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US freezes funding to Syria’s White Helmets rescue unit

The White Helmets hold banners as they stage a protest named "Assad besieges Ghouta" to draw attention the deaths of children due to malnutrition on 26 October 2017 [Fadi al Shami/Anadolu Agency]

The US has frozen funding to the Syrian White Helmets civil defence unit, less than two months after praising the group’s efforts during a meeting with them in Washington, CBS News has reported.

The US State Department announced yesterday the funds to the group, which make up a third of their total budget, were under “active review”.

“This is a very worrisome development,” said an official from the White Helmets. “Ultimately, this will negatively impact the humanitarian workers’ ability to save lives.”

The White Helmets, formally known as the Syrian Civil Defence, are a 3,000 volunteer rescue force that have saved the lives of some 70,000 people since the war began. The group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and a documentary on the volunteers won an Academy Award at the Oscar’s in 2017.

The organisation has reportedly not received funds from the US for several weeks prompting inquiry as to whether they will continue in the long run. While the group has an “emergency plan”, the group’s leader Raed Saleh said they would struggle to last beyond one or two months.

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US President Donald Trump halted $200 million of funding for recovery efforts in Syria in late March, of which the White Helmets is just one of several infrastructure and welfare projects to be affected. An internal memo stipulated that the Trump administration needed to confirm last month if the funding would be restarted, or the Near East Bureau would initiate “shut-down procedures on a rolling basis”.

The White Helmets responded to the reports today on Twitter stating: “On 31 March, the US Government froze $200m for Syria which included some indirect support for the White Helmets as well as rebuilding and recovery funds for others. [The] Freeze is not specific to the WH’s [White Helmets] and we hope all Syria funds will resume soon.”

The move comes after American officials praised the crucial work done by White Helmets volunteers during a meeting.

“Our meetings in March were very positive. There were even remarks from senior officials about long-term commitments even into 2020. There were no suggestions whatsoever about stopping support,” Saleh said.

#WarInSyria

The White Helmets have been the focus of a number of conspiracy theories online, originating from supporters of Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime. A recent story included photos that allegedly proved the civil defence group had staged images of the chemical attack in Douma; the photos cited later emerged to have been from a Syrian movie.

Last week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged the group were a creation of a former British intelligence officer and funded by billionaire George Soros. The group have also been accused of being a front for terrorist organisations by the Syrian regime.

‘Fake news’: the mainstreaming of Syria conspiracy theories

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