High praise for Syria’s 'White Helmets' – but who are they?

Thaer Mohammed , AFP | The White Helmets in Aleppo, northern Syria, in June 2016.

The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the “White Helmets”, are the subject of a new Netflix documentary that paints them as nothing less than heroes, while a huge petition is calling for the group to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Little known until now, the actions of this civilian volunteer rescue group -- who are often the first at the scene after an attack -- are now in the global spotlight.

Since war broke out in Syria in 2011, stories of the ordinary people caught in the crossfire of this brutal war do not always get international attention, not least those of civil groups such as the White Helmets, who put their lives on the line every day to help and protect their fellow Syrians.

Tens of thousands saved

The Syrian Civil Defense, whose 2,900 members wear the eponymous white helmets, was created in 2013. They are always the first (and very often the only) rescue group to arrive at scenes of often unimaginable carnage that follow artillery and aerial bombardments in densely populated areas.

Operating in zones controlled by the various rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they have saved tens of thousands of lives (they claim 60,000), while losing 130 of their own number.

The group claims absolute neutrality in the Syrian civil war.

The group has not escaped the attention of the Hollywood machine, and Netflix commissioned a short 40-minute documentary that was released online on September 16.

Shot with the high production values worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, the images and stories are breathtakingly real, showing the appalling conditions in which the men and women who make up the White Helmets go out day after day to save the lives of their fellow countrymen.

The film has been well received. Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, “The White Helmets” is on the official list for the Toronto International Film Festival.

The group has also been featured on FRANCE 24, and by FRANCE 24’s Observers back in 2014.

Petition for a Nobel Prize

A sure sign that their international notoriety is coming to full fruition is the call for the White Helmets to be awarded the prestigious Nobel peace prize.

Hollywood A-listers such as George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Daniel Craig, Daniel Day Lewis and Alejandro González Iñárritu are among those who have signed a petition, created by the Syria Campaign, for the White Helmets to be considered by the Nobel Jury.

On their Twitter account, the group called the campaign for their nomination “such a morale boost”.

The White Helmets also have their benefactors, getting outside financial support, notably from the American USAID development agency, the British government and occasionally from France. Its members get training in first aid and urban search and rescue in Turkey, thanks to the intervention of Turkish ONG Akut.

Damascus and Moscow are less impressed

But not everyone is convinced that the White Helmets are completely neutral.

Both Damascus and Moscow have accused the White Helmets of taking sides with the more extremist elements of the Syrian rebellion, such as the al-Nusra Front (which recently severed its links with al Qaeda) by actively helping rescue and care for their fighters.

They cite the story of the group’s founder, Raed Saleh, who addressed the UN Security Council in June 2015 but was nevertheless refused entry to the United States in April 2016, without an official reason.

The White Helmets reject these accusations.

‘No distinctions’

As to the allegations (often put forward in the Russian media) that they are anti-regime, they insist that they are neutral despite only being able to operate in areas of Syria that are outside the control of Damascus.

“On the ground, we don’t make distinctions between people,” Saleh told FRANCE 24’s Observers website in 2014. “We will save anyone’s life. In practice, however, we mainly operate in areas that have been liberated or that are under the control of the Islamic State group, because that’s where there are bombings.

“In Idlib, there have been times when fighters from the al-Nusra Front have helped us by carrying wounded people to our ambulances,” he added. “However, we have been saddened to see that the Syrian regime does not respect our neutrality. They have dropped bombs near our centres. They target our volunteers.

“But we’ll continue to do our work – we don’t have a choice,” Saleh said.

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