St Andrews for Syria Preview: The White Helmets

The Syrian Civil War, now in its fifth year, has become a major crisis that affects not only Syria itself and the Middle East, but also the rest of the world. It has caused massive harm to the economy, with total economic losses from the beginning of the conflict to the end of 2014 estimated at $202.6 billion. Syrian refugees now make up the second largest refugee population in the world, with 4.8 million people forced to flee, while over six and a half million have been displaced internally.

On the ground, the crisis seems even more bleak. Four out of five Syrians now live in poverty, and life expectancy has dropped by over 20 years since the start of the conflict. Barrel bombs, explosive-laden barrels packed with glass or metal fragments and thrown out of helicopters, are being used more and more often. Amnesty International reported that barrel bombs killed more than 3,000 civilians in the city of Aleppo in 2014 alone. The bombs are a tactic commonly used by the Syrian government, though President Bashar al-Assad denies that his forces use them and refuses to acknowledge a single civilian casualty from the attacks. Though the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution in 2014 demanding that all sides stop all attacks against civilians, specifically barrel bomb attacks, the attacks have continued to this day. According to estimates by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, more than a tenth of the population of Syria has been killed or wounded in the war.

Bombed out vehicles in Aleppo in 2012

Though the UN has been involved in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, the organization has recently come under fire for its operations in the country. An investigation by the Guardian found that the UN awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people close to President Bashar al-Assad, including businessmen whose companies are under US and EU sanctions and two charities set up by his wife and closest associate respectively. In spite of the UN’s promise that it is ensuring the money is spent properly, critics say that aid is being prioritized to government-held areas and the money is not going where it should be to make the widest impact. Eighty-one aid groups and NGOs in Syria have suspended cooperation with the UN’s information-sharing program and demanded an investigation into its operations in an open letter. The question has become, if the people of Syria cannot trust the UN, who can they trust? The answer may lie in another internationally-recognized impartial organization, albeit one with a less universal mandate.

Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, is an impartial organization founded in 2013 and comprised of just under 3,000 volunteers across Syria who estimate that they have saved more than 62,000 lives as first responders to the scenes of attacks. The volunteers include around 70 women, who are needed especially in more conservative Syrian communities where a man cannot rescue a trapped woman, no matter how life-threatening her situation. Their credo: “to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimise further injury to people and damage to property.”

Female volunteers in the Syrian Civil Defence

The White Helmets’ job is extremely dangerous. Often, helicopters will carry out ‘double tap’ attacks, where a second barrel bomb will be dropped in the same area as and a few minutes after the first in order to target the first responders and the crowd that gathers to assess the damage. 145 of the volunteers have been killed while performing their job, with many others badly wounded. To them, however, the risk is worth the cost in order to save Syrian civilians’ lives, and it seems the international community agrees. The White Helmets have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice, and were one of the four recipients of the the 2016 Right Livelihood Award, a prize worth around $85,000.

“They are working very hard in a very dangerous situation, doing something few others could do,” Malek Al-Hammo, a resident of Aleppo, told Al Jazeera. “They even work when the planes and helicopters are still shelling.”

Not everyone is impressed with the White Helmets’ work, however, with President Bashar Al-Assad downplaying the importance of their work and both Damascus and Moscow accusing the White Helmets of being too close to the extremist Al-Nusra Front by actively helping rescue their fighters. The group has also been accused of having its impartiality compromised by its acceptance of funds from foreign governments. Though the White Helmets are funded in part from the aid budgets of Japan, Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States, they deny that the funds come with any strings attached.

Even with these criticisms, it is hard to deny that the work that the White Helmets perform on the ground is humanitarian, selfless, and saves people’s lives in the midst of a seemingly endless war.

“On the ground, we don’t make distinctions between people,” Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, told France 24. “We will save anyone’s life… We’ll continue to do our work – we don’t have a choice.”

To learn more about the war in Syria and the White Helmets, please attend the St Andrews for Syria event series. The first event, a film screening of the BBC Panorama documentary ‘Aleppo: Life Under Siege’, is scheduled for 6pm on Friday, October 28th in School II of St Salvator’s Quad. The film is a further introduction to the White Helmets and conditions in Aleppo.

The main event, an expert panel discussion on a range of topics within the Syrian conflict, is scheduled for 7pm Friday, November 4th in the Buchanan Lecture Theatre. Participating experts include Professor Raymond Hinnebusch, director of St Andrews’ Centre for Syrian Studies and founding member of MECACS, who will chair the discussion; Dr Ayman al-Yassini, a Refugee Status Determination Expert with UNHCR in Turkey; Alasdair Gordon-Gibson, former Head of Delegation (Moscow, Damascus, Sri Lanka) and Head of Operations (Myanmar, Syria) for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and current PhD candidate at St Andrews; Dr Idrees Ahmad, lecturer in journalism at the University of Stirling and author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of Neoconservative War; and Dr Jasmine Gani, Associate Director of the Centre for Syrian Studies.

All proceeds from St Andrews for Syria’s events will go directly to the White Helmets. Supporters of the volunteers are attempting to raise the $1 million the White Helmets would have received if they had received the Nobel Peace Prize to help continue their operations.

%d bloggers like this: