Aleppo University Hospital (AUH), Syria
“Attacking hospitals and medical workers is a non-negotiable red line. As such, it must be set out – in clear and simple terms – in all military manuals, rules of engagement and standard operating procedures. Too often, unverified intelligence, or opaque claims that a hospital is a quote “command and control center,” is justification enough for an attack. To stop this, there must be accountability. There must be credible investigations. And not just by the perpetrators.
– Medicine Sans Frontiers (MSF) International President, Dr. Joanne Liu, addressing the United Nations Security Council, 9/26/ 2016
As of today, increasingly well documented legal cases, with respect to more than 2000 alleged indictable War Crimes in Syria are leading many governments as well as the general public to insist on holding accountable those who are committing these crimes against humanity. Not just in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, but also in Yemen and Iraq.
It is increasingly likely that this intensifying pressure will eventuate in post-conflict Special International Tribunals with universal jurisdiction. Those who currently stand accused are military forces funded and equipped by at least ten countries including the United States, UK, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, among others.
If International Humanitarian Law is supported by the increasingly horrified and outraged global community, at least some officials from the above named will have their day in court.
Against this backdrop, some political water-carriers and “internet activists” who are supporting one side in the Syrian civil war, seemingly rather than the Syrian people generally are waging a malicious campaign against Syrian rescue workers who are risking their lives daily to save their families and community. Currently being targeted are as many as a dozen youth, student, Red Cross type organizations as well spontaneously formed local committees across Syria who with no other emergency assistance available or likely to arrive to their neighborhoods anytime soon, are digging through rubble to try to save lives. Among the lifesaving volunteer organizations being vilified are the White Helmets, The Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARCS), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF), the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) to name just a few.
The much acclaimed White Helmets rescuers, working in east Aleppo and Idlib governorate are being particularly targeted it appears, but SARCS, MSF and several others have not been spared. The White Helmets are being attacked with all sorts of unfounded accusations and conspiracy theories that have nothing to do with who the volunteers are, what the rescue workers are actually doing, why they are doing it, and their contacts, if any at all, with members of the international public or even political factions abroad.
This week the White Helmets are being accused of helping save the lives of “terrorists” to the exclusion of others. This charge is nonsense. With the Hippocratic Oath as their policy, White Helmets treat the wounded without regard for a war victims political views, race or religion. Whether street beggar, scholar, government supporter, Shia, Sunni, Christian, atheist, Taliban, Huthi rebel or Islamic State (IS) or other fanatics. All of the above have received lifesaving White Helmet assistance in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria.
During interviews, White Helmets rescue workers insist that under the Geneva Conventions, ratified by 196 countries, including the 193 UN Member states, all human beings have a right to medical treatment even in a war, if she or he is stricken and no longer fighting. The same body on International Humanitarian Law also protects Syrian Civil Defense workers. That protection was stripped from the 110 White Helmets killed while on rescue missions during the past three years. Also the SARCS volunteers killed when their aid convoy was attacked last month.
The Geneva conventions are under serious threat in this era of the “War on Terror” and this development is extremely dangerous for humanitarian aid workers. Many warring parties see rescue workers as supporters of “terrorists” or of the Syrian government and are disregarding the neutrality of medical professionals in war zones. As a result, hospitals have gone from being protected zones to becoming, like schools, death traps.
White Helmet rescuers believe that despite many violations, the Geneva Conventions are historically revolutionary and represent a sliver of civilization in the midst of the barbarity of war that in Syria is deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure. And that International Humanitarian Law must be respected because no one has the right to attack those escaping death. Or to attack their rescuers.
One White Helmet detractor wrote last week, “Yet behind the lofty rhetoric about solidarity and the images of heroic rescuers rushing in to save lives is an agenda that aligns closely with the forces from Riyadh to Washington clamoring for regime change.” He also claimed without a scintilla of probative evidence that White Helmets helped “terrorists” execute someone for an alleged crime.
Where is his proof that they were even White Helmet members?
White Helmets as objects have become a fad fashion of sorts worn by people who have nothing to do with the rescuers. Again, the author needs to supply more substance than merely claiming that his internet posting is true when it’s well-known that there are plenty of fake videos, photographs, and interviews these days being posted from many disparate anonymous sources. For political purposes.
