In the dead of night and with help from countries including the United States, Canada, Jordan, Israel and the United Kingdom, the rescuers got rescued themselves. Almost immediately, the Syrian regime and its Russian backers criticized the operation. And the White Helmets.
But no amount of online targeting from the Syrian regime or its Russian backers can change the fact that these ordinary people from a whole slew of backgrounds came together as the White Helmets to rescue civilians in the midst of war - for years and at great risk to themselves. The White Helmets deserved rescue.
Indeed, the extraction of more than 400 Syrian Civil Defense members -- known as White Helmets -- from Syria this week as the Syrian regime neared their location was a rare reminder that countries can indeed work together effectively to protect people who have worked to help and to save others. That the Syrian regime called their rescue a "criminal operation" should surprise few and confuse even fewer.
The reason they earned the label is twofold: for the last half-decade, not only did they help rescue people in the aftermath of attacks by the Syrian regime, but they also documented what was happening on the ground, sharing what they saw with local and international organizations and chronicling events such as the April 2017 chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun.
"While the Syrian-Russian military coalition conducted indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations in areas like Eastern Ghouta, Idlib and now, Daraa and Quneitra, the White Helmets were pulling the injured from under rubble, burying the dead, putting out fires, and conducting countless search and rescue operations," noted Human Rights Watch. "They bore witness to many of the atrocities that characterized the conflict."
The White Helmets, formed in late 2012 and early 2013, are a volunteer force that has grown from a few dozen to several thousand members from multiple walks of life, from blacksmiths to barbers. Some 200 members of the group have been killed in the process of daring to go toward danger rather than away from it, running to try to rescue civilians in the immediate aftermath of aerial attacks.
As CNN's Hala Gorani noted, "Some of the defining images of the civil war, of bloodied bodies covered head to toe in concrete dust -- yet miraculously alive --- have come from the very people who have saved them."
For this work bearing witness -- captured in a Netflix documentary and in international media -- they were called "terrorists" by the Syrian government. And they bore the brunt of Russian propaganda starting in 2015 as the Russians ratcheted up their efforts inside Syria to protect and advance the interests of the Syrian regime by air and on the ground.
The White Helmets were accused of being linked to al Qaeda. Called "crisis actors." Accused of staging "fake attacks." And trolled mercilessly online.
The Guardian last December called these efforts to discredit the White Helmets an "extraordinary disinformation campaign" as it noted researchers "found evidence of a targeted Russian influence campaign against the White Helmets." One computer science professor at Indiana University, Fil Menczer, developed a tool called Hoaxy to chart the spread of misinformation online. Searching for "White Helmets" reveals a handful of sources generated hundreds of stories about the organization. "It's like a factory," he told the paper.
Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the rescue of the search-and-rescuers, the Russian Embassy in Israel tweeted, "July 22 West evacuated #WhiteHelmets pseudo-humanitarians via #Israel. These militants acted exclusively in areas controlled by Islamic radicals,concocted #fakenews, staged chemical provocations like in #EasternGhouta. They flee #Syria and reveal who they are."
Yes. They revealed who they are: regular people who regularly devoted themselves to clearing others out from under rubble. People whose work led to the creation of an unusual international alliance to get them out of danger. And people whose daring rescue showed once more the power of something we haven't seen in a while: just how much good is possible when countries work together.
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