The White Helmets are not what they seem
By Jacob Foote
On Sunday night Feb. 26, Netflix won its first Academy Award with an Oscar for Best Short Documentary. Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel and produced by Joanna Natasegara, “The White Helmets,” a documentary on the Syrian Civil Defense, follows members of the group putting their lives on the line to save civilians amidst the turmoil of the Syrian Civil War. Khaled Khatib, cinematographer and press officer for the group, was unable to attend the event. Regardless, he thanked supporters from Twitter, remarking the standing ovation the award received at the Oscars.
Despite their humanitarian portrayal, claims about the activities of the White Helmets in Syria are dubious. They are not recognized by the International Civil Defense Organization (ICDO). They have also failed to register with the Syrian government as required by humanitarian NGOs according to UN policy, accusing the organization of collaborating with and supporting the government’s policies. The Syrian Civil Defense Forces (not to be confused with the White Helmets) have succeeded in both these tasks, being a member of the ICDO since 1972. Reports claim that the White Helmets have been targeting the Syrian Civil Defense Forces for their equipment and assuming their role.
Though it is seldom discussed in mainstream media, the White Helmets act as a PR front for Western governments to uphold al-Qaeda affiliated groups such as al-Nusra, a Sunni militia which in part composes the rebel army currently fighting the Syrian government.
While claiming to be impartial, the White Helmets only operate in regions controlled by rebel groups. Their claim to be locally run and independent of governments is also false, as the NGO was established by James Le Mesurier, a consultant for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a former British Army Officer. It was also created in collaboration with the notorious United States Agency for International Development (USAID), known for conducting operations on behalf of American foreign interests. In addition, the White Helmets are financed by the U.S., UK, and other governments, receiving over $100 million in funding.
Most of the group’s immense funding goes towards marketing, run by “The Syria Campaign” based in New York. This NGO has claimed “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.”
Saving lives is not the only thing the White Helmets advocate for. They have also called for the implementation of a no-fly zone. Such a policy would embolden terrorists in the conflict by removing the Syrian Air Force. According to a Pentagon assessment, approximately 70,000 American servicemen would be required to enforce a no-fly zone.
In addition, it would benefit those seeking regime change such as the U.S. government. The same policy in the past preceded the downfall of regimes in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to collapse, plans for the Russian-backed Iran-Iraq-Syria natural gas pipeline would be ruined. In the wake of the downfall of al-Assad’s regime, the U.S. would be able to pursue its interest in the construction of the rival Qatar-Turkey pipeline.
Civilians from East Aleppo claim the White Helmets do not register aid to civilians, but only to militants when they are attacked. Some claim that the hospitals are strictly used for militants, as civilians are prevented from receiving assistance. As for the widespread media regarding the group pulling people from the rubble, it was claimed by other civilians that they only help when a camera is trained on them and that afterwards they leave, abandoning trapped bodies. Still more civilians claim that members of the group are thieves that steal their jewelry.
Estimates of how many lives the White Helmets have saved vary dramatically. Netflix’s documentary claims over 55,000 lives, while the Georgetown Security Studies Review placed the number around 16,000 in May 2015. The State Department in April 2016 held that 40,000 people were rescued, whereas the White Helmets themselves claimed the figure to be over 60,000.
Just as the number of people actually assisted remains disparate, one should maintain an uncertainty about the intentions of the Syrian Civilian Defense and its powerful supporters as the civil war continues.