Ending the War on Civilians: A Discussion with Syria’s White Helmets

On April 24, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East was honored to host members of the Syrian Civil Defense, informally known as the White Helmets, for a discussion covering the war on civilians, the potential for safe zones, and a view from the ground of the conflict in Syria. Senior Fellow Faysal Itani was joined by Jehad Mahameed, a liaison officer for the group and founder of the local civil defense committee in Daraa; and Manal Abazeed, a volunteer whose training covers explosive weapons, trauma counseling, and childbirth, and also heads the Free Union of Women. The head of the White Helmets, Raed Saleh, was originally scheduled to speak, but after being selected as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People he was unable to attend due to a related commitment. His selection for this award speaks to the importance of the work that the White Helmets do in Syria.

Who Are the White Helmets?

The Syrian Civil Defense is the official name of the volunteer-based organization committed to impartial and unconditional civilian protection. The group’s most recognized work is its urban search and rescue program – it has rescued over eighty thousand people throughout Syria to date, and members of Mr. Mahameed and Ms. Abazeed’s unit have rescued two-to-three thousand people in Daraa alone. Beyond search and rescue, the White Helmets provide medical services and transportation to urgent care facilities, management of emergency shelters, removal of mines and other unexploded ordnance, trauma counseling, and aid delivery. Mr. Mahameed explained that volunteers go through rigorous training and are required to commit to complete neutrality: Syrian Civil Defense units operate in opposition-held areas out of necessity, but will rescue and provide services to any victim of the conflict, regardless of affiliation. As Ms. Abazeed explains, it does not matter to the White Helmets whether they pull a rebel or a soldier of the army out from under the rubble, because at the end of the day, all are Syrians.

Ms. Abazeed is one of twenty-three women working with the Syrian Civil Defense in Daraa. Like many of the White Helmets, she had no previous background in medical or paramedic work prior to the war; she formerly worked as an accountant. In 2012, her father died of cancer when he could not receive medical treatment at a hospital due to the siege on Daraa by pro-government forces. The experience motivated Ms. Abazeed to learn first aid techniques so she could help others impacted by the conflict. She explained that every volunteer has a personal story like hers, a moment that compelled normal people, mothers and fathers, teachers and lawyers, to join the Syrian Civil Defense and risk their lives to help others.

There is some controversy surrounding the White Helmets and the