The accusation that the White Helmets are Western/NATO political implants is another myth and conspiracy theory. As with most conspiracy theories, it begins with facts and proceeds to make imaginary connections that make the whole seem greater than its parts. White Helmet rescuers are not involved in politics but are much like Syria’s population in general, including most of the 12 million refugees, who have come to abhor politics. Most are simply too exhausted and numbed by years of witnessing horror, to even listen to postulated political agendas and just want to help their families and fellow Syrians survive the war anyway they can. For some it means daily risking their lives removing concrete rubble at bomb sites in a frantic search for bombing victims who may still be alive.
Over the past three years, I have observed that Syrian citizens who are not part of the more than a dozen humanitarian organizations rescuing citizens at bomb sites, also work tirelessly in many other ways to help war victims, assisting them to find shelter, water, food, clothing, medical attention, psychological counseling, and schooling while extending friendship and love to the war’s victims. They are not, in the main, involved in any politics. Surely some are supporters of the current regime and others presumably are not. But they eschew politics to focus on the subject, for which they are risking their lives, saving their countrymen until the carnage ends. Most aid workers that I has been honored to spend time with, including recent long days with the government sponsored SARCS volunteers exhibit, even during private conversations, have little or no interest in politics as they do their grim daily work of picking through rubble left by airstrikes or shelling from whatever side the strikes arrive, and patching up survivors, or dispatching and operating mobile medical clinics and dozens of other humanitarian activities. They are lovely people. Everyone I spent time with.
Among the sundry groups of rescue workers across Syria there is no denial that some former fighters might be working with them to save the lives of victims of bombings. The volunteers acknowledge that they have some rebel former fighters among them. The UK Independent recently quoted a White Helmet rescuer as saying, “Yes, we have men who used to carry guns before, who have decided to put away the guns and take up a stretcher. We certainly don’t hide that. In fact we are proud of the fact these men are not fighting any longer but are rescuing people.”
The White Helmets have detractors who accuse them of being allied to rebel groups. The same charge is made against the Syrian Government organization, Syrian Red Crescent Society (SARCS) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They are being funded, claim their accusers, by the US and UK as part of yet another secret Western plot. Their “proof” is that they claim Syrian rescue workers favor “safe zones” for their loved ones is not sincere but rather simply an attempt to strip the Assad regime of air power against extremists.
This charge, like most unfounded accusations targeting rescue workers in Syria, is ludicrous. Of course rescue workers, from government ministries and the Syrian Red Crescent Society, and more than two dozen other humanitarian organizations, including many student groups, and hundreds of thousands of villagers across Syria who care about the plight of Syrian civilians, want the intense bombardment and slaughter in Aleppo and all across Syria to stop. So do many Syrian government officials.
It’s a fact that the White Helmets and many others rescuers believe that sometimes they are being deliberately targeted, with the “double-tap” bombings– in which aircraft make a return visit to a place they have bombed once volunteers have arrived – taking an even greater lethal toll. This widespread concern among medical centers and their staffs does not make the rescue workers “terrorists” as some recent critics imply. The term “terrorists”, has itself become a much overused hyperbolic term that has largely lost its meaning. And labeling the White Helmets “terrorist lovers” does not make them US or UK agents. Or hell bent on regime change nor does it make them “rebels” as some poorly informed critics, most who presumably have not met any rescue workers in Syria, have been callously claiming on internet blogs.
Near the end of his lengthy attack on the White Helments, one author, using a subtitle: “An unmonitored money dump?” appears to think he has surely uncovered another conspiracy as he complains that “the White Helmets have received grants worth millions of dollars from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Japan and USAID. To date, USAID has donated $23 million to the White Helmets, a substantial sum for a civil defense project in a war zone.” Adding that “With such thin monitoring mechanisms in place to track how USAID money is spent in Syria, the risk of (White Helmet) misappropriation is considerable.”
