Syria's White Helmets: A symbol of peace and hope

Syria's White Helmets: A symbol of peace and hope
4 min read
30 Jun, 2016
Comment: The important humanitarian work of the White Helmets was fervently supported by murdered MP Jo Cox, yet outside support is often viewed as foreign conspiracy, writes James Denselow
The "White Helmets" or Syria Civil Defese, describe themselves as "neutral, impartial and humanitarian" [Getty]
Following the murder of British Parliamentarian Jo Cox in June, a campaign fund was set up in her memory asking for donations to several organisations including the Syrian Civil Defense volunteers known as the "White Helmets". At an event in London's Trafalgar Square this week in her memory, Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets flew from Syria to present a symbolic "white helmet".

This was the first time this honour was bestowed on someone who'd not lost their live in rescuing civilians in Syria. Farouq al-Habib, spokesperson for the White Helmets, described Jo Cox as a "true friend to the White Helmets and someone who constantly advocated for the Syrian people".
The White Helmets have grown from 20 to some 2,900 members and have lost over a 100 of their volunteers to violence since the conflict began over five years ago. The Jo Cox fund, which has raised almost £1.5 million in less than two weeks, describes the White Helmets as "unarmed and neutral, these heroes have saved more than 51,000 lives from under the rubble and bring hope to the region".
Yet they have many opponents who either claim they are affiliated to extremist groups or are Western creations designed to give good PR to Washington and London's aid efforts.

Raed Saleh was able to attend Jo Cox's memorial in London, but was less successful in his attempt to enter the US for an event celebrating the White Helmets earlier in the year. Saleh's visa was reported withdrawn while he was in the air and he was deported from Dulles airport on 18th April 2016.
Yet they have many opponents who claim they are either affiliated to extremist groups, or are Western creations designed to give good PR to Washington and London's aid efforts.
In an awkward exchange, a State Department spokesman seemed to suggest that Saleh himself was suspect while simultaneously praising the group he represents. That said, Saleh is not the only Middle East national to struggle to get a visa to the US, and whilst Washington never comments on individual cases the fact that Britain saw fit to allow him access should give observers pause for thought.

The White Helmets were set up by James Le Mesurier, a former British soldier and FCO consultant. This is no secret but has led some to suggest that the White Helmets are "phony humanitarian first responders". This push back against the White Helmets accuses them of only working in "terrorist controlled areas" and pursuing "regime change" or supporting policies such as no-fly zones. A petition to not give the White Helmets the Nobel peace prize has gained over 1,500 signatures.

It should come as no surprise given both Syria's authoritarian history and the regime's targeting of humanitarian infrastructure and personnel outside zones of its control, that outside assistance was needed to help the White Helmets emerge. Yet outside support is often directly translated into a standard template of foreign conspiracy. Indeed, one of the films decrying the White Helmets confuses "the Syria campaign", which doesn't receive state funding, with the White Helmets, who do.
In a conflict supposedly bereft of "good guys", Syria's White Helmets are both saving lives in the present and creating a symbol of peace and hope for the future
In such an extreme conflict, it is difficult to see how people can remain moderate and unaffected by what the last half a decade has done to their country. Let us not forget the quarter of a million dead, the million who have been injured, that half the entire population were forced from their homes, that life expectancy is down by twenty years and that the economy has been cut in half.
The White Helmets describe themselves as "neutral, impartial and humanitarian. We do not pledge allegiance to any political party or group. We serve all the people of Syria - we are from the people and for the people". In a conflict supposedly bereft of "good guys", Syria's White Helmets are both saving lives in the present and creating a symbol of peace and hope for the future.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.