The White Helmets (Arabic: الخوذ البيضاء ,القبعات البيضاء al-Ḫawdh al-bayḍāʾ / al-Qubaʿāt al-Bayḍāʾ), officially known as Syria Civil Defence (SCD; Arabic: الدفاع المدني السوري ad-Difāʿ al-Madanī as-Sūrī), is a volunteer organisation that operates in parts of rebel-controlled Syria and in Turkey. The majority of their activity in Syria consists of urban search and rescue in response to bombing, medical evacuation, evacuation of civilians from danger areas, and essential service delivery. 159 White Helmets have been killed since the organisation's inception.
The organisation has been the target of a disinformation campaign by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia-sponsored media organisations such as Russia Today (RT), with claims of close ties with terrorist activities.
The White Helmets have been the subject of various accusations including links to terrorists by Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian and Russia-sponsored media organisations such as RussiaToday, Iranian news agency MNA and other commentators. These claims are denied by other media.
The rescue teams that later became Syria Civil Defence emerged during the late 2012 escalation of the Syrian Civil War, as areas no longer under government control came under sustained attack by government forces. In response, in the absence of formal governmental structures, small groups of civilian volunteers from affected communities, particularly in Aleppo and Idlib, assembled to assist civilians injured in bombardment or trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings. Training, funding and support was provided from international partners, including donations from governments in Western Europe, the US and Japan; the Turkish AKUT Search and Rescue Association; and a variety of NGOs, private individuals, public fundraising campaigns, and charities. Primary support and training was provided by Mayday Rescue Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation established by former British Army officer James Le Mesurier, and became a key factor in the development of the organisation.
Local and provincial councils joined with Mayday Rescue Foundation and AKUT Search and Rescue Association to create the first training programmes in early 2013. ARK, an international contracting firm based in Istanbul, would facilitate entry of volunteers to Turkey, where they would be trained by AKUT. Early training courses included trauma care, command and control and crisis management. Over the next two years, the number of independent civil defence teams grew to several dozen as graduates of the early trainings such as Raed Saleh established new centers; the national organisation of SCD was founded on 25 October 2014 at a conference of independent teams.
SCD has grown to be an organisation of over 3,000 volunteers operating from 111 local civil defence centres across 8 provincial directorates (Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Hama, Homs, Damascus, Damascus Countryside, and Daraa). In October 2014, these self-organised teams came together and voted to form one national organisation: Syria Civil Defence. As of January 2017, the SCD claims to have rescued over 80,000 people since they began to keep count in 2014. According to The Economist, approximately one in six SCD have been killed or badly wounded, "many by “double tap” Russian and Syrian airstrikes on the same site as they search for bodies." Seven members were killed in August 2017 in an apparent assassination at their operations centre in Sarmin in Idlib Province.
On 14 December 2016, as the Syrian Armed Forces were recapturing eastern Aleppo, SCD head Raed Saleh requested safe passage of SCD operatives to rebel controlled countryside around Aleppo. Syria Civil Defence joined the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Independent Doctors Association and the Violations Documentation Center to accuse Russian forces of war crimes in eastern Aleppo, jointly submitting a report to the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.
SCD's stated mission is "to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimize further injury to people and damage to property." Their work covers the 15 civil defence tasks as laid out in international humanitarian law (IHL); the bulk of their activity in Syria consists of urban search and rescue in response to bombing, medical evacuation, evacuation of civilians from danger areas, and essential service delivery.
The most prominent role of SCD was rescuing civilians from airstrikes with barrel bombs, improvised explosive devices dropped by SAAF helicopters. Following a request from Bashar al-Assad for support, Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War on 30 September 2015. Much of the work of SCD has been responding to aerial bombardments by the Russian Air Force attack aircraft.
As well as providing rescue services, SCD undertakes repair works such as securing damaged buildings and reconnecting electrical and water services, clearing roads, teaching children about unexploded ordnance hazards, as well as firefighting and winter storm relief. Sometimes described as the most dangerous job in the world, SCD operations involve risk from a wide variety of war-zone threats. By late 2016, 159 White Helmets had been killed since the organisation's inception.
SCD is not affiliated with the International Civil Defence Organisation, nor is it connected to the Syria Civil Defence forces which have been a member of the ICDO since 1972. However, as the Syrian government's civil defence organisation does not operate in rebel-held areas, and bombardment of civilian populations in Syria is overwhelmingly perpetrated against opposition-held areas by Syrian government forces, SCD is engaged in the civil defence tasks.
As of 2015, SCD had an annual budget of $30 million provided by a mix of state donors and public fundraising. Volunteers who work full-time receive a $150 monthly stipend.
