After international rescue evacuates hundreds of White Helmets and family members, those left behind fear government reprisals

Civil Defense volunteers run to the site of a bombing in Daraa city on June 25. Photo courtesy of Syria Civil Defense.

AMMAN: In an unprecedented international rescue operation executed before dawn on Sunday, a group of more than 400 Syrian Civil Defense workers and their family members quietly crossed the chain-linked fence along Syria’s southern border and set foot into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Israeli soldiers wrapped identification bands around the wrists of new arrivals and shuttled them into buses reminiscent of the displacement convoys that have criss-crossed Syria in recent years—usually with the rebel-held northwest as their destination. This time, however, the buses were heading into Israeli-occupied territory, and were ultimately bound for Jordan, where Syrian evacuees are now awaiting the completion of resettlement procedures to countries outside the region.

According to a source familiar with the operation, 422 people were successfully evacuated on Sunday, including around 100 Civil Defense volunteers.

The Syrian Civil Defense rescue group, better known as the White Helmets, has operated in rebel-held territories for years amid aerial and ground bombardments by the Syrian government and its Russian allies.

But despite the successful evacuation of more than 400 Syrians on Sunday, a number of Civil Defense workers and their families have been left behind—with some unable to reach the evacuation point in the western foothills of Syria’s Quneitra province in time, and others out of reach and therefore unaware that the plan was in fact going ahead.

Those White Helmets are now potentially stranded as the Syrian government—which has previously accused the rescue group of collaborating with “terrorist” groups, and targeted its members—continues to retake territory close to the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

“We are in great danger,” says Abu Muhannad, a Civil Defense administrator in the Daraa countryside involved in coordinating the rescue operation, who requested his real name be withheld for security reasons.

He fears that the Syrian government, as it reasserts control over areas of southwestern Syria, “will take revenge against us.”

Abu Muhannad and his family were among those making a desperate dash for the border after receiving official confirmation that the evacuation was on—via a message received two days before the operation that read, “Head to the border with Israel.”

But despite multiple attempts to cross through what is now government-held territory in the western Daraa countryside, Abu Muhannad couldn’t reach the evacuation point in time.

Disguised “as ordinary civilians,” he says, Abu Muhannad and his family were held up at a pro-government checkpoints and told that the road ahead was closed following advances made by the Islamic State-affiliated Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed in clashes with the Syrian army and allied groups to the west. With the only remaining road available to them cut off, Abu Muhannad and his family had no way to proceed.  

The Civil Defense administrator says several fellow colleagues also failed to reach the evacuation point in time.

Until the signal to depart came two days ago, Civil Defense workers had little indication that the operation would in fact go ahead. Informed tentatively earlier this month that there was a possibility of evacuation, White Helmets interested in taking part submitted their names for vetting by international actors involved in negotiations and evacuations.

“They told us nothing is certain,” Abu Muhannad recalls.

In the end, a coalition of Western states led by Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom—and joined by Israel, Jordan and the United Nations—put together a plan to get as many rescue workers and family members out as possible, a source familiar with the operation told Syria Direct on Monday. The Israeli army said in a statement on Sunday that the operation to rescue White Helmets and their families was launched “due to an immediate threat to their lives.”

That plan was initiated after it “became very clear” that talks between opposition and government negotiators would not result in any meaningful guarantees for the region’s White Helmets to be evacuated north, the source said.

Abu Muhannad says a number of rescue workers had previously been able to evacuate from southwestern Syria on buses north in recent days. “But what is the guarantee that the regime won’t arrest us if we leave with the buses?” he asked.

The Syrian Civil Defense has operated in rebel-held territories for years, working to save lives in the wake of Russian and Syrian bombardments. The group has been frequently accused by the Syrian government and its allies, as well as the government’s supporters, of collaborating with “terrorists,” as well as faking chemical weapons attacks.

Rescue workers have previously been targeted by the Syrian government and its allies during evacuations from areas subject to reconciliation agreements between rebel groups and the Syrian government, raising concerns among Civil Defense supporters as the final battle for the south took hold.

“White Helmets were specifically sought out during those evacuations,” the source familiar with Sunday night’s operation said, pointing to cases of rescue workers being “detained, tortured and forced to make [false] confessions...and subsequently disappeared.”

In one case in December 2016, Syrian Civil Defense volunteer Abdulhadi al-Kamel was reportedly arrested by pro-government forces in Aleppo before later appearing in a video that colleagues from the Civil Defense said constituted a “false confession.”  

Civil Defense workers still inside Syria now worry that Israeli participation in the Sunday operation in particular will only embolden the Syrian government’s campaign against the group.

“After our colleagues’ departure, the danger is even greater,” he said. “The accusations against us have grown,” he added, “and there is a new one—that we collaborate with Israel.”

By Monday morning, Syrian state media was already reporting on the “criminal operation carried out by ‘Israel’ and its tool in the region,” claiming that the evacuations “divulged the true nature” of the White Helmets.

Abu Muhannad denied the accusations, claiming that it was the international community's decision to secure passage through Israel towards Jordan.

“We have no role in this,” he said. “We just want to escape with our lives.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations. Follow Avery on Twitter: @averyedelman.