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White Helmets (Syrian Civil War)

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White Helmets
الدفاع المدني السوري
Syrian Civil Defense logo.png
Abbreviation SCD
Formation 2014; 4 years ago (2014)
Founder James Le Mesurier[1][2][3]
Purpose Civil defense
Region served
Syrian opposition-controlled areas
Official languages
Syrian Arabic
Head
Raed Saleh
Volunteers
3,000 (with monthly stipend)
Website syriacivildefense.org

The White Helmets (Arabic: الخوذ البيضاء ,القبعات البيضاءal-Ḫawdh al-bayḍāʾ / al-Qubaʿāt al-Bayḍāʾ), officially known as Syria Civil Defence (SCD; Arabic: الدفاع المدني السوريad-Difāʿ al-Madanī as-Sūrī), is a volunteer organisation that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria and in Turkey. Formed in 2014 during the Syrian Civil War, the majority of their activity in Syria consists of urban search and rescue in response to bombing, medical evacuation, evacuation of civilians from danger areas, and essential service delivery. As of April 2018, the organisation claims to have saved over 114,000 lives and to have lost the lives of 204 White Helmet volunteers in the process.[4]

The group has been the target of a disinformation campaign by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia-sponsored media organisations such as RT, with false claims of close ties with terrorist activities and other conspiracy theories.[5][6][7][8][9][10][11]

History

The rescue teams that later became Syria Civil Defence emerged during the late 2012 escalation of the Syrian Civil War, as areas no longer under government control came under sustained attack by government forces. In response, in the absence of formal governmental structures, small groups of civilian volunteers from affected communities, particularly in Aleppo and Idlib, assembled to assist civilians injured in bombardment or trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings.[12][13] Training, funding and support was provided from international partners, including donations from governments in Western Europe, the US and Japan; the Turkish AKUT Search and Rescue Association; and a variety of NGOs, private individuals, public fundraising campaigns, and charities.[14][15] Primary support and training was provided by Mayday Rescue Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation established by former British Army officer James Le Mesurier,[16] and became a key factor in the development of the organisation.[17][18]

Local and provincial councils joined with Mayday Rescue Foundation and AKUT Search and Rescue Association to create the first training programmes in early 2013. ARK, an international contracting firm based in the United Arab Emirates,[19] would facilitate entry of volunteers to Turkey, where they would be trained by AKUT.[20][21][22][23][24][25][26] Early training courses included trauma care, command and control and crisis management.[27] Over the next two years, the number of independent civil defence teams grew to several dozen as graduates of the early trainings such as Raed Saleh established new centers; the national organisation of SCD was founded on 25 October 2014 at a conference of independent teams.[28]

SCD has grown to be an organisation of over 3,000 volunteers operating from 111 local civil defence centres across 8 provincial directorates (Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Hama, Homs, Damascus, Damascus Countryside, and Daraa). In October 2014, these self-organised teams came together and voted to form one national organisation: Syria Civil Defence. As of January 2017, the SCD claims to have rescued over 80,000 people since they began to keep count in 2014.[14] The White Helmets themselves have become targets of Syrian and Russian airstrikes.[29][30] According to The Economist, approximately one in six SCD have been killed or badly wounded, "many by "double tap" Russian and Syrian airstrikes on the same site as they search for bodies."[14] Seven members were killed in August 2017 in an apparent assassination at their operations centre in Sarmin in Idlib Province.[31]

Although SCD exists since 2013, their worldwide acknowledgement in medias started in late 2014 with the help of The Syria Campaign NGO,[32] which introduced the nickname "White Helmets".[33]

On 14 December 2016, as the Syrian Armed Forces were recapturing eastern Aleppo, SCD head Raed Saleh requested safe passage of SCD operatives to rebel controlled countryside around Aleppo.[34] Syria Civil Defence joined the Independent Doctors Association, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, and the Violations Documentation Center to accuse Russian forces of war crimes in eastern Aleppo, jointly submitting a report to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.[35]

