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The Syria Civil Defence volunteers, or White Helmets as they are commonly called, have become both a symbol of heroism in the harshest of circumstances and a magnet for controversy in Syria and abroad.
The group serves as the main provider of emergency services in many areas outside of regime control. What began as a handful of unarmed volunteers scouring the rubble around Aleppo undergoing heavy bombardment has grown to a group of nearly 3,000 – who receive a monthly stipend of about $150 – with some 120 centres around the country. According to the group’s account, small search-and-rescue squads began operating in late 2012 and early 2013, forming centres in Aleppo, Douma and al-Bab.
In early 2013, a former British army officer turned private contractor named James Le Mesurier launched a training initiative for the volunteers with $300,000 in funding from the United States, United Kingdom and Japan. Initially, 25 Syrians underwent training in Turkey with assistance from Turkey’s natural disasters response team, AKUT.
Le Mesurier and the nonprofit organization he founded, Mayday Rescue, have continued to raise international funding to pay for training and equipment and provide stipends to the volunteers, along with the US-based contractor Chemonics.
The group became formally known as the Syria Civil Defence and adopted a line from the Koran as their motto: ‘To save one life is to save all of humanity’. The group says its volunteers have saved more than 60,000 civilians; it is also tasked in many areas with burying the dead. A widely shared video posted in July 2014 showed a volunteer pulling a ten-day-old baby from the rubble of a half-collapsed building.
Khaled Omar Hurrah, the volunteer in the video, was subsequently killed in an airstrike in August 2016. The group’s director in Daraa, Abdullah al Sarhan, was killed on 20 March 2017, when a missile hit the vehicle in which he was travelling. He was the 167th White Helmet to be killed in the war, according to the Syria Campaign, a UK-based nonprofit advocacy group that runs public relations campaigns, including fundraising, for the group.
The White Helmets were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, ultimately losing out to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his role in negotiating a peace accord between the government and rebels to end a 50-year civil war there. The group did, however, win the 2016 Right Livelihood Award, sometimes referred to as the Alternative Nobel Prize.
A Netflix film about the White Helmets by director Orlando von Einsiedel won the 2017 Oscar for Best Short Documentary. Two of the rescue workers, who had been granted visas to attend the ceremony in Hollywood, were ultimately unable to travel. The group said the Syrian government had also cancelled the passport of Khaled Khatib, who shoots photos and videos of the group’s activities and had worked on the documentary.
In other quarters, the White Helmets have attracted criticism for their ties to and funding from Western governments and for operating in areas controlled by militant groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Jabat al-Nusra, and some say, collaborating with them.
Apart from the crowdfunding website run by the Syria Campaign – which reports having raised $11.5 million from more than 191,000 people – most of the White Helmets’ funding has come from foreign and mostly Western governments, including the US, UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Japan.
The White Helmets have also received money from USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives. The programme reportly spent $29 million on assistance to civil defence teams in Syria. ‘To date, Syrian emergency responders have saved over 73,000 lives and emerged as one of the strongest pillars of Syrian society,’ the website stated.
The foreign funding has become a target of critics who accuse the group of being a propaganda tool of the West in a campaign to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In a widely shared article published on the leftist site Alternet, journalist Max Blumenthal wrote, ‘The White Helmets’ leadership is driven by a pro-interventionist agenda conceived by the Western governments and public relations groups that back them.’
Al-Assad, for his part, has accused the White Helmets of being linked to terrorist groups. The embattled Syrian president told RT, a state-funded Russian television station, “[The] White Helmets are al-Qaeda members and that’s proven on the net. The same members are killing or executing or celebrating over dead bodies, at the same time they are humanitarian heroes, and now they have an Oscar.” The group was also accused of facilitating an al-Nusra execution in 2015, after a video surfaced showing volunteers carrying away a man’s body.
White Helmets’ Response
In a statement in response to the accusation, the group said its volunteers are tasked with the collection and burial of all bodies in the Hreitan area of northern Aleppo and added, ‘We unequivocally condemn the killing of civilians no matter who the perpetrator.’
The group has also denied that the foreign funding influences its politics. “We accept funds to buy equipment and so we can do our humanitarian work,” a senior White Helmets member told al-Jazeera. “We don’t follow any agenda. Whether it’s the US or the Europeans, nobody puts conditions on their support.”
However, the group has taken open political stances, including lobbying Europe and the US to impose no-fly zones in Syria. It also joined more than 70 other civil society organizations in September 2016 to declare that they would not work with the United Nations on an information-sharing project because of perceived cooperation with the Syrian regime.