Britain, EU praise Israel for evacuating Syrian volunteers
After a secret one-of-its kind evacuation operation, the IDF evacuates 422 Syrian White Helmets activists; Britain, among others, praises Israel; 'Thank you Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request,' tweets British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Britain and the European Union praised Israel for the overnight evacuation of hundreds of Syrian rescue workers, known as the "White Helmets" , from their location near the volatile frontier with Syria, in a complex and first-of-a-kind operation.
Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said 422 White Helmets volunteers were evacuated, instead of the initial 800 cleared for the operation. Israel's military said the overnight operation was "an exceptional humanitarian gesture" at the request of the United States and European allies due to an "immediate threat to (Syrians) lives."
Britain hailed the evacuation, saying it and other allies had requested it.
"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," tweeted British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
European Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement that “The EU recognizes the essential efforts of Israel and Jordan, and of all others—including several EU Member States—who contributed to bringing the White Helmets and their families to safety.”
A Canadian Foreign Ministry statement on Saturday said the White Helmets "have witnessed vicious atrocities committed by the Assad regime and its backers." It added, "We feel a deep moral responsibility to these brave and selfless people."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video statement saying US President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others had asked him to help evacuate the group's members.
"These are people who saved lives and whose lives are now in danger. I authorized bringing them through Israel to other countries as an important humanitarian gesture," Netanyahu said.
Israel agreed to evacuate the White Helmets "given the evident fact that Assad's rule is taking hold in all of Syria again," Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said in a radio interview.
Hanegbi added that world leaders felt that the Civil Defense workers should not "pay the price of the Syrian regime's enormous hatred towards them."
The rescued activists belong to the White Helmets organization, officially known as Syria Civil Defense, which is a volunteer organization that operates in rebel-controlled areas of Syria, in an attempt to rescue and assist civilians caught in war zones.
Despite Jordan and Israel's continued statements that they are not responsible nor do they have any commitment to White Helmet members, Assad and his supporters accused the organization of being used by Israel and other western countries in order to intervene in Syria’s internal affairs, as well as being involved in civilian casualties.
After word about the rescue operation got out, Canada's Foreign Affairs Ministry also issued a statement supporting the organization.
‘‘The White Helmets are courageous volunteers and first responders who risk their lives to help their fellow Syrians who have been targeted by senseless violence. When children, women, and men in Syria flee for their lives, the White Helmets run towards danger, towards the rubble, to save the innocent and the wounded. The White Helmets have witnessed vicious atrocities committed by the Assad regime and its backers," Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs said in his statement.
‘‘Canada, working in close partnership with the United Kingdom and Germany, has been leading an international effort to ensure the safety of White Helmets and their families," Freeland added.
‘‘Canada has been unequivocal about its support for the White Helmets. At a meeting of Foreign Ministers on the occasion of the NATO leaders’ summit in Brussels a week ago, I called for global leadership to support and help these heroes," Minister of Foreign Affairs stated.
‘‘Canada has been a key partner of the White Helmets and is proud to have provided funding to support their emergency training and to increase the number of women White Helmets. We feel a deep moral responsibility towards these brave and selfless people.
‘‘Canada will continue to provide significant humanitarian assistance to the people affected by this conflict in Syria,’’ she concluded.
The secret mission was executed to the request of the US and some European countries in light of the activists' lives being in danger, the IDF's Spokesperson's Unit said.
The White Helmet's commander Raed Salah told AFP "they were surrounded in a dangerous zone."
According to Salah, the organization's members that were evacuated arrived from the Darra and Quneitra provinces, with many of them being besieged between the Syria's southern border and Assad's army which was approaching the area.
The White Helmets organization has about 3,000 members, and has saved more than 100,000 lives since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, according to the US State Department.
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.
Among the organization's members are engineers, farmers, and other professionals who completed training to be qualified as members of the rescue mission of Syrian refugees. The members of the organization assisted the wounded and took part in rescue efforts in the battlefield, occasionally under fire, while suffering many losses.
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 occurred in 2016, when five of its members were killed as a result of a Russian attack on one of their centers in Aleppo.
The activists were those who released the well-known photo of the wounded child sitting in an ambulance in Aleppo, which shocked the world.
President Assad accused the organization of faking the photo.
"We are neutral and politically impartial," the volunteers said. "We arrive at Disaster-stricken areas to save lives, no matter whose and how."
The fact they were mostly present in rebel-held areas might indicate they were mainly on their side. However, unlike the rebel groups they did not carry weapons and focused on the continued rescue efforts.
In addition, the activists assisted in putting out fires, clearing the streets of rubble, and neutralizing rockets.
The Syrian regime was not the only one criticizing the White Helmets. In an article published in Iran after the bombardment of the humanitarian aid convoy near Aleppo in September 2016, the organization's activists were defined as associates to the former branch of the terror organization Al-Qaeda in Syria.
The Russians argued the convoy was not bombed and said an inquiry of what really happened should take place.
Moreover, last April Russia accused the organization of fabricating the alleged chemical attack in Douma in which more than 70 civilians had been killed. Russia claimed that the organization conjured up the incident whereas the White Helmets said Russia's allegations are "baseless propaganda."
During an AP interview, when asked if he supports the White Helmet's nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, Assad replied: "What have they achieved in Russia?"
Later, Assad explained he would support awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to those promoting peace in Syria by stopping "terrorists" operating in the country.
The report also claims that the organization is being financed by the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Japan and the United States.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this article.