The author of some of the above noted conspiracy theories further attempts to smear Syrian emergency rescue workers by claiming that were founded in collaboration with USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives. Not true. Once the White Helmets were up and running, some months later, USAID gave a grant to the White Helmets. It was a major one, one among hundreds of others including recent donations from the estate of the late British MP Jo Cox who helped the White Helmets get organized in 2014. On October 13, speaking to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced “continued support the White Helmets and to support all types of humanitarian relief.” Hundreds of humanitarian projects have received help from USAID, the UK, EU and others. Examples include the past few years more than thirty in Lebanon, for which the government and people are grateful. Trying to smear the White Helmets based on their growing base of donors is simply more conspiracy theory stuff.
James Le Mesurier, who helped the White Helmets get organized when they were untrained random neighborhood citizens trying to help save their neighbors, told the UK Independent recently that allegations of clandestine Western schemes have become a common tactic among some who oppose the White Helmets. “This is a standard line of attack by trolls on the Internet. But there is nothing secret about what we do and where we get our funding. We are a non-profit organization and we try to raise between $20m to $25m (£19m) annually for all the equipment, training, vehicles and protective clothing and salaries for the rescue teams. The members of the teams get around $150 a month each.” He added, “We are funded by the Dutch, Danish, German and British governments. We also get individual donations. The London Fire Brigade, for instance, sent us some surplus equipment. The US funds the White Helmets through a separate organization. I think theirs come to about $23m.”
A recent attack on the White Helmet published on the internet employs numerous pejorative terms defaming rescue workers. One laments that “The White Helmets have proven to be one of the most effective tools in the Syria Campaign’s public relations arsenal. Apart from the group’s own calls for a no-fly zone, the White Helmets have been at the center of the Syria Campaign’s ongoing attack on the United Nations, which it accuses of illicit collusion with Assad.” More defamatory nonsense!
White Helmet rescue workers are intensely focused on saving lives including their own, during rescue missions and none I have discussed the subject with even knew of the petition or the radar information request. They are focused on digging bombing victims from rubble and few if any have the time or ability to surf the internet. I am ignorant about the efficacy of the project, but if such radar information were available perhaps it could help some White Helmet rescuers save lives.
The same author complains that “Footage of the White Helmets saving civilians trapped in the rubble of buildings bombed by the Syrian government and its Russian ally has become ubiquitous in coverage of the crisis.” That is a gross oversimplification but it is true that as an international symbol of courage under fire, the group has become a leading resource for journalists and human rights groups seeking information inside the war theater, from casualty figures to details on the kind of bombs that are falling.
The author then spins another conspiracy theory claiming “The White Helmets’ leadership is driven by a pro-interventionist agenda conceived by the Western governments and public relations groups that back them.
So where’s the beef? No probative evidence is offered to readers to support his claim. And if there were any, what does it have to do with the nearly 4,000 Syrian citizens, 145 of whom have been killed in the line of duty while another nearly 450 have been wounded, while saving as many if not more than 65,000 Syrian citizens, many being their neighbors, families and friends?
The White Helmets, whose current number of 62 women rescuers is expected to increase to approximately 500 over the next five months as training courses are completed, have one of the most dangerous commitments in this waging war as they focus on war victims and their own rescue team comrades often under fire. Not someone’s possible political views.
How many of us work for or with organizations achieving humanitarian results in Syria or elsewhere with someone in the group’s administration, who they do not know or ever met, feels strongly that efforts should be made to end the slaughter? To attempt to smear White Helmet rescuers as a group for someone associated with the organization or who supports the organization’s work but who may have expressed political views is defamatory and egregious.
Another example of the massive use of pejorative language used to smear rescue workers, is the above noted authors claims that “the bravado displayed by the White Helmets under Syrian government and Russian bombardment has captivated some of the most influential observers of the Syrian conflict.” “Bravado” which in English means “a pretentious, swaggering display of courage” is not what White Helmets are doing in Aleppo, Idlib, or elsewhere. Neither are SARCS, the ICRC or other rescuers pretentious or swaggering during their work risking their lives to save innocent Syrian victims of this intensifying carnage.
Those who for political purposes defame Syrian rescue workers who are risking their lives in Syria to save others, owe it to themselves and their readers to come to Syria and have a look of what’s really going on with these humanitarian groups.
I invite them to join me, where we will spend a few days on the scene observing, talking with, and getting to know the character of these amazing Samaritans. Perhaps as a result of this experience some who defame them may rethink their egregious calumny and be better humanitarians for the experience.