‘Our work will continue no matter what,’ says Civil Defense volunteer after 7 colleagues murdered by gunmen

An unidentified group of gunmen stormed a Civil Defense center in the northwestern Syrian town of Sarmin at dawn on Saturday and shot seven volunteers of the search-and-rescue organization in their heads.

The assailants also stole Civil Defense vehicles and equipment from the center in Sarmin, 10km from the provincial capital of Idlib city. 

“Crimes against the Civil Defense are not new, but this time is different,” Rabia Hussein Diab, a Syrian Civil Defense volunteer in Sarmin, tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali. “They were directly targeted.”

“Now, all of Syria is dangerous—there are no safe places,” added the 28-year-old. 

Syrian Civil Defense volunteers, also known as White Helmets for the distinctive headgear they wear, act as first responders after airstrikes on rebel-held territories, while also serving as paramedics and firefighters. They say they are neutral and take no side in the war.

The attack in Sarmin comes at a time when the opposition-held Idlib province—one of four de-escalation zones established during peace talks in early May—is witnessing a marked drop in airstrikes by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies. 

Civil Defense members across the country and the international community expressed their condolences and voiced their solidarity with the White Helmets in the wake of the attack.

Civil Defense members bury seven volunteers killed in Sarmin on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Idlib White Helmets.

“These cowardly acts of masked men took the lives of civilian volunteers who work tirelessly as first responders in order to save lives in incredibly dangerous environments,” read a statement by the US State Department published the day after the attack.

No party has claimed credit for the murders.

Q: Could you tell us about the seven members of the Syrian Civil Defense who were killed on Saturday? When was the last time you saw them?

They took the overnight shift on Friday night. They took stock of the medical equipment, the ambulance and the firetrucks so they would be ready to go if there were any airstrikes, fires or incidents.

These young men were ready to sacrifice themselves just to help others.

Q: What does it mean for the Syrian Civil Defense to be attacked in opposition-controlled territory and under the protection of opposition factions?

Every time we go out on a rescue operation after an attack or bombardment, we know that we could be going toward our deaths. This is the work of the Civil Defense, and we all know that.

Crimes against the Civil Defense are not new, but this time is different. They were directly targeted. Now, all of Syria is dangerous. There are no safe places, and it does not matter if the territory is under the protection of opposition factions or the Syrian regime. 

Q: How has Saturday’s attack affected not only the Civil Defense’s ability to operate in the city, but also the group’s morale?

We will continue our work no matter what happens. We will not allow any criminals to stand in our way. These martyred members will be a beacon on our path to continue our humanitarian work, which will not stop.

Q: Has your organization had any issues with the local community or attacks before? How does this attack impact the Civil Defense’s relationship with the local community?

We don’t have any problems with anyone, as our work is purely humanitarian. We are citizens providing a service to citizens. We have been committed to neutrality since the beginning.

I don’t think that this incident will affect our relationship with the community. There is no hostility between us and the community. With every bombing or incident, we are the first ones on the scene—every man, woman and child knows this

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.