Claim: The search-and-rescue organization in Syria, the White Helmets, is linked to terrorists.
Origin:On 23 September 2016, 21stCenturyWire, a web site that has posted a barrage of stories downplaying reports of atrocities committed in Syria by forces of President Bashar al-Assad, reported that a volunteer search-and-rescue group that has come to be known as the White Helmets has ties to terrorism.
As violence in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, reached a crescendo in mid-December 2016 with Syrian forces closing in on what remains of rebel-held areas in the east, stories on web sites with ideological leanings from across the political spectrum began circulating as interest peaked.
According to the story:
For the REAL Syria Civil Defence you call 113 inside Syria. There is no public number for the White Helmets. Why not? Why does this multi-million dollar US & NATO state-funded first repsonder ‘NGO,’ with state of the art equipment supplied by the US and the EU via Turkey, have no central number for civilians to call when the “bombs fall”?
Before we introduce the real Syria Civil Defence, who are Syria’s real ICDO certified civil fire and rescue organisation, let’s first take a closer look at the imposters; terrorists in white hats, and agents of war – NATO’s pseudo ‘NGO’ construct, embedded exclusively in terrorist-held parts of Syria.
While the article accuses the White Helmets of having terrorist ties in the headline ("EXCLUSIVE: The REAL Syria Civil Defence Exposes Fake ‘White Helmets’ as Terrorist-Linked Imposters"), it does not provide any proof in the body of the story. It instead heavily implies that the White Helmets are terrorists because they operate in areas held by the opposition, and because unnamed crew members of what the article calls the "REAL Syria Civil Defense in Aleppo" told the reporter that was the case. The article also contains an interview with a man she identifies as Dr. Bassem Hayak, who claims civilians in east Aleppo have never heard of the White Helmets organization.
The article then speculates that while the White Helmets are heavily funded by the West and that they possibly only exist as "NATO ghosts" who stage photo ops with "crisis actors" and stolen bodies:
Where do these bodies come from? Are they victims of air strikes as we are told by these NATO funded “activists” and “first responders” or are they taken from among the thousands of “disappeared” that have been kidnapped by Nusra Front and other terrorist gangs in East Aleppo? Are they gruesome props being used inhumanely, to polish the image of this faux NGO embedded in East Aleppo, HQ for Al Nusra Front...
It is not unreasonable, based upon the statements given by eminent members of the Aleppo medical fraternity and crew members of the REAL Syria Civil Defence in Aleppo, to draw the conclusion that the White Helmets are nothing more than common terrorists, being paid to present themselves as respectable first responders when the need arises for “reports from inside Aleppo” or elsewhere in Syria.
The White Helmets, also known as the Syria Civil Defense, is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that was founded by James Le Mesurier, a former intelligence officer with the British military. According to the web site for his Mayday Rescue organization, funding for the program does come from outside Syria, largely from the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, Japan, and Germany. The organization also has the backing of the United States. The White Helmets have a tendency to draw criticism from Assad and his supporters because of their Western funding sources.
Many stories casting the organization in a negative light raise the suspicion that they are a propaganda tool for ousting Assad. As a profile in The Atlantic points out:
Although it has received support from many organizations and high-profile figures, it has been criticized by supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — and by Assad himself — for its ties to Western governments, from which the group receives millions of dollars in funding.
The group was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, but was not selected as winners, though they did receive an award known as the "alternative Nobel prize" from the Right Livelihood Award Foundation for "outstanding bravery, compassion and humanitarian engagement in rescuing civilians." They were also the subject of an eponymous Netflix documentary.
Le Mesurier said the group has roughly 3,000 Syrian volunteers, both men and women, and he founded the organization with Turkish search-and-rescue specialists in 2013. They claim to have rescued 60,000 people since they began tracking that figure in 2014, and say more than 140 volunteers have died while serving. The group claims to be impartial, only interested in saving lives amid the chaos and atrocities of war. Their motto, taken from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, is "To save a life is to save all of humanity."
The group has come under suspicion from those who support Assad. The Russian-funded television station, RT (formerly Russia Today), regularly posts stories casting doubt on the motives of the group (the Russian government supports the Assad regime).
Whatever their motives may be, we found no credible evidence that the White Helmets are linked to terrorist organizations. The accusations seem to be levied at the group based on political motivations, not evidence.
Originally published: 15 December 2016
Beeley, Vanessa. "EXCLUSIVE: The REAL Syria Civil Defence Exposes Fake ‘White Helmets’ as Terrorist-Linked Imposters."
21stCenturyWire. 23 September 2016.
Serhan, Yasmeen. "Who Are the White Helmets?"
The Atlantic. 30 September 2016.
Jan, Maria. "Q&A: Syria's White Helmets."
Al Jazeera. 21 August 2015.