Russia slams rescue of Syria’s White Helmets via Israel

Moscow says relief workers transferred to Jordan are ‘pseudo-humanitarians,’ operation shows who they really serve

This image made from video released by the Israeli Defense Forces on Sunday, July 22, 2018 shows a member of the White Helmets waving to Israeli soldiers as he and his family board a bus to Jordan. (Israeli Defense Forces via AP)
This image made from video released by the Israeli Defense Forces on Sunday, July 22, 2018 shows a member of the White Helmets waving to Israeli soldiers as he and his family board a bus to Jordan. (Israeli Defense Forces via AP)

Russia has criticized the extraction of members of a Syrian volunteer rescue organization, who were pulled out of their warn-torn country by the Israeli army and then transferred to safety in neighboring Jordan.

“The recent news involving the White Helmets organization speaks volumes,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Monday. “Reportedly, Westerners carried out an emergency evacuation of a large group of these pseudo-humanitarians to Jordan via Israeli territory.”

The statement echoed Syria’s own criticism of the rescue nighttime operation, which saw 422 rescuers and their families spirited into Israel via the Quneitra crossing on the Golan and then to Jordan, out of fears they would be targeted by an approaching Syrian and Russian military onslaught.

Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defense, or White Helmets, is a network of first responders who rescue wounded in the aftermath of airstrikes, shelling or explosions in rebel-held territory. Damascus and Moscow have accused them of being a front for terror groups because they operate in opposition controlled-areas, which don’t receive government services.

“It is symbolic that the White Helmets chose to flee Syria with foreign intervention, thus revealing who they really are and demonstrating their hypocrisy to the entire world,” the statement said. “As the saying goes, a guilty conscience gives itself away, and these operators clearly showed whose orders they were following and who was funding them.”

The statement also accused the group of staging attacks to tar the Syrian regime and allying with terrorists.

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)

The Russian embassy in Israel also sent out a series of tweets protesting the transfer. However, a spokesperson said they had not tried to intervene with Israel to halt the operation.

On Sunday the Israel Defense Forces said it engaged in the “out of the ordinary” gesture due to the “immediate risk” to the lives of the civilians, as Russian-backed regime forces closed in on areas held by rebels. It stressed that it was not intervening in the ongoing fighting in Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later said he had approved the humanitarian gesture after a request from US President Donald Trump.

There are concerns for the safety of hundreds more White Helmets volunteers who were not able to join the evacuation operation and were left behind in rebel territory as government forces close in.

On Monday a Syrian foreign ministry source, cited by state news agency SANA, condemned the evacuation operation and branded the White Helmets “terrorists.”

Civil defense workers known as the White Helmets carrying children after airstrikes hit a school housing a number of displaced people, in the western part of the southern Daraa province of Syria, June 14, 2017. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

The White Helmets have rescued thousands of civilians trapped under the rubble or caught up in fighting in battered opposition-held zones along various fronts of Syria’s seven-year conflict.

The group receives funding from a number of governments, including Britain, Germany, Canada and the United States, and from individual donors.

Since its formation, when Syria’s conflict was nearing its third year, more than 250 of its volunteers have been killed.

The White Helmets are named for the distinctive white hardhats worn by volunteers and have gained international renown for their daring rescues of victims from rubble following regime airstrikes, often filmed and circulated on social media.

In recent years Israel has been engaged in a multi-faceted humanitarian relief operation to keep thousands of Syrians along the border from starving or falling ill due to the lack of food and basic medical care.

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