The search and rescue organisation the White Helmets have received praise for their work from various governments and organisations across the globe. The organisation was founded by the former British army officer and military contractor James Le Mesurier in 2014. It claims to have saved over 114,000 lives and to have lost the lives of 204 of its volunteers in the process. Their work has even invited the interest of filmmakers – “The White Helmets” documentary produced by Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara won an Oscar in 2017 in the category of Documentary, short subject.
The White Helmets assist in preparing organised documentation of atrocities in Syria and provide images, videos and statistics of casualties on a daily basis. The professional nature of their work has won them support from the media who have often relied on their footage for stories. Their footage has culminated in some of the biggest news coverage in world. Their footage in February 2018 of the aerial bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, gained tremendous media attention. They also give access to their materials to non-governmental organisations, making it convenient for those people and organisations planning to build a case of crimes against humanity against the President of Syria, Bashar Al-Assad.
It is this politicisation of their work, amongst other things, that has attracted scrutiny and criticism. According to The Irish Times “the Assad regime accuses the White Helmets of backing the rebels and having links to jihadist groups. The White Helmets deny such allegations and insist that have remained neutral throughout the conflict”.
The war in Syria has persisted since March 2011 and has shown no sign of abating. Instead the war has seen additional political actors enter the fray. This war is regarded as one of the deadliest civil wars in living history. There are currently over half a dozen countries involved in Syria, all which have their own geopolitical reasons for engaging in this war. Over and above new political actors there have been a number of humanitarian and relief organisations that have also intervened in Syria. The United Nations (UN) and the Arab League Envoy to Syria put out an estimate of 400,000 that have died in the war. According to a report compiled by the Europe University Institute in conjunction with the Migration Policy Centre, an estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011 and 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance within the country. These statistics indicate the desperate political and humanitarian situation in Syria and indeed the role of non-governmental organisations.
The criticisms of the White Helmets have intensified over the years, the Russian media in particular has been relentless in this regard. Most of the reports on the White Helmets have concentrated on their independence and non-partisanship. This has inevitably triggered suspicions from some people in the region. The decision on 22 July by the government of Israel to evacuate members of the White Helmets and their families to Jordan has added to these suspicions. According to The Irish Times “The Israeli military has extracted more than 400 members of Syria’s White Helmets civil defence group and their families, evacuating them to Jordan from the war zone in southwest Syria”.
According to reports the reason for the evacuation is that it is feared that the Syrian government might target the White Helmets and their families as renewed military excursions ensue in Syria. Israel has claimed that the request came from the “United States and a number of European countries, including the United Kingdom”. Those evacuated will remain in Jordan for three months and thereafter be distributed to various European countries where they will begin their new lives.
The timing of the evacuation and the readiness of the Israeli government to assist have added to the suspicions. Even those who have in the past brushed off allegations leveled against the White Helmets are now raising questions. Israel is not known for its cordiality towards the Arabs in general, it has only been friendly to those who have assisted in its military and political objectives. Skeptics have argued that this latest decision has given credence to some accusations leveled against the White Helmets. Importantly, according to some observers, this decision also rubbishes claims that the White Helmets have been impartial in the conflict in Syria. Why was special treatment granted to them amidst thousands of similar requests from other organisations and civilians?
Recently, thousands of Syrian refugees remained stranded for weeks next to the borders of Jordan and Israel. Both these countries refused to intervene in the crisis nor allow safe passage to refugees through their countries. Israel continues to shoot and kill protesters along its border with Gaza. It has also continued with an economic blockade of Gaza which has led to continual difficulties in the Strip. It is therefore natural given these realities that most in the region are questioning the Israeli gesture and by association the White Helmets.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.