a battle to control the narrative of the Syrian war. Russian and Syrian propagandists accused his teams of faking evidence of atrocities – and convinced some in the West. The battle for truth formed a backdrop to James Le Mesurier’s sudden death in Istanbul in November 2019.
With the setting sun reflecting in the water and the lights of Istanbul twinkling on the horizon, the wedding guests sat around lantern-lit tables: diplomats from several countries, military officers, journalists and activists who had flown in from around the world to see James Le Mesurier get married.
A dashing former army officer in his 40s, Le Mesurier had made his name as the co-founder of the White Helmets – the group of several thousand young Syrian men and women who pulled survivors and bodies from the rubble of bombed-out buildings in rebel-held areas of the war-ravaged country.
The woman he was marrying, Emma Winberg, once worked for the UK Foreign Office but had latterly been helping him manage the White Helmets. She was his third wife.
The couple lived in a traditional white wooden house overlooking the Marmara Sea on Buyukada island, off the coast of Istanbul. The small island once had a reputation for hosting subversives and spies – Trotsky lived there in a similar wooden house a few years before his fateful meeting with the icepick in Mexico. These days it’s popular with journalists, artists and those wanting to escape the chaos of the city.
The wedding party, in summer of 2018, was held in the garden of the couple’s home with the bride and groom dressed like old-fashioned movie stars. Le Mesurier was carried on the shoulders of his Syrian guests as they bounced him around in a traditional arada sword dance – his face flushed and glowing.
It was a romantic setting and it was obvious the couple was very much in love. But if you had been able to listen in to the guests, you wouldn’t have heard the usual wedding chatter – the main topic of conversation among the champagne and canapes was the ongoing conflict in Syria.
The war was always present – even on their wedding day. They found it impossible to separate their work and their private lives.
Emma knew their future together wouldn’t be stress-free. “We often said, as bad as it gets, we will have each other. We knew it would be an adventure,” she says.
And after the fairy-tale wedding things did get bad – far worse than Emma could have imagined. In just 18 months, James was dead.
On 11 November 2019 at around 05:00, a worshipper on his way to morning prayers discovered James Le Mesurier’s crumpled body lying on the cobblestones in a narrow alleyway in Istanbul. He had apparently fallen from the apartment above his office, three floors up. Emma was still asleep in their bed when the police banged on the door and woke her.
Turkish detectives questioned her and took her DNA and fingerprints before forensically scouring the scene. There were concerns that Le Mesurier had also been murdered by foreign agents, like the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi a year earlier, almost to the day.
As the news of the 48-year-old’s death broke around the world, lots of people – including many friends and associates – assumed he had been murdered. The White Helmets were a thorn in the side of the Syrian and Russian governments, bearing witness to the bombing and killing of innocents and posting the videos online.
In Moscow the television news described his death as a “purely English murder” claiming he had been finished off by his “MI6 handlers” when he stopped being useful. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad later gave an interview where he likened Le Mesurier’s death to that of Jeffrey Epstein, saying both men knew too many secrets to be allowed to live.
The British government was quick to dismiss such allegations.
“The Russian charges against him that came out of the Foreign Ministry that he was a spy – categorically untrue,” said Karen Pierce, the UK ambassador to the UN. “He was a real humanitarian, and the world and Syria in particular is poorer for his loss.”
Digging into his past it seems that at one point Le Mesurier did want to be a spy. After leaving the army he applied to join MI6 and – on paper at least – he looked a perfect fit. He aced the application process, but he was turned down at vetting; it took him months to recover from the disappointment.
An old friend, Alistair Harris, describes Le Mesurier as “Lawrence of Arabia-esque” – an image friends say he liked to cultivate. He had a taste for the finer things in life, and lived in a series of homes on islands. During several years living in the Gulf, he would regularly travel into town from his home on Futaisi island, Doha, standing at the wheel of the boat wearing a suit and brogues, his tie flapping in the wind. But he was never in the Security and Intelligence Services says Harris, a former UK diplomat who worked with Le Mesurier on several projects in the Middle East.