Syrian White Helmets Evacuated As Assad Regime Takes Over

Jul 23, 2018
Originally published on July 23, 2018 5:33 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the weekend, about a hundred rescue workers from the Syrian civil defense group the White Helmets were evacuated from Syria with their families - more than 400 people total. The White Helmets are known for rescuing civilians under bombardment in rebel-held areas of the country. The U.S. has given them millions of dollars in support.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It took a complex operation to move this group out of Syria with Israeli help, moving through Israel and on to Jordan as the Syrian government closed in on their towns. Other rescue workers and their families remain trapped.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now on the line from Beirut to talk more. Ruth, what more can you tell us about how this complicated deal was actually worked out?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, it was an effort that spanned several countries and organizations. You have Israel, Jordan, the United States, the United Kingdom and others all involved. And the White Helmets put a call out to their rescuers in southern Syria saying, look; if you can get out to this specific evacuation point, please come.

But this is all happening in the middle of this active war zone. One source close to the operation called the evacuation a Hail Mary operation. He said some people's journeys were incredibly dangerous because they had to maneuver around front lines. The regime's been taking territory in this area. So has ISIS. And so it was really very, very difficult to get out.

At least one person was injured in the escape, I'm told. And another person gave birth just moments before she was brought across the border. So in total, some-800 people were meant to leave, but only 422 made it out.

CORNISH: What about the others who were left behind?

SHERLOCK: Well, what will happen to them remains unclear. I put this very question to Ibrahim Olabi. He's a human rights lawyer who's done work with the White Helmets. And he thinks that their lives are in very great danger.

IBRAHIM OLABI: My understanding is that those who have stayed behind either tried to find a way to settle or used connections or tried to blend in or are still trying to get out. So it's still a complicated process.

SHERLOCK: I spoke to somebody else involved in this who said that the White Helmets' leaders are in touch with their people on the ground. They're trying to offer them, you know, the best advice they can based on their circumstances.

Some of the rescuers are trying to hide. Others might be trying to get out to move to another rebel-held province in the north of Syria. But no one wants to speak about this too much because they're concerned that they might be putting the lives of these rescue workers in greater danger.

CORNISH: If the White Helmets are rescue workers, why do they need to avoid Syrian regime areas?

SHERLOCK: Well, they often film their rescue missions, and so they've put out a lot of videos showing the casualties in regime airstrikes. And the regime has accused them of staging chemical attacks and blaming them on the government. The U.K. has put out a statement saying that it was necessary to help evacuate them because they are targets of attack.

Indeed, White Helmets workers have been caught by the regime in the war, and they've disappeared. The Syrian government has responded angrily to this evacuation, saying that it's a criminal process.

CORNISH: So what happens next to the White Helmets group overall?

SHERLOCK: Well, the ones that are out now are with the U.N.'s refugee agency in Jordan. And it's expected to take about three months, but they're going to be resettled to Canada, Britain and Germany. Notably, none are coming to the United States, where President Trump's administration has drastically cut back on the number of refugees allowed into the country.

Once they're there, they might be able to give evidence for war crimes. But these are just a small portion of the White Helmets in Syria. There are thousands more still inside the country. And as the Syrian government takes back more and more territory, their fates really are very unclear.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Thank you for speaking with us.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.