Partnerships and funding
SCD is officially an impartial humanitarian NGO, with no affiliation to any political or military actor and a commitment to render services to anyone in need. Like all NGOs operating in opposition-controlled areas, SCD negotiates humanitarian access with organisations such as local councils, provincial councils, and armed groups, with relationships varying widely from governorate to governorate.
SCD work in close partnership with the Netherlands-based NGO Mayday Rescue Foundation. Mayday Rescue's Program Manager for Syria is Farouq Habib, who has also been described as the White Helmets' Head of International Relations. In May 2015 the head of SCD, Raed Saleh, and the head of Mayday Rescue Foundation, James Le Mesurier, met with some United Nations Security Council and European Union diplomats to argue for the enforcement of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. The case for a no-fly zone was also made at a United Nations General Assembly side meeting in September 2015.
The White Helmets receives charitable funding from the United States, the United Kingdom, and other western governments. Initially the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office was the largest single source of funding through Mayday Rescue Foundation. As of 2016, SCD state they are also partly funded through Chemonics, a U.S. based private international development company. Funders now include the Canadian government Peace and Stabilization Operations Program, the Danish government, the German government, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Kingdom Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). USAID have contributed at least $23 million from 2013 to March 2016. The British government had provided £15 million of funding between 2012 and November 2015, increased to £32 million by October 2016. The SCD has also received individual donations online to their Hero Fund, which provides treatment for wounded volunteers and supports their families.
Publicity and recognition
SCD is widely cited, quoted, or depicted in regional and international media coverage of the conflict in Syria. Raed Al Saleh, the Director of SCD, has been an outspoken advocate against bombardment of civilians, addressing the United Nations Security Council and other international bodies on a number of occasions.
A UK government £5.3 million media activists programme included training Syrian independent journalists and activists, including for reporting of "White Helmets" activities across Twitter and Facebook.
SCD have been the subject of two film. The streaming service Netflix released a documentary film entitled The White Helmets on September 16, 2016 by British director Orlando von Einsiedel and producer Joanna Natasegara. The film won the Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 89th Academy Awards. SCD head Raed Saleh was unable to go to the Oscars ceremony due to escalation of the conflict, despite having a valid visa. Khaled Khateeb, cinematographer of the film, was unable to attend due to a visa problem. Associated Press reported that the United States Department of Homeland Security under President Donald Trump decided to block Khaled Khateeb at the 11th hour. Released in 2017, Last Men in Aleppo was directed by Syrian director Feras Fayyad in collaboration with Danish film-maker Steven Johannessen and the Aleppo Media Centre; it was the Winner of the Grand Jury Documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017.
In 2017, it was awarded the McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian Award by Refugees International and its women volunteers were awarded the Theirworld Hope award by Sarah Jane Brown's children's charity Theirworld. Female SCD volunteer Manal Abazeed, who accepted these awards, was listed by Fortune Magazine among the "World's Most Powerful Women" of 2017
In 2017 Politico listed Khaled Omar Harrah, a notable member in Aleppo, known as the 'child rescuer', as one of the 28 people "shaping, shaking and stirring Europe". He was killed in Aleppo in an airstrike in August 2016. Harrah is the main character in Last Men in Aleppo, which was dedicated to him after his death.
Another notable member is Mohammed Abu Kifah, a civil defence team member who rescued another child from beneath the rubble in Idlib. Following his death in an apparent assassination on 12 August 2017, aged 25 years old, Kifah's life was celebrated on BBC Radio 4's Last Word.
According to investigative journalists and analysts, SCD became a target of a systematic information warfare campaign by the Russian government, the Syrian government, and their supporters, who have accused the organisation of taking sides in the Syrian Civil War, carrying arms and supporting "terrorist" groups. According to the US-based fact-checking organisation Snopes.com these accusations against the White Helmets are unfounded. Likewise, multiple journalists have raised serious questions as to the credibility and government ties of individuals making accusations against SCD.
In April 2016, on the way to receive the 2016 Humanitarian Award from the Washington DC-based group InterAction, Dulles Airport officials denied entry to Raed Saleh, the leader of the Syria Civil Defence. U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not publicly disclose why the agency prevented Saleh from entering the country. However, Raed Saleh has since been granted two visas to the US (and also to multiple European states).
In November 2016, the Revolutionaries of Syria Media Office, a Syrian media organisation, published a video showing two White Helmet volunteers performing a staged rescue operation in the style of the Mannequin Challenge meme. The organisation apologised for their volunteers' error of judgement and said it had not shared the recording on their official channels.
In June 2017, a member of the White Helmets was suspended indefinitely after he was discovered to have assisted armed militants in the burial of mutilated corpses of soldiers belonging to pro-government forces.
On Friday 13th April Roger Waters, former frontman of Pink Floyd got up on stage in Barcelona and denounced the White Helmets as a "fake organization" that provides propaganda for “jihadists and Terrorists.” His attack was loudly cheered and applauded by approving crowds.