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The White Helmets of Syria

Nicolas Wiles, Guest Writer

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Those of you that watched the Oscars may be familiar with the winner of Best Short Documentary, a film on Netflix by the name of “White Helmets.” This 40 minute documentary follows members of an organization known as The White Helmets, a group based in Syria dedicated to rescuing civilians caught in the crossfire of Syria’s bloody civil war.


Since its release, the documentary has received much praise from many Western information outlets like CNN, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and many others due to its inspiring message. NBC called the White Helmets “Angels on the front line” in a recent article praising the documentary. The film, however, has also been the subject of much controversy among less mainstream sources such as the Syria Solidarity Movement and Hands Off Syria. These folks provide a far less flattering rhetoric, some branding it a war propaganda film; others labelling the White Helmets pawns for US militarism; some going as far as to call the group “Al-Qaeda with a face-lift.”


How could such a seemingly noble group be the subject of such accusations?

Perhaps a more apt question to answer first – who are The White Helmets? Officially known as Syria Civil Defense (SCD), they describe themselves on their website as such:


“We are a group of nearly 3000 volunteers who work to save lives and strengthen communities in Syria. We rush to the scene of attacks to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimise further injury to people and damage to property. We are a neutral and impartial organisation. We do not to pledge allegiance to any political party or group. We serve all the people of Syria – we are from the people and we for the people.”


The group claims to have saved upwards of 80,000 lives, though offers little evidence other than self-promotional tweets and unverified videos on social media. In nearly all of its media coverage, the rhetoric of the group centers around two main themes, the first being how horrible the war is. Despite my, as you’ll soon find out, sizable degree of distaste for the SCD, I’m right with them on this one – this war has been going on for too damn long, and it needs to end. The second (an assertion that I’m far less inclined to agree with than the first) is a desperate cry for US/NATO intervention in the form of increased bombing runs and a NATO-enforced no fly zone over parts of Syria. Instead of advocating for peace and reconciliation, they wish to escalate the conflict.


For the record, it should be noted that a no fly zone would directly benefit opposition forces – so much for nonpartisan.

Okay, so we can scratch out “neutral,” but at least the White Helmets are still independent in terms of funding, right? No one owns them? Wrong. At press conference on April 27, USSD Spokesperson Mark Toner mentioned that the organization has accepted $23 million from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to, as that agency’s website puts it, “advance US foreign policy objectives.” The list of governments that have funded the group has grown to now  include the UK and Denmark.


Despite claims of being unarmed, members of the organization can be seen in several eyewitness videos – usually the ones released by Al-Nusra or similar militias – carrying assault rifles. While the White Helmets have received much criticism for not holding true to their doctrine and remaining unarmed, this is a crime for which I can forgive them. If I were to go marching into a potentially hostile war zone in which civilians are often targeted or held hostage, you can bet I’d want something to defend myself with.


However, I have a much harder time forgiving some of their other offenses, such as staging rescues – in other words, fraud. Several videos have surfaced from multiple sources that show SCD members “on set” shooting rescue scenes that are clearly fabricated. Maybe they did deserve the Oscar – their acting is top-notch.


So they aren’t neutral, they aren’t independently funded, they aren’t unarmed, and they’ve been known to fabricate rescues. Well at the very minimum, at least they’re Syrian, no? It says on their website, “We serve all the people of Syria – we are from the people and we for the people.” There’s some merit in that, right? If you’ve been paying attention to the pattern here, you know what I’m going to say – nope. The SCD was a US/UK creation, originally founded by British self-described “security specialist” and former Blackwater employee, James Le Mesurier.  So… I guess “Syrian” is off the list as well. I also hope that no one believes it to be a coincidence that the US and the UK – the two nations whose interests the White Helmets serve the most – are responsible for the creation of this group.


That’s a pretty rough set of tarnishes on their image, but unfortunately, the worst one has yet to be addressed. The White Helmets operate exclusively in opposition-held areas. Now, in the context of the Syrian civil war, “opposition forces” is a vague umbrella term, given that there are countless factions and militias on the ground that are hostile to Syrian government forces, due to the splintering and infighting among the rebels. The three biggest players on the opposition side are the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the so called moderate rebels. The FSA has been shattered and broken over the course of the war by both military defeats and by infighting among their leadership, and many of their numbers have joined the other two groups, ISIS and Nusra, as a consequence. I’m sure you all know about the IS, but I’m guessing less of you have heard of the Al-Nusra Front. They’re basically the Syrian chapter of Al-Qaeda, so really not much better than ISIS. Besides the IS, Nusra is the only group that poses a legitimate threat to the Syrian regime, so when people say that the White Helmets operate exclusively in rebel held areas, what they really mean is that these guys are in Nusra territory. Many (though of course, not all) of the people that SCD help and work alongside with are actually Nusra militants. Worse still, there have been several confirmed cases of individuals being members of both groups.


I’ve seen countless pictures and videos of White Helmets and Nusra militants working, eating, even celebrating alongside each other. There was one particularly chilling video released by Al-Nusra in which an individual is executed in a Sharia court. Soon after the victim falls to the ground with a bullet wound to his head, two White Helmets come to take care of the body, meaning that they had been present during the execution – and done nothing to stop it.


Having these kinds of ties to a group like Al-Nusra is an offense of the utmost gravity. To me, this is really the one trait of the White Helmets that I just can’t get over. I can forgive them for being pawns of NATO, due to the fact that this kind of information manipulation is nothing new and is usually justified, but to buddy up with that kind of crowd is unacceptable, and a lot of people ought to be ashamed of themselves for it, or for ignoring it, cough cough Oscars.


All that being said, it’s quite obvious which side I’m on here, but I do want to avoid overly demonizing the White Helmets. Before I wrap it up, I want to acknowledge that despite their uglier side, there are indeed many proven cases where SCD members rescued innocent people from danger, or helped to minimize civilian property damage. They without a doubt have been a tremendous help in cleanup efforts as well, clearing rubble from streets and whatnot, an under glorified role in humanitarian efforts. It really is a great cause, which makes it all the more disappointing and frankly depressing when they don’t live up to their promises.


So, what does this mean in the grand scheme of things, what’s the big picture look like? Let’s recap. NATO wants Assad gone for a variety of reasons (not all of them innocent or humanitarian, but that topic deserves its own article), so they fund and arm the moderates, the FSA. The FSA more or less collapses due to infighting among other factors, and a large portion of its members join Al-Nusra, the Islamic State, or smaller anti-government militias. At this point it’s quite clear that Assad is going to mop up the rest of the opposition with the help of Russian air support, but the US doesn’t have the popular support required to intervene. So, they essentially start a defamation campaign against the Syrian government via pawns such as the White Helmets to garner support for a stronger presence in the war.


Ideally, this would be a spot for us to discuss Assad’s government, what our goals in Syria should be, and whether or not regime change is a good idea, but alas, this article’s already too long for most of you to finish reading anyways. I know I’ve played devil’s advocate here by criticising NATO’s policy and indirectly took the perspective of the Assad regime, so I would like to reassure everyone that I am by no means in the Assad camp.


I also realize that I made many unsupported claims throughout this piece; unfortunately I cannot provide the appropriate links and videos, due to the fact that this is in print. However, if you reach out to me via email or in person, and I would be delighted to share my sources or have a friendly discussion on the topic. Thanks for reading!

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The White Helmets of Syria