Israel, the United States, and several European nations evacuated more than 400 White Helmet rescue workers and their families from the Quneitra province in southern Syria to Jordan via Israel during the night on Saturday, July 21.
The White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense, is an organization comprised of Syrian rescue volunteers who provide informal emergency services in Syria and parts of Turkey. The rescue was prompted when the humanitarian workers became trapped in southwestern Syria near the border with the Golan Heights, following an offensive by pro-Assad forces. The operation began in June resulting in the Syrian army recapturing large swaths of territory throughout southern Syria, including, recently, the city of Deraa.
The group is well known for videos of its members rushing to the scene of aerial bombardments by the Assad regime and pulling survivors from the rubble. The regime accuses the Helmets of staging chemical weapons attacks and other atrocities and blaming them on the government. Regardless of its political leanings, the White Helmets have reportedly saved more than 115,000 lives during the Syrian civil war, which the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates has resulted in the deaths of more than half a million people since it began seven years ago.
The White Helmets, who receive financial support from the U.S., U.K., and other countries, claim to be a non-partisan group although they mainly operate in rebel strongholds. Syrian authorities, however, refer to the volunteers as “terrorists” and “puppets of the West,” according to Le Monde and other sources. The regime has denounced the recent maneuver as a “smuggling operation” that proves Western powers are conspiring to overthrow the Assad regime.
The evacuation operation was organized in secret at the initiative of the U.S., Canada, and Germany, under the auspices of the U.N. It was initially intended to evacuate 800 volunteers and their families but only 422 made it to the meeting point.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi confirmed Sunday in a tweet, “For humanitarian reasons, Jordan gave the United Nations permission to organize the passage of Syrians who entered the Occupied Golan after Britain, Germany and Canada presented a legally binding pledge to resettle them after three months.”
He said, “The number requested was 800 but the actual number settled at 422.” The Jordanian state news agency reported that the evacuated rescue workers will stay in Jordan for around three months before being resettled in the U.K., Canada, and Germany.
The remaining White Helmets who were intended to be evacuated were unable to reach the meeting point due to blocked roads, according to one of the members. He told CNN, “[W]e are 300 volunteer members and calling upon the countries of UK, Canada, Jordan, America to continue their efforts in evacuating the remaining members of the White Helmets. Help us and save our lives.” There are estimated to be an additional 3,000 White Helmets throughout the nation who continue delivering emergency services in the wake of horrific damage and casualties.
An undisclosed source informed NPR that, “Given the speed of the movements on the ground it really was a Hail Mary operation. We communicated to [White Helmets] teams across south Syria that there was this hope, this prayer, of a window to get them out.”
Both Jordanian and Israeli officials confirmed the operation had been successfully carried out. The Israeli military stated that, “[F]ollowing an Israeli Government directive and at the request of the United States and additional European countries, the IDF recently completed a humanitarian effort to rescue members of a Syrian civil organization and their families,” Haaretz reported.