Hundreds of ‘White Helmet’ rescuers still stuck in south Syria after evacuation

Those who missed being rescued by Israel and transferred to Jordan now fear wrath of regime forces closing in from all sides

Members of the Syrian Civil Defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, remove a victim from the rubble of his house, following a reported air strike by government forces on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, April 8, 2017. (Mohamad ABAZEED/AFP)
Members of the Syrian Civil Defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, remove a victim from the rubble of his house, following a reported air strike by government forces on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, April 8, 2017. (Mohamad ABAZEED/AFP)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Several hundred Syrian rescuers remain trapped in the country’s south with no escape from approaching regime troops, two of them said Monday, after a secret evacuation saved many of their colleagues.

Israel on Sunday helped around 400 opposition-linked White Helmet rescue workers and their families flee a neighboring pocket of southwestern Syria as government forces bore down on them.

They were then taken to Jordan and will be resettled to Western nations including France, Britain, Germany, and Canada.

But a similar number remain trapped in southern Syria.

“We’re calling on concerned parties to help us leave,” said Cesar, a 23-year-old White Helmets worker in the southern city of Daraa.

He estimated some 400 fellow rescuers were still in the provinces of Daraa, bordering Jordan, and Quneitra, next to the buffer zone abutting the Israeli Golan Heights.

A picture taken from the Israeli Golan Heights shows a smoke plume rising during air strikes backing a Syrian-government-led offensive in the southwestern province of Daraa, July 23, 2018. (JALAA MAREY/AFP)

Cesar said he had learned of the operation a few days ago “by chance,” but when he contacted White Helmets leadership, they told him it was too late to register to leave.

“They set another meeting for today on the subject, but we found out a little while ago that the efforts failed. The fact that some White Helmets members left and some stayed hurt us more than it helped us,” he told AFP on Monday.

“Yesterday’s evacuation through Israel only made things worse. We’re afraid of the regime and Russia’s reactions.”

Russian-backed Syrian forces have been battering the south for more than a month in a bid to bring it back under government control.

The military push has damaged hospitals and civil defense centers, pushing hundreds of thousands to flee towards the Jordanian and Israeli borders, which remained sealed.

‘We’re surrounded’

The foreign ministry in Damascus slammed the evacuation on Monday, calling it a “criminal operation,” and repeating its accusation that the White Helmets were a front for “terrorists.”

A total of 422 people were evacuated and would be allowed to stay in Jordan for three months before being resettled, Amman has said.

“They pulled out the others but can’t get us out?” asked 20-year-old rescuer Imad from a rebel village in Quneitra.

“We’re surrounded,” he added.

IDF soldiers oversee the transfer of 422 ‘White Helmet’ rescue workers and their families through Israel and into Jordan, as they flee the Assad regime, on July 22, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Imad also said there had been a meeting of White Helmets officials in Jordan on Monday to discuss the fate of the remaining rescuers.

After the meeting, the White Helmets members still in Syria were told their only option was to be bussed north to opposition-controlled territory under a surrender deal.

Last week, rebels in Quneitra agreed with Russia to give up their remaining territory in the province in exchange for an end to bombardment and safe passage to other rebel-held territory.

The terms are similar to previous deals that have brought swathes of Syria under government control.

But Imad told AFP he feared reprisals.

“We’re a burnt card when it comes to the Syrian army — there won’t be any mercy. Whoever the regime gets its hands on is lost, and no one knows what ends up happening to them,” he said.

Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defence, or White Helmets, works to rescue those wounded by attacks in rebel-held territory.

The group receives funding from a number of Western governments and individual donors.

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