Moments after a barrel bomb plummets down onto a rebel-held area in Syria, the White Helmets are the first to rush to the scene. The group of civilians, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense, rummages through the rubble, looking for survivors.
Created in 2014 in response to the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in rebel-held areas, the White Helmets are a group of blue-collar professionals: bakers, carpenters, engineers, students, and physical education teachers. The barrel bombs that they run toward are made of nails, explosives, and chemical gases that kill indiscriminately after rolling out of government planes. Despite knowing that the regime might drop another round of bombs on the same site minutes later, the volunteers still search through the ruins, looking for civilians. Within the two years of the group’s creation, 141 volunteers have been killed while saving civilians.
Their motto, “To save one life is to save all of humanity,” is taken from the Quran, and it is what drives the organization. The White Helmets save people regardless of their religion or political beliefs, which was evident when they rescued government soldiers’ bodies to give them proper burials. Because of their work, the White Helmets have saved over 62,000 lives.
Despite their humanitarian efforts, the White Helmets were only noticed by the mainstream media in mid-2016. Their actions earned them the Right to Livelihood Award, also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” and put them in contention for the Nobel Peace Prize. In addition, Netflix released a documentary about the group directed by Oscar-nominated team Joanna Natasegara and Orlando von Einsiedel. The documentary follows three volunteers—a tailor, blacksmith, and builder—to see what their day-to-day lives look like as White Helmets. With much of the media coverage about Syria focusing on ISIS and Russian intervention, the directors wanted to focus on the hope that is coming out of the war. “There’s not very many people on this Earth I’ve ever met who are as incredible as these men and women,” said von Einsiedel in an interview with The Atlantic. “And we think their story resonates—it cuts through everything else. It cuts through politics. It’s a pure human story.”
Since the Nobel Peace Prize nomination and Netflix documentary, many organizations and high profile people, such as George Clooney, the late UK MP Jo Cox, the Karam Foundation, and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), have thrown their support behind the organization. Because the conflict has been going on for so long and is so complex, there is a level of hopelessness which makes it hard for people to engage with. Through the documentary, endorsements, and press attention, the White Helmets have been able to add a humanitarian perspective to the war, something that has been under-emphasized due to the ongoing nature of the conflict.
The Syria Campaign, a global advocacy group launched in 2014, manages the White Helmets’ website, fundraises for them, and aids the group in spreading information about their work. As a non-profit registered in the UK and entirely funded by individuals, the Syria Campaign’s mission is to “mobilize people around the world to advocate to protect Syrian civilians and accelerate progress towards a peaceful and democratic future for Syria.” Their website states that “The Syria Campaign is fiercely independent and has accepted no money from governments, corporations or anyone directly involved in the Syrian conflict. This allows us full autonomy to advocate for whatever is needed to save lives.” The White Helmets also receive funding from individuals, as well as from Western governments such as the United States and United Kingdom. In conjunction with the Syria Campaign, they have repeatedly called for a no-fly zone in an effort to lessen civilian casualties.
Both the White Helmets and the Syria Campaign have received criticism recently from the Syrian government, as well as from journalist Max Blumenthal. Due to the large amounts of funding the White Helmets receive and their calls for a no-fly zone, critics claim they are covertly linked to Western countries who are bent on regime change. Blumenthal cites a 2012 Pentagon paper that states that a no-fly zone would require at least seventy thousand American servicemen to maintain and would cause widespread destruction of Syrian government infrastructure. Historically, no-fly zones in war-torn countries such as in Libya and Iraq have been a preface to regime change. Because of these political implications, critics speculate that the White Helmets’ call for a no-fly zone reveals that they are not impartial in the war. Additionally, Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad said in an interview with the Associated Press that the White Helmets use the humanitarian umbrella as a disguise to push a certain agenda, and that the White Helmets are allies of terrorism. The Syria Campaign and the White Helmets deny this claim.
At its core, asking for a no-fly zone is a humanitarian, not political, appeal: the intention is clearly to lessen and prevent further civilian casualties. Sadly, the already very complicated war has managed to politicize even this basic humanitarian request. In the context of so much death and deceit, wild speculations have arisen solely on the basis of weak evidence, allowing the White Helmets’ apolitical aims to become politicized.
Over the past six years, the war has created a multitude of differing opinions and competing factions, splitting the country up into many corners. It is depressing and disheartening that the one thing that had not been politicized, the one hopeful thing coming out of this gruesome war, something as simple as saving lives, has now split people into opposing camps yet again.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Yarra Elmasry is second year prospective Political Science major and Near Eastern Language and Civilizations minor, interested in international relations, psychology, and photojournalism. Over the summer she interned at the Independent in London. On campus, she is part of the marketing team for the Major Activities Board, a photographer and designer for the culinary magazine Bite, and a member of the competitive club tennis team.