Israel aids evacuation of 400 Syrian ‘White Helmets’ and families
BEIRUT — Israel facilitated the evacuation of more than 400 White Helmet rescue workers and their families from an embattled pocket of southern Syria over the weekend, helping them to travel through Israeli-held territory to reach Jordan.
The operation took place in a part of Syria where progovernment forces are advancing. It followed a push by Western countries including the United States to protect members of the White Helmets, volunteer emergency workers who rush to the scene of airstrikes in civilian areas.
The Israeli army said Sunday that the United States and European countries had asked for help with the evacuation of the civilians “due to an immediate threat to their lives.”
A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Jordan, Mohammad al-Kayed, said his country had authorized the United Nations to facilitate the entry of hundreds of Syrians to Jordan after Britain, Germany, and Canada had made a “legally binding undertaking to resettle them within a specified period of time due to a risk to their lives.”
Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, said on Twitter Sunday that the original request had been for 800 Syrians, but that the final number who made the trip was 422. The evacuation was done overnight Saturday.
Syrian government forces, which are supported by Russia and Iran, have been sweeping through a swath of territory along Syria’s southern border with Jordan, seizing areas that have long been held by Western-backed rebels seeking to oust President Bashar Assad of Syria.
Seven years into the war, Assad has taken back the country’s center and is reasserting his control of its largest population centers. But large parts of the country remain out of his hands, held by rebels, Turkey, or Kurdish forces backed by the United States.
As the lines dividing those zones have solidified, large numbers of people living in them have been moved, further exacerbating the crisis that has displaced more than half of Syria’s population.
In addition to the evacuation of the White Helmets, hundreds of rebels and their families were bused from southern Syria to the rebel-held north because they did not want to live under Syrian government control.
And last week, thousands of members of Syria’s Shi’ite minority were removed from two besieged villages in the country’s north, emptying them out.
The evacuation of the White Helmets came near the end of the Syrian government’s sweep through southern Syria.
As towns have fallen, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, and many, including members of the White Helmets, ended up in the shrinking pocket of rebel-held territory along the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
Officially known as the Syria Civil Defense, the White Helmets, so called for their signature hard hats, have been lauded in the West for their work digging people out of the rubble after government airstrikes.
The United States and other Western governments have funded their work, and a Netflix film, “The White Helmets,” won an Academy Award last year for best short documentary. A second film about the group, “Last Men in Aleppo,” was nominated for an Oscar this year.
The Syrian government accuses the group of cavorting with terrorists and of staging footage of their operations to garner sympathy and demonize the government.
The Israeli army called the move “an exceptional humanitarian gesture,” apparently to make it clear that further evacuations were not to be expected.
Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister of regional cooperation, said in a radio interview Sunday that foreign powers worried that Assad’s government would target the White Helmets if they were in territory his forces seized.
“Now that it appears that the Assad regime is going to regain its hold over all of Syria, the international community wanted to extricate them so that they wouldn’t have to pay the price of the enormous hatred that the Syrian regime has for them,” he said.
The Syrians will remain in a restricted area in Jordan until their resettlement within three months, the spokesman for the Jordanian Foreign Ministry said.
On Sunday, Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s new foreign secretary, who recently replaced Boris Johnson, took to Twitter to trumpet the evacuation: “Fantastic news that we — UK and friends — have secured evacuation of White Helmets and their families. Thank you, Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request.”
This was the second major evacuation in Syria this past week. On Thursday, buses removed more than 6,000 people from two Shi’ite villages in Idlib province in the north who had been besieged by Sunni rebels for years.
Idlib now holds the largest patch of rebel-held territory in Syria, and officials in the region assume that once Assad has retaken the south, he will turn his guns to Idlib.
More than 2 million people are there, many displaced from elsewhere in Syria, and aid organizations worry that any military operation would be catastrophic because civilians will have nowhere to flee. The province borders Turkey, which has kept its border closed.