IDF completes mission to rescue Syrian activists
German newspaper Bild reports army rescued over 800 ‘White Helmet’ civil activists from a war zone in the country and transported them to Jordan, as part of a secret mission following a request from the US and some European countries. Meanwhile, the Syrian army advances closer to the Israeli border.
The IDF completed overnight Saturday an operation to rescue nearly 800 syrian civil defense activists, along with their families, from a war zone area in southern Syria, the German newspaper Bild reported on Sunday.
It was the first such Israeli intervention in Syria's lengthy civil war, now in its eight year.
According to the report, the rescued activists belong to the White Helmets, officially known as Syria Civil Defence, which is a volunteer organization that operates in parts of rebel-controlled segments of the country and which works to rescue and assist civilians caught in war zones.
The mission was conducted in secrecy in order to avoid potentially harming the lives of the activists in light of the Syrian Golan Heights being partially recaptured by President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The organization's members will stay in Jordan for approximately three months but according to the report, Jordan has not committed itself to their safety.
Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Mohammed al-Kayed, confirmed that Jordan had agreed to accept the activists strictly on humanitarian grounds.
Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the total number of evacuees was in fact 422, even though the initial request was to evacuate 800. It was unclear what happened to the remainder if his figures are correct.
From Jordan the rescued activists are expected to be relocated within three months to one of the three countries that have committed to accepting them: Britain, Canada and Germany.
The White Helmets organization has saved more than 100,000 lives outbreak of the Syrian civil war, according to the US State Department.
The report also claims that the organization is being financed by the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Japan and the United States.
For a long time the organization has been accused by Assad and his supporters of being used by Israel and other western countries in order to intervene in Syria’s internal affairs, as well as being involved in the deaths of civilians in the country.
Many of the organization’s activists have been killed in the fighting raging in Syria. One of the most widely known incidents involving the White Helmets occured in 2016, when five of its members were killed as a result of a Russian attack on one of their centers in Aleppo.
In the meantime, the Syrian army continues to push further into the southwest province of Quneitra, approaching the Israeli Golan Heights.
On Saturday the Syrian army and its allies captured additional villages in the province, with a Syrian military source telling a state news agency that there is a "rapid collapse of terror centers” in the area.
Israel is believed to be extremely concerned about the presence of not only the Syrian army in the region but also of Hezbollah and Iran and has sought to heavily lobby Russia, which props up the Assad regime, to ensure that they are removed from the border or, preferably from the entire country.
A commander in the Syrian army said that Assad's military achievements in the region compels Israel to accept the return of the force to the Golan Heights.
"The Israelis have been forced to give in," the commander told Reuters, assessing that the occupation of Quneitra will be completed in the upcoming days.
The Syrian government and Russia view the White Helmets as "agents" of foreign powers and have regularly accused them of staging rescue missions or chemical attacks. Syrian state TV Al-Ikhbariya reported the Israeli evacuation of the White Helmets, calling it a "scandal" and saying "terrorist groups" now have "zero options."
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.