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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Syria's White Helmets: All we care about is saving lives

How Syria Civil Defence volunteers were smeared by a co-ordinated propaganda campaign

Volunteers of White Helmets search for survivors after an explosion in the city of Idlib, Syria, in April 2018. Mohammed Badra / EPA
Volunteers of White Helmets search for survivors after an explosion in the city of Idlib, Syria, in April 2018. Mohammed Badra / EPA

If all the conspiracy theories about the Syrian White Helmets are to be believed, its volunteer rescue workers could claim to be part of one of the most versatile organisations in the history of warfare.

Simultaneously puppets of the British state, Al Qaeda fighters and agents of George Soros. Producers of hyper-realistic fake rescue videos with a stable of crisis actors at their disposal. First responders to the aftermath of bombings and advocates for western air strikes.

Debunking the many claims about the group has become something of a Sisyphean struggle, played out online by advocates for both sides in Syria’s civil war. But in recent weeks, the real world consequences of the propaganda war against the group have become starker.

As the Syrian army consolidates its control over previously rebel-held areas where the group operates, its volunteers risk falling into the hands of a government that has accused them of being terrorists.

In recognition of that danger, some 422 volunteers and their family members were extracted from southern Syria last month as government forces closed in and taken to Jordan via the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Hundreds didn’t make it out. Some instead boarded buses to opposition-held Idlib, where they fear they will be targeted by the Syrian government in the eventuality it is recaptured.

In the days following the evacuation, President Bashar Al Assad accused the White Helmets of being a “mask” for Al Qaeda.

"The fate of the White Helmets will be the same as that of any terrorist. They have two paths: either lay down their arms and take advantage of amnesty … or be liquidated, like other terrorists," he told Russian media.

Syria’s Grand Mufti, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, joined the chorus, calling the rescue workers “war criminals”.

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It was just the latest round in a pattern of attacks against the organisation. Since Russia’s entry to the war in 2015, the Russian and Syrian governments, together with their state media institutions and contributors, have targeted the rescue workers in a concerted campaign.

The reaction to the evacuation was a reminder of the dangers the volunteers face in a changing landscape in Syria, as the government reasserts its control over the country, and it has provided further fuel for the group’s detractors, who accuse the rescuers of being stooges of Israel.

“For them, the involvement of Israel legitimises all their conspiracy theories which suggests Israel is pulling the strings of those opposed to Assad,” Kristyan Benedict, Crisis Campaigns Manager at Amnesty International, told The National. “None of these people ponder on what the alternative was for the White Helmets because it means admitting the regime would have detained them, disappeared them, tortured them and finally executed them.”

For the rescuers, it was a story they have heard before.

“We weren’t surprised,” said Ammar al-Selmo, a 34-year-old White Helmet volunteer who works in western Aleppo. “Russia and the regime use the fear of terror to hijack the narrative. They have succeeded in that.”

The White Helmets emerged as a loose formation of volunteer rescue groups in early 2013, when rebel-held areas were being pounded by the Syrian air force and civilian casualties were piling up.

The volunteers came from all walks of life: there were plumbers, engineers, teachers — even a handful of former rebel fighters who laid down their guns.

In the absence of emergency services in the areas where the government was no longer present, these groups took it upon themselves to carry out rescues. They worked independently of each other at first, and later began co-ordinating.

Seeing the necessity for their work, former British soldier and security consultant James Le Mesurier and a group of Turkish earthquake rescuers got together and began training them, helping to set up a formal organisation in 2013 called the Syria Civil Defence. They gained the White Helmets nickname because of their distinctive headgear.

They were viewed by many in the West as heroes in a conflict that had few real good guys. A documentary about their work was awarded an Oscar in 2017.

The UK government stepped in with funding: it has given £38.4 million (Dh185m) to the group since 2011 through its Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. Later, the volunteers were given camera equipment to film the aftermath of these air strikes. It was then that the attacks stepped up.

“What the Assadist camp really objects to is the documentation of their war crimes — this has scared them the most and motivated them to launch these vicious online and physical attacks on the White Helmets,” said Mr Benedict.

Mr Le Mesurier, the founder of the White Helmets, said his initial reaction to the allegations that the rescuers were terrorists was confusion.

“When these attacks from bloggers first started, we tried to reach out to them. But it quickly became clear that it wasn’t logic we were dealing with, but an agenda,” he said.

“We weren’t bothered by it at first because the personalities pushing these stories were so fringe. But it became significant when Russia joined the conflict in 2015 and gave them a platform.”

This handful of bloggers began to push the idea that the White Helmets were staging videos and using crisis actors. Stills from rescues were marked with red circles and arrows, with claims that either the victims were actors or the rescuers were fighters. Such claims were frequently debunked, but they refused to die.

Most of the claims levelled against the group were demonstrably false, he said. But the few that were genuine were used to tarnish the entire project.

“Any large organisation has these problems. We have 4,000 volunteers. The activities of one are broadly amplified as representing the entire organisation, ” said Le Mesurier, who added that they always saw spikes in attacks against the organisation after “headline events”.

The volunteers themselves are rarely heard in the online battles over their motives — only blurred reports of which would reach them.

“Most of us don’t speak English very well, so we depend only on our work to tell the truth,” said Mr Selmo, the White Helmet volunteer.

“We see it every day, a lot of accusations about the White Helmets. It’s just propaganda. All we care about is saving lives.”