Act of Unity in Co-ordinated Evacuation of Syrian ‘White Helmets’

The Syrian Civil Defence, a humanitarian group known as ‘White Helmets’ due to their distinctive safety hats, have been evacuated across the Syrian border into Jordan due to the joint-effort of several external powers. About 100 or so of the White Helmet volunteers along with about 300 others including their family members crossed the southern Syrian border over the 21st and 22nd of July. The mission was prompted by a request from several UN member states, most notably, the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany, who proposed that the Syrian civilians be granted asylum in Jordan after fears of imminent danger from advancing government forces. The evacuation also involved UN powers, in particular the UN Disengagement Observer Force; Israel, who actually facilitated the movement of the evacuees after a request from US President Donald Trump; and Jordan, who agreed to host the group temporarily before their resettlement in either the UK, Canada or Germany.

A spokesman for the White Helmets in northern Syria reported to CNN that “A number of… White Helmets… have been evacuated with their family members for humanitarian reasons. They were besieged in a very dangerous area.” The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) released a statement calling the evacuation an “exceptional humanitarian gesture” and UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt has since praised the White Helmets as “the bravest of the brave,” calling their evacuation “fantastic news” via twitter. Alternatively, the Syrian government has condemned the evacuation as a “criminal operation” and Syrian state news agency (SANA) have portrayed the White Helmets as a security risk, citing a foreign ministry official who asserted that the organisation is of “a terrorist nature.” The Syrian government has laid claims that the White Helmets, a voluntary humanitarian organisation whose slogan reads; “We act neutrally, impartially and for all Syrians” is a Western-sponsored terrorist organisation masquerading as volunteers. This is effectively a death-sentence in Syrian state.

The evacuation is significant for those who want to see a united international community. The operation involved several Western and Middle-Eastern nations who put their overarching humanitarian values above so many of the social and political hurdles in between; sharing the responsibility of upholding human rights. It comes as a beacon of hope when so many countries have tightened their borders to Syrians fleeing the Assad regime, including those who were participants in the recent White Helmet evacuation. While only 400 or so out of the intended 800 Syrians were successfully evacuated due to complications at government checkpoints and Islamic State presence in the area, the joint effort of multiple nations is a refreshing display of international co-operation. However, it does raise concerns for volunteers still operating within Syria.

Since the formation of the Syrian Civil Defence in 2014, the organisation has been regularly targeted by Syrian government forces and its Russian allies for its role in helping those deemed enemies of the Assad regime. According to the organisation, “251 volunteers have been killed in the line of duty” to date. President Assad has accused the White Helmets of being a front for Al-Nusra, (an Al-Qaeda affiliated group) and told Russian media last Thursday that “They have two choices: to lay down their arms… or be killed like the other terrorists.” A senior member of the White Helmets called upon the UN that same day to ask that they rescue his “trapped” colleagues in the southwest from progressing government forces.

While the humanitarian rescue effort should be praised for its impact upon those 400 Syrian lives and the significance it holds for strides towards a peaceful future, the safety of the White Helmets who now remain in Syria should be vigilantly adhered to by the international community in upcoming weeks — watch this space.