The White Helmets brace for Syria regime's Idlib offensive

'We are prepared for the worst-case scenario': The White Helmets brace for Idlib offensive
6 min read
24 September, 2018
Nino Orto speaks to a White Helmets' volunteer in Idlib who warns that there is little room to organise an evacuation if an attack by Syria's brutal regime occurs.
The White Helmets are a group of volunteers who work endlessly to save lives [Getty]

Seven years into a civil war, with more than 400,000 people killed and with Idlib now on the sights of the brutal regime, the White Helmets are facing their biggest challenge ever.

"Although many welcome the deal between Russia and Turkey on Idlib as a victory for the city and the population, no one in Idlib really believes this could stop a military operation" against the largest remaining rebel stronghold in Syria, says White Helmet volunteer Majd Khalaf. 

The twenty-five-year-old is aware of what the consequences of a large-scale attack on Idlib would be and that the deal is very fragile. He has been working with the White Helmets since 2013 and has been a member of the rescue team in Idlib since then.

The group's motto – "To save one life is to save all of humanity" – is drawn from a verse of the Quran, although the White Helmets insist they treat all victims, regardless of religion.

Some of its members have received training abroad, returning home to instruct colleagues on search-and-rescue techniques.

It receives funding from a number of governments, including Britain, Denmark, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States, but also solicits individual donations to purchase equipment, including their signature hardhats, which cost $144.64.

Read also: The White Helmets: The beating heart of Syria's revolution

"After a heavy wave of airstrikes last week in southern Idlib, the situation is quiet with the city running as normal. But the situation can change very quickly. At the moment we are focusing on the civilian service and helping the population in different areas. However, we are ready for everything" Majd tells The New Arab.

"The regime, in every city it has been into, has started a campaign of air raids targeting civilians, hospitals, and all the buildings connected to the White Helmets. It has already happened in Homs, Aleppo, Ghouta, and Daraa," he continues. 

"In all these years, every time the Syrian Army began an assault on a city, we were able to rescue, save, and arrange a safe-route to allow civilians to flee the city and evacuate them. We expect this will happen also in Idlib, but in this case, there is no chance for us to operate. This means that any large-scale attack could easily became a bloodbath for the population," warns Majd. 

White Helmets' volunteers carry a victim after airstrikes in the southern countryside of Idlib province [Getty]

Idlib is home to more than three million people and the volunteer for the White Helmets group, officially known as Syria Civil Defence, says there is little room to organise an evacuation if an attack occurs. 

"Our focus at this stage is to provide assistance to as many civilians as possible and we are already prepared for the worst-case scenario. Our staff, quick response teams, together with medical equipment and ambulances are already set and ready to operate."

Read also: Idlib: Will Syria's last major battle be its deadliest?

"However, without any international protection, with the beginning of a military campaign, our only chance is to evacuate the population even though this means creating millions of displaced. The future is so uncertain. People don't want to become refugees and would prefer to remain here," Majd adds.

Nonetheless, what Idlib represents is not only a potential humanitarian tragedy but also a geopolitical focus point for the future of Syria and the region.

The regime, in every city it has been into, has started a campaign of air raids targeting civilians, hospitals, and all the buildings connected to the White Helmets. It has already happened in Homs, Aleppo, Ghouta, and Daraa

According to major reports, the city hosts tens of thousands of fighters, including many militants who are entrenched in a densely populated area that represent the last real threat to the regime of Syrian dictator President Bashar al-Assad.  An equation that could change the rules of the game.

The Syrian conflict began when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by Bashar al-Assad, responded with military force to peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms during the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, triggering an armed rebellion fuelled by mass defections from the Syrian army.

According to independent monitors, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the war, mostly by the regime and its powerful allies, and millions have been displaced both inside and outside of Syria. The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.

On September 17, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi and hammered out an agreement on a buffer zone between the rebels and Syrian Army, which should be patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces.

According to international media, under the agreement heavy weapons, including tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, and rocket launchers, should be moved from the demilitarised zone, which would be 15 to 20 kilometres wide, and the extremist within the rebel's group (particularly the al-Nusra Front) should withdraw from the city. 

However, despite that, many doubts remain on the effectiveness of the deal.

Damascus has never stopped denouncing the illegal presence of Turkey in Syria. And now that most of the country has been retaken by the regime, Idlib has become a primary target to end the military opposition to Assad.

Crushing resistance in Idlib will mean for the regime secures the road between Aleppo and Latakia while delivering a mortal blow to the opposition. Two goals that Damascus has pursued since the fall of Aleppo.

"A military operation is very likely to happen in the medium term despite the current agreement because Russia must give the Syrian regime the final symbolic battle in Idlib. This is a matter of credibility for Moscow, that is trying to sell itself as the guarantor of peace in the country. Russia can't allow Ankara to enlarge its enclave within the Syrian territory because this will mean lose this area for good," Eugenio Dacrema, senior analyst for Italian think tank ISPI told The New Arab.

The Turkish government has expressed grave concern about the devastating consequences of a military operation to retake the enclave and has, therefore, urged Assad's main ally, Russia, to restrain him

"At the same time, Turkey's interests are also very important to understand what the future of northern Syria will be. Ankara consider any attack to Idlib as a threat for its national security and is unlike that it will remain silent. The only chance to get the deal successful is that part of the city would pass under Turkish jurisdictions, which is very unlikely it will happen," Dacrema went on to note

The Turkish government has expressed grave concern about the devastating consequences of a military operation to retake the enclave and has, therefore, urged Assad's main ally, Russia, to restrain him.

Ankara's hope is that it will avoid a major humanitarian disaster and a massive wave of refugees. A move which could strengthen the Kurdish militias in the area and destabilise the borders with Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.

"Turkey presence in Syria is a long-term strategy. Ankara is there to remain, and the fact that branches of Turkish universities are opening in the city of Jaralabus as well as the creation of industrial areas in northern Syria made it clear. Without this strategic part of the country, it is almost impossible for the Syrian regime to regain the centralised power that they have had before the war," stated Dacrema.

"This is why the agreement may delay, but not avoid, a major battle in Idlib."


Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis on the Middle East.