On May 2018, the State Department announced that funding has been frozen for the White Helmets.[36][37][38] A State Department official indicated that they were reviewing assistance programs in Syria overall, which included funding for the White Helmets, and at the same time indicated that the United States would continue to support the White Helmets through multilateral donations. The chairman of the White Helmets stated that the government of United States, and other supportive institutions, promised to continue to provide critical funding to the organization.[37]

Operations

SCD clearing rubble following an attack in Maarat al-Nu'man in November 2014, using a USAID supplied bucket loader

SCD's stated mission is "to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimize further injury to people and damage to property."[39] Their work covers the 15 civil defence tasks as laid out in international humanitarian law (IHL);[40] the bulk of their activity in Syria consists of urban search and rescue in response to bombing, medical evacuation, evacuation of civilians from danger areas, and essential service delivery.[41]

The most prominent role of SCD was rescuing civilians from airstrikes with barrel bombs, improvised explosive devices dropped by SAAF helicopters. Following a request from Bashar al-Assad for support, Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War on 30 September 2015.[42] Much of the work of SCD has been responding to aerial bombardments by the Russian Air Force attack aircraft.

As well as providing rescue services, SCD undertakes repair works such as securing damaged buildings and reconnecting electrical and water services, clearing roads, teaching children about unexploded ordnance hazards, as well as firefighting and winter storm relief.[43][44][45] Sometimes described as the most dangerous job in the world,[46][15] SCD operations involve risk from a wide variety of war-zone threats. By late 2016, 159 White Helmets had been killed since the organisation's inception.[44]

SCD is not affiliated with the International Civil Defence Organisation, nor is it connected to the Syria Civil Defence forces which have been a member of the ICDO since 1972. However, as the Syrian government's civil defence organisation does not operate in rebel-held areas, and bombardment of civilian populations in Syria is overwhelmingly perpetrated against opposition-held areas by Syrian government forces, SCD is engaged in the civil defence tasks.[47][48][49]

As of 2015, SCD had an annual budget of $30 million provided by a mix of state donors and public fundraising. Volunteers who work full-time receive a $150 monthly stipend.[50]

It has a co-ordination office on the Turkish-Syrian border in Gaziantep[51] and a training centre in Turkey.[52]

There are about 100 female White Helmets.[53][54]

In 2015, the SCD unsuccessfully lobbied the EU and other governments to impose a no fly zone over certain parts of Syria to protect civilians from airstrikes.[55] The White Helmets have continued to lobby governments, particularly France, in subsequent years.[56]

Partnerships and funding

SCD is officially an impartial humanitarian NGO, with no affiliation to any political or military actor and a commitment to render services to anyone in need.[39] Like all NGOs operating in opposition-controlled areas, SCD negotiates humanitarian access with organisations such as local councils, provincial councils, and armed groups, with relationships varying widely from governorate to governorate.[12]

SCD work in close partnership with the Netherlands-based NGO Mayday Rescue Foundation. Mayday Rescue's Program Manager for Syria is Farouq Habib,[57][58] who has also been described as the White Helmets' Head of International Relations.[59]

The White Helmets receives charitable funding from the United States, the United Kingdom, and other western governments.[60] Initially the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office was the largest single source of funding through Mayday Rescue Foundation.[61] As of 2016, SCD state they are also partly funded through Chemonics, a U.S. based private international development company.[62] Funders now include the Canadian government Peace and Stabilization Operations Program,[58] the Danish government,[63][64] the German government,[65] the Japan International Cooperation Agency,[21][66] the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.[67][68] the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs,[69] the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)[43] and the United Kingdom Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF).[70] USAID have contributed at least $23 million from 2013 to March 2016.[71][72] The British government had provided £15 million of funding between 2012 and November 2015,[73] increased to £32 million by October 2016.[74] As of 31 March 2018, the British government had provided £38.4m in aid to the White Helmets.[75] The SCD has also received individual donations online to their Hero Fund, which provides treatment for wounded volunteers and supports their families.[76] In March 2017, the organization was reported to be operating on a budget of about $26 million.[9]

In April 2018 the Trump administration suspended the funding of the White Helmets as part of a wider suspension of the funding of stabilization projects in Syria while the U.S. reassesses its role in Syria. The U.S. had provided more than $33 million to support the group since 2013.[77][78] On 14 June 2018, the Trump administration authorised USAID and the United States Department of State to release approximately $6.6 million in aid to be shared between the group and the UN's International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism in Syria.[79]

