Until chemical weapons are used, we tend to forget how much daily destruction and death afflict millions of Syrian civilians as President Bashar al-Assad pursues, with Russian military help, his intense bombing campaigns against remaining rebel areas. The White Helmets are a civil defense team who are heroes in that beleaguered country as they respond to as many as 35 attacks a day. Via hand-held and helmet cameras, they also expose the atrocities, including the report recently of dozens apparently killed in a chemical attack near Damascus.
When I think of the White Helmets of Syria, I see them in my mind’s eye digging in the rubble of bombed out buildings, attempting to find and rescue people still alive in that rubble — trapped, injured, bleeding, suffocating. Worse, videos from the White Helmets are showing victims from the chemical attacks in agony with foaming mouths.
Assad and his family have ruled Syria for years by striking fear into the population. Before the civil war began eight years ago, their primary tool was the all-powerful secret police. Now the tools are bombs. The most damaging bombs are the barrel bombs tossed out of helicopters or war planes and filled with nails and metal, explosives and sometimes chemicals such as chlorine or sarin. It’s not military positions of the rebels or of ISIS they go after. But rather they deliberately target civilians, homes, hospitals, markets, bakeries, shops and, of course, the White Helmets.
It’s a tactic whose aim is to force the population to capitulate.
The White Helmets are composed of 3,000 Syrian volunteers who chose to stay in Syria and to save others. They were ordinary people from every walk of life — tailors, blacksmiths, teachers, carpenters, university students, doctors and blue collar workers. They got their start in 2011 with the popular uprising against Assad when towns were seized by rebel groups and the government began the bombing attacks.
From those multiple teams grew a unified national organization called Syrian National Defense or White Helmets, formed in 2014. It is nonsectarian, neutral and unarmed. Their motto is “To save a life is to save all of humanity.”
Support and training quickly came from abroad, first from the Mayday Rescue Foundation established by former British Army officer James Le Mesurier. Funding help followed from multiple countries, including the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Japan. Training is done in southern Turkey.
White Helmets have rescued at least 60,000 people from danger areas. They have lost some 200 volunteers to the aerial bombardments and assassinations. Naturally, they are very unpopular with the Assad regime and Russia. Russian state media has launched a worldwide propaganda campaign to discredit the White Helmets as “terrorists” or just actors “staging rescues.” True to propaganda form, the Russian Foreign Ministry called this week’s report of a chemical attack a “hoax” designed to protect “terrorists.”
On a happier note, the White Helmets have received very positive treatment. They were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016. And in 2017, documentaries about them won prizes at the U.S. Academy Awards and at the Sundance Film Festival.
As to the war in Syrian areas where White Helmets still can operate, there was a discouraging press report in late March about Idlib near the Turkish border. It is Syria’s largest remaining rebel-held area and may prove to be the place where the revolution against Assad ends. It contains a motley mix of displaced civilians, defeated rebels, hard-line jihadists and those who accept a surrender deal the Assad government is offering to fleeing civilians from rebel areas of eastern Damascus. It has been sending tens of thousands of those Syrians on a one-way bus trip to Idlib.
What a choice for them: Since hard line jihadists have the upper hand there, residents are caught between government attacks from the sky and the overbearing role of jihadists on the ground. Assad’s military, with the usual help from Russia, is expected soon to make a final effort to crush Idlib.
Can Assad be made to pay a “big price” after his latest use of chemical weapons, as currently threatened by the U.S. and Western allies? We would fervently hope so. But it has never proved easy to inflict lasting damage on Assad. The Syrian air base hit by President Trump’s cruise missile attack last spring was rebuilt in just a few days.
Assad might be temporarily stopped, but most analysts believe he has both the resolve and help from Russia and Iran to return to his brutal aerial assaults against civilians. In retrospect, I wish that the U.S. government had established a no-fly zone back in the Obama Administration, before the Russians dared to step into the war so prominently on Assad’s side.
Harriet Isom is a former U.S. ambassador who live on the family ranch outside Pendleton.