Who are the White Helmets of Syria?
The White Helmets are a brave group of volunteer first responders, aka the Syria Civil Defense.
The backstory: Syria has been dealing with a brutal civil war since 2011 between the Russian-backed Bashar al-Assad regime and various rebel groups. During that time, the crises have been one after another, from civilian deaths, infrastructure damage, water and power shortages, COVID and a cholera outbreak.
The White Helmets are a brave group of volunteer first responders, aka the Syria Civil Defense, who operate in war-torn and isolated areas of Syria to help civilians. They're known for their signature white hard hats, and they've saved countless lives on all sides of the conflict. But, some have raised an eyebrow because they're funded by countries like the UK and the US. (Although the US briefly suspending funding in 2018 to reassess its role in Syria.)
Russia and the Assad regime have spread theories about the White Helmets, accusing them of crimes like kidnapping, torture and organ harvesting, labeling them as "anti-Assad terrorists" and "agents" of foreign powers. But, the White Helmets receive support and recognition worldwide, including having an Oscar-winning Netflix documentary about them and getting Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
More recently: Their work has been far from easy with the ongoing war and operating in isolated, rebel-held regions. The recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have only added to the chaos. But, the White Helmets have a lot of experience helping communities where the government is absent. The group says it's saved more than 125,000 lives so far. Sadly, they often have to face what's called a "double tap," when a place is bombed again shortly after the first airstrike to kill anyone left alive, as well as rescuers responding to the area trying to save lives.
The development: In the wake of the destructive earthquake in Syria and Turkey this week, thousands have been left in dire straits and desperately need support. In northern Syria, a region grappling with conflict for over a decade, the White Helmets stand out as a beacon of hope as they've joined in the rescue effort. The group's leader, Raed Saleh, has said at least they don't have to worry about double taps in this situation, but the damage is far more widespread than any usual airstrike. The group has reached out to the international community for help.
"This catastrophe is much bigger than us, we need the intervention of states," said emergency response force White Helmets co-founder Ismail Al-Abdullah to Bloomberg, referring to the recent earthquakes.
"Teams are present in those locations, but the available machinery and equipment are not enough," said Mounir al-Mostafa, the deputy head of the White Helmets, saying they could respond to up to 30 locations at a time and the first 72 hours are vital for any rescue operation.
"The areas worst affected by the earthquake inside Syria look to be run by the Turkish-controlled opposition and not by the Syrian government," said Mark Lowcock, the former head of UN humanitarian affairs, referring to the difficulty in sending aid into northern Syria. "It is going to require Turkish acquiescence to get aid into those areas. It is unlikely the Syrian government will do much to help."