Publicity and recognition

SCD is widely cited, quoted, or depicted in regional and international media coverage of the conflict in Syria.[80] Raed Al Saleh, the Director of SCD, has been an outspoken advocate against bombardment of civilians, addressing the United Nations Security Council and other international bodies on a number of occasions.[81][82]

SCD has been the subject of two films. The streaming service Netflix released a documentary film entitled The White Helmets on September 16, 2016 by British director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara.[83] The film won the Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 89th Academy Awards.[84] SCD head Raed Saleh was unable to go to the Oscars ceremony due to escalation of the conflict, despite having a valid visa. Khaled Khateeb, cinematographer of the film, was unable to attend due to a visa problem.[85] Associated Press reported that the United States Department of Homeland Security under President Donald Trump decided to block Khaled Khateeb at the 11th hour.[86] Released in 2017, Last Men in Aleppo was directed by Syrian director Feras Fayyad in collaboration with Danish film-maker Steven Johannessen and the Aleppo Media Centre; it was the Winner of the Grand Jury Documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017.[87]

SCD was nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize[88] and was a recipient of the 2016 Right Livelihood Award, the "Alternative Nobel Prize".[89]

In 2017, it was awarded the McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award by Refugees International[54][90] and its women volunteers were awarded the Theirworld Hope award by Sarah Jane Brown's children's charity Theirworld.[91] Female SCD volunteer Manal Abazeed, who accepted these awards, was listed by Fortune magazine as being among the "World's Most Powerful Women" of 2017.[54]

In 2017, Politico listed Khaled Omar Harrah, a notable member in Aleppo, known as the 'child rescuer', as one of the 28 people "shaping, shaking and stirring Europe".[92][93] He was killed in Aleppo in an airstrike in August 2016.[94] Harrah is the main character in Last Men in Aleppo, which was dedicated to him after his death.[95]

Another notable member is Mohammed Abu Kifah, a civil defence team member who rescued another child from beneath the rubble in Idlib.[96][31] Following his death in an apparent assassination on 12 August 2017, aged 25 years old, Kifah's life was celebrated on BBC Radio 4's Last Word.[97]

Controversies

According to investigative journalists and analysts, SCD became a target of a systematic information warfare campaign by the Russian government, the Syrian government, alt-right personalities, and their supporters, who have accused the organisation of taking sides in the Syrian Civil War, carrying arms and supporting "terrorist" groups.[98][10][6][7][99][100][95] According to The Guardian's Olivia Solon, claims by contributors to the English language Russian RT television network and Sputnik news agency have also come under critical scrutiny.[8] According to the fact-checking organisation Snopes.com these accusations against the White Helmets are unfounded.[101] Likewise, multiple journalists have raised serious questions as to the credibility and government ties of individuals making accusations against SCD.[102][103] According to The New York Times's Linda Qiu, Assad's claim that the White Helmets are "Al-Qaeda members" was "without evidence".[104]

In November 2016, the Revolutionaries of Syria Media Office, a Syrian media organisation, published a video showing two White Helmet volunteers performing a staged rescue operation for the Mannequin Challenge meme. The organisation apologised for their volunteers' error of judgement and said it had not shared the recording on their official channels.[105][106]

In June 2017, a member of the White Helmets was suspended indefinitely after he was discovered to have assisted armed militants in the burial of mutilated corpses of soldiers belonging to pro-government forces.[107]

Footage showing White Helmets members removing a man's body following his execution by rebel militants has caused critics to accuse the group of "assisting" in executions.[108] The leader of the White Helmets has remarked that these are "isolated incidents" and are not representative of the leadership of the organisation.[109][8]

The Democratic Union Party (PYD)-led Afrin Canton closed a White Helmets centre and banned the organization in the Syrian city of Afrin in December 2015. This situation[clarification needed] ended after the successful Turkish occupation of the city during the Turkish military operation in Afrin in March 2018.[110][111]

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External links