To some, they are heroes, to others terrorists. No other group in Syria’s messy and prolonged civil war has divided opinion as sharply as the White Helmets. Unarmed, unpaid, and trained according to a manual drawn up for firefighters during the Blitz, on paper, these search-and-rescue workers should make easy good guys. They estimate that they have saved more than 100,000 lives, often digging through rubble with their hands as fighter jets swoop round above them to come in for a second strike. But a concerted propaganda campaign against them, spearheaded by President Assad’s supporters, has found traction around the world. Claims that they are connected to al-Qaeda and that they fake their videos of horrifying, often awe-inspiring rescues from the rubble of Assad’s airstrikes are peddled by hard-leftists, conspiracy theorists and paid provocateurs alike. That they have received millions in backing from Western countries, including £20 million from the UK, has only fuelled those false allegations.
Now, as Assad’s forces close in on the last vestiges of rebel control in Syria, White Helmets volunteers in the northwestern province of Idlib have told The Times that they are ready for a coming onslaught of industrial-scale violence, collective punishment and retribution. “The area where I am staying is an advanced front between the regime and the rebels, and it’s very likely to be one of the first areas under shelling in the province. There are tension and fear among the people,” said Moaaz Abu Mohammad, a White Helmets volunteer spoking via WhatsApp. “We will initially evacuate our workers and the civilians to the farther rebel-held areas, and if the advance continues we hope that Turkey will open its borders to let the displaced and the White Helmets workers into its lands.”
This week Assad gave a stark warning of what awaits any White Helmets volunteers who fall into regime hands. “The fate of the White Helmets will be the same as for any other terrorists. They have two choices: to lay down their arms and use the amnesty we have offered over the last four or five years, or be killed like other terrorists,” he told the Kremlin-controlled news channel RT on Thursday. Those volunteers who have stayed in areas that the regime has retaken, taking up that offer of amnesty, have often been arrested, tortured and forced to read scripted confessions on state television. “It is because they are witnesses to Russian and regime atrocities,” a source working with the White Helmets told The Times. “That is why they are consistently singled out.”
Last weekend’s rescue of 98 White Helmets volunteers and their families, a total of 422 people, in a moonlight operation across the Golan border in Southern Syria, marked the strongest show of resolve by the UK government to protect the people it has been supporting financially since 2013. The Foreign Office was a key player in the frantic two-week negotiations that led up to the evacuation, itself an unprecedented display of military and diplomatic cooperation between Israel and an Arab state. Assad’s forces, backed by Russian airstrikes and supported on the ground by Iranian commanders and militias, have now taken back all of the southwestern province of Daraa and raised the regime flag on the Israeli border. Next comes Idlib. More than a million people who have been displaced from other areas retaken by the regime are currently packed into the rebel-held province in northwestern Syria, alongside another million who were already living there. It is controlled by a morass of armed groups, some of the hardline Islamists, which often fight between themselves. Aid groups describe living conditions as “appalling”, with many families living in self-constructed tents under the scorching sun. The Turkish government insists that it will not open its frontier to those fleeing but will provide camps on the Syrian side of the border. With nowhere else for them to go, there is now the looming spectre of a massacre that will eclipse every other horror that the seven-year war has served up.
The more than 3,000 White Helmets still inside Syria are not guaranteed any safe route out either. And with the UK parliament now in recess and Brexit dominating the foreign agenda, prospects of a deal similar to that struck in the Golan are shaky. On Wednesday, the day after the Commons adjourned, the Labour MP Alison McGovern tabled an urgent question to Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, on what steps are being taken to save civilian lives in Idlib. In Mr Hunt’s absence, it was left to Sir Alan Duncan, minister for Europe and the Americas, to respond. He emphasised the £2.7 billion that the UK has spent on humanitarian aid in Syria since 2011 but repeatedly dodged the central question as to whether the White Helmets can be rescued from Idlib. “I would expect Britain through the UN, through the EU, through its strong links with the humanitarian world to exercise every influence it can to make sure that these people are treated decently and evacuated,” Andrew Mitchell, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Syria and a participant in the debate, told The Times. “The regime has allowed safe passage for humanitarians and rebel fighters in the past. So we (should) look to those who have influence and power on the ground – that is the Syrians, the Iranians, the Turks and the Russians.” President Erdogan and President Putin met on the sidelines of an economic conference in South Africa yesterday, where they are reported to have discussed Idlib. In a joint press conference afterwards, however, they made no mention of it. The Turkish government has not responded to questions on whether they might facilitate an evacuation, even though fears are rising of massacres like those that blighted the wars in the former Yugoslavia in 1995. “I am concerned that in ten weeks’ time parliament will reconvene in the wake of another Srebrenica,” Hamish de Bretton Gordon, a former British army chemical warfare expert who has been preparing the White Helmets for anticipated regime gas attacks on Syria, said.
Credit: The Times, 27 July 2018.