Syria rescuers face 'freeze' on US funding

Beirut (AFP) –


Syria's White Helmets rescue force are facing a "freeze" on funding from the US, its chief told AFP Saturday, saying he was worried President Donald Trump would suddenly cut support.

Raed Saleh said that Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, would continue its programming but that financial support coming from the US was under review.

"We were not formally told of any halt to funding, but what we were informed of was a freeze to some of the Middle Eastern projects by American organisations, in order to review their feasibility," he said.

"Among them are projects linked to stabilisation in Syria, which includes part of the White Helmets' work," Saleh added.

Speaking from Turkey, he told AFP the group's plans were being "completely reviewed."

"This happens every year but this year, no one can predict President Trump's decisions," Saleh said.

The US State Department said in April that funds earmarked for Syria's "stabilisation" were being re-assessed, but did not say whether funding for the White Helmets would stop.

Media reports said the White House had instructed the State Department to freeze over $200 million funds for "recovery efforts" in Syria.

The White Helmets' 3,700 members work in opposition-controlled swathes of Syria, which has been caught up in conflict since 2011.

The first responders rescue civilians trapped under rubble or caught up in fighting. Since they began work in 2013, more than 200 rescuers have died and hundreds more have been injured.

Last year, a Netflix documentary called "The White Helmets" won an Academy Award for best short documentary, while a second film focused on the group, "Last Men in Aleppo," was a 2018 Oscars nominee.

But they have also been the subject of smear campaigns by supporters of Syria's government and its ally Russia, who accuse the White Helmets of being a front group for Al-Qaeda or acting in Western interests.

The White Helmets fund their work through government programmes in the US and Britain, as well as from individual donations.

Saleh said the White Helmets also recently signed contracts with Turkish and Qatari organisations.

In February, the group's vice-president Abdulrahman Almawwas warned it faced a $6 million (five million euros) budget shortfall compared with 2017.

The fall from $18 million to $12 million led the group to delay taking on new workers, Almawwas told journalists.