Inside Israel's secret and unprecedented rescue of Syria's White Helmets

Washington and Western powers scrambled to coordinate the U.N., Israel and Jordan as crisis worsened on Golan and Syrian regime closed in.

Israel evacutes White Helmets from Syria, July 22, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
An operation of this type had never been done before.
Evacuating hundreds of people from Syria into Israel with the support of Canada, the UK, Germany and the US was an unprecedented level of international cooperation. In addition Syria is an enemy state and the war was closing in on the men and their families in need of evacuation. This was a key part of the emerging crisis over the weekend, it was not just 90 members of the White Helmets, but also their families, an estimated 800 people.
Transporting them to Jordan was not a simple issue. Jordan had refused to take in more refugees as the Syrian regime took Deraa and the border areas in late June and early July. Jordan was already hosting 1.3 million refugees over the last several years. This meant the evacuation was not just a matter of bringing people into Israel, but transferring them somewhere else. And Jordan didn’t want them remaining in the kingdom. “The US and our international partners asked the United Nations to take the central role in this critical humanitarian operation,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Sunday.
Last week Syrian members of the civil defense in the shrinking rebel-held area near the Golan found out they would not be allowed to be transported north to opposition areas in Idlib in northern Syria. Up until that moment the medical volunteers, called White Helmets, were watching with concern as the Syrian regime closed in, first taking the border with Jordan and then pounding rebel-held areas with air strikes. There was no way out.
Syrian intelligence agents were already compiling lists of names, as they have throughout the war, to hunt down enemies of the regime. The Syrian regime and its supporters have called the White Helmets terrorists, Western-supported propagandists and Islamists. Russia has also criticized them, implying they fake chemical weapons attacks. When the Syrian rebels agreed to a reconciliation deal last week the White Helmets were not part of it. They could not remain under regime control or go north. They faced torture, or worse, at the hands of the regime if caught. Damascus has portrayed the operation to save the White Helmets as “criminal” and aiding “Israel and its tools.”
Washington and Ottawa were scrambling to help the organization. Western governments have aided the organization during the conflict. The US released $6.6 million in funding for the Syrian Civil Defense in June and US President Donald Trump was aware of the organization’s work. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was at the NATO summit in Europe on July 11. At a dinner Freeland said the White Helmets needed to be rescued. It was a “moral obligation,” a source told the CBC. She would later call them “courageous volunteers and first responders.” Alongside the United Kingdom and Germany she sought a way to help them evacuate.
It took personal calls from Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure the deal. Last week they “requested that we assist in evacuating hundreds of ‘white helmets’ from Syria,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement Sunday. US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman also worked closely with the Israeli government, US State Department and National Security Council to help with the “daring rescue.” This came amidst a weekend crisis where Jerusalem was on the brink of conflict with Hamas in Gaza and had launched numerous air strikes in retaliation to Hamas killing a soldier with sniper fire.
THE UNHCR was contacted by the US, alongside the UK, Canada, Germany while Jordan authorized the UN to receive the Syrians who UNHCR agreed were “at risk and seeking asylum and solutions in above mentioned countries.” While in Jordan UNHCR would work with the three governments to support a “temporary stay.” This was a key to Jordan’s agreement: A special legal assurance the White Helmets would move on to the West.
With the UNHCR on board and Jordan agreeing to host them temporarily, the operation could proceed. In the day before it began the Syrian regime and Islamic State began a massive battle not far from areas where the White Helmets and their families were sheltering. Meanwhile around 6,000 people who had been displaced by the fighting and wanted to head to Idlib were boarding buses for the north.
Bild reporter Paul Ronzheimer and photojournalist Giorgos Moutafis had been waiting on the Golan for three days by Saturday night, two of only a handful of journalists and others who knew about the operation. “The military and police cordoned off individual roads, the evacuation being screened at an Israeli military bus. Various vehicles, including minibuses were visible in the dark of night,” he wrote. From 9:30 p.m. the evacuation began and he followed the buses down to the Jordan border where he tweeted photos of them crossing over at 5 a.m.
Another problem faced at the border, according to foreign reports, was that checkpoints and fighting with ISIS, which had gone on all day Saturday before the evacuation began, hampered efforts. For that reason the number evacuated was not 800 but 422.
The rescue of the White Helmets has received widespread international attention and Israel has been praised for its role. “Thank you Israel,” tweeted Niels Annen, a German politician from the SPD. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also thanked Israel and the US “deeply appreciated” Israel’s role. But there are unanswered questions. Julian Roepcke, a journalist with Bild noted that even as people were cheering the success, the Russian air force was flying supplies from France to Latakia for Syrian-regime controlled areas. “Can be a reference to the high price that the West had to pay Putin and Assad,” he wrote.
The operation is seen as a success, but the reality is that it also reflects the failure of Western powers to stymie Assad’s offensive. Southern Syria’s rebel areas fell quickly in June and July because the US and other powers indicated they would not receive support. Morale collapsed among the rebels. All that is left of the rebellion in the south, where it began in Deraa, are memories of those days in 2011 and 2012 when protesters massed against the regime. “The rescuers became the rescued,” Nine News Australia says of the operation.
This momentary success by the four Western powers, Israel, Jordan and the UN was a rare and unique cooperation. It also seems to be a way to salvage the bare minimum of what is left in Syria. “We renew our call on the Assad regime and Russia to abide by their commitments, end the violence and protect all Syrian civilians,” the State Department said. But the regime understands it could do whatever it wants in southern Syria. The only places it has been stopped is in northern Syria where Turkey has moved in to provide an umbrella of protection around the rebels, and in eastern Syria where the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces are present after defeating ISIS.
Yet there are still people in Syria who need aid, including those sheltering near the Golan border. For Dalton Thomas, founder of FAI Relief, an apolitical organization that has been providing aid in southern Syria, the work goes on.
“The evacuation of the White Helmets signals an end of an era and the beginning of a new one: The rebuilding of Syria in the wake of the greatest humanitarian crises since World War Two.” FAI, the only health care provider of its kind left in southern Syria, seeks to stay out of politics while aiding Syrians, he says.