The Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, rose to prominence in 2017 due to their efforts to save civilians in areas inaccessible to or deprived of other emergency services. Their support of rebel-held areas has spurred a campaign, led by Russia, to discredit them. But if an internationally-accepted political settlement to the Syrian conflict is reached, the White Helmets have the potential to play a big role in Syria’s reconstruction.
Birth of the White Helmets
The areas in which the White Helmets are active suffer from a persistent lack of medical personnel, equipment and medicine, especially in besieged areas such as the Damascus and Homs countrysides. Abdullah al-Hussein, a member of the Civil Defence Administration Council for Idlib province, states: ‘Before the White Helmets were present, the hopes of rescuing civilians from under the rubble were virtually non-existent, and even those who managed to be rescued would sometimes end up with severe wounds as the result of mistakes in rescue operations. Now that the White Helmets are present, there is more hope and more rescue opportunities.’
The White Helmets were born out of independent groups working to save civilians trapped in the rubble and rescue those injured in battle in any area they could reach. They were initially decentralized, and each province in which they operated had a directorate that worked in conjunction with the Syrian local councils and was unconnected to the other directorates.
Subsequently, White Helmet leaders from all of the provinces joined together to form a new body and achieve complete independence for the White Helmets. They thus turned from an emergency response organization that worked to pull people out of the rubble into an organized, integrated entity providing services to local communities. These services have had a positive impact, encouraging residents to remain instead of fleeing.
The White Helmets later worked to meet the further needs of civilians, establishing centres to help Syrian women and educate them on the surrounding dangers. They also began other projects, such as removing rubble and opening roads, with the goal of revitalizing areas that are still subject to bombings and military actions. The White Helmets deal with unexploded ordinance which threaten the lives of thousands in residential areas, and also opened centres to drop off unexploded ordnance and war remnants in the nine provinces in which they operate.
The White Helmets have received a great deal of local and international support but they have been targeted frequently by Syrian and Russian planes. Air raids and missiles targeted White Helmet centres and members approximately 112 times during 2017, and the White Helmets say they have lost 210 volunteers since they began their work in 2014. The constant targeting of medical centres by the Syrian regime and Russia has left the injured with very few options for treatment.
The Russians and the Syrian regime not only target the White Helmets militarily, but also have launched a propaganda campaign to tarnish their image by claiming that they are linked to terrorist organizations. According to a report by the Syria Campaign, a summary of which was published by the Guardian, there are thousands of fake social media accounts managed by people connected to the Russian government who worked to sully the reputation of the White Helmets and make them a target through tweets containing false news, information and pictures. These tweets have reached close to 56 million Twitter users, according to the report.
These accounts were most active during periods when the White Helmets were at the peak of their operations as a result of the increase in violence on the ground, such as the forced expulsion of Aleppo residents in December 2016 and the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheykhun by the Syrian regime and Russian planes in April 2017.
Contributing to the hostility between the White Helmets and Russia were the efforts of the White Helmets to document war crimes and use of prohibited weapons. The UN has relied on this documentation in issuing its reports, as did the International Humanitarian Fact–Finding Commission and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which held the Syrian and Russian regimes responsible for the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheykhun.
This led the Russians to increase their cyber and military attacks on the White Helmets and to target a number of centres in northern Syria and in Ghouta and Damascus, with grim implications for the civilian population in these areas, due to their lack of medical and emergency personnel.
Despite the Russian campaign against them, the White Helmets’ stance of political nonalignment and their determination to transcend sectarian lines mean that, in a country riven by splits, they have the potential to play an important role if an internationally accepted settlement to the Syrian conflict is reached. They own the largest supply of equipment for lifting and removing rubble and of ambulances. They have expertise in dealing with areas that have previously experienced fighting, as well as trained crews of more than 3,500 volunteers and significant international relationships.
Given that the Syrian state currently lacks active civil defence groups, in the event of a conflict settlement, their infrastructure has the potential to become the basis of an integrated civil defence organization throughout the country in the future.
Hanna is a Syrian civil society and human rights activist and an
economics graduate from Damascus University. He writes for many
e-newspapers such as Al-Monitor.