The White Helmets are the largest humanitarian organisation in Syria. Founded in 2014, their 3,000 members risk death to aid and rescue civilians in the ‘most dangerous places on earth’.
According to the White Helmet website:
‘Our mission is to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimise further injury to people and damage to property.’
When the vicious realities of the Syrian civil war caught the world’s attention in 2012, international aid agencies and NGOs provided fundraising and training to local civil defense volunteers. The Turkish charity AKUT and the British Mayday Rescue Foundation provided training in first aid, rescue and trauma care to Syrians across the border. In 2014, the volunteer groups formed Syria Civil Defence, or ‘White Helmets’. Though their funding from outside sources, their ranks comprise of Syrians.
Syrian rebel territory, particularly dense urban zones like Aleppo, has been subject to mortar fire, aerial bombardment, barrel bombs and chemical nerve agents. Unarmed White Helmets rescue civilians from rubble, tend to the wounded and maintain water and electrical services. They claim to have saved over 114, 131 lives since the war began.
Syria’s regime and their Russian allies consider the White Helmets enemies. Saving lives and rebuilding infrastructure in hostile territory is not in their interest, as doing so prolongs surrender. As a result Assad pillories the White Helmets as simultaneously as being members of Al Qaeda and agents of US imperialism. Sputnik, the Russian describes the George Soros sponsored White Helmets as ‘busy cooking up lies instead of protecting the human rights of the Syrian people.’ Kremlin propaganda pushes conspiracy theories that the White Helmets are American spies who conducted the 2018 sarin gas attack as a false flag operation.
The White Helmets are not without their detractors in the west either. Blogger Vanessa Bailey, known for her coverage of Israel and Syria, anti-Israel academic Max Blumenthal, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd are among the best known, as well as the usual cohort of American alt right figures who feed into Russian propaganda. They claim the White Helmets:
- are anti Assad
- operate mainly in Jihadist territory
- are funded by foreign governments
- want foreign governments to intervene against Assad
These points are true. However, if volunteers are saving lives, does it really matter what banner flies over them? The White Helmets are merely unarmed medical workers but even so, if you witnessed firsthand the ravages of Russian bombardment you would probably be anti-Assad and favour intervention too. In 2016, during the height of the siege of Aleppo, the White Helmets and three other charities accused Russia of war crimes.
Only in rebel territory are innocents bombed day and night by Russian warplanes. Only in rebel territory are the White Helmets allowed to operate. Before a far right terrorist murdered her in 2016, British Labour MP Joe Cox had nominated the White Helmets for the Nobel Prize. If you ask me they are heroes.
In April 2018, President Trump halted US aid to the White Helmets. In July, when regime forces took the regions of Deraa and Quintera, over 800 White Helmets and their families were stranded against the Israeli border. The Israelis evacuated 422 of them through the Golan Heights to Jordan. Now the remaining White Helmets in Syria are stranded in Idlib province, the last territory to hold out against Assad.
Sources: BBC, The Conversation, The Guardian, Russia Today, New York Times, The Nation, Sputnik, Syria Civil Defense