A mass evacuation in Syria over the weekend has called renewed attention to a group known as the White Helmets that operates in the country. Some basics:
- The group: Formally known as the Syrian Civil Defense, the White Helmets is a largely volunteer network of Syrians who venture out after airstrikes and such in rebel-held areas to help the wounded, explains NPR. They're supported by the US and the UN, though Syria views the White Helmets as a terrorist group. Many know of the group through an Oscar-winning documentary, notes the Wall Street Journal; see the trailer here. By the British government's count, the White Helmets have saved 115,000 lives.
- The evacuation: Hundreds of members of the group were trapped near the Israeli border, hemmed in by Syrian forces and militants allied with the Islamic State, reports the AP. The Israel military, acting on the request of the US, Canada, and European nations, rescued 422 members and their families and got them into Jordan. They will remain in Jordan for up to three months (with Jordan's approval) and then be resettled in Britain, Canada, and Germany.
- Risky operation: "It was a night of rescuing the rescuers," a source familiar with the operation tells NPR. "There's a real sense of tragedy that this had to happen at all. But also, a real joy that it took place." The Israel Defense Forces tweeted a video. The mission was the Israeli military's first such intervention in the seven-year-plus war.
- Reputation hurts: Those behind the evacuation felt that members of the White Helmets would be at particular risk for arrest or worse had they joined other opposition groups who have struck evacuation deals. “White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection,” says a statement from Britain's foreign secretary.
- Still trapped: A member of the group tells CNN that he and about 300 other members and their families remain stranded near the border and need quick rescue. This group apparently was supposed to have been part of the original evacuation, but heavy fighting prevented them from reaching the evacuation point. In all, about 3,000 members of the White Helmets remain in Syria overall, according to NPR. Their situation may have just gotten dicier, the member says, because they are now seen as acting in cahoots with Israel.
- Syria angry: The Syrian Foreign Ministry is calling the evacuation a "criminal process" and a "smuggling operation" showing that the US, Israel, and other nations are propping up a "terrorist group," reports the AP. The evacuation comes amid a Syrian offensive in the southwestern part of the country to reclaim rebel-held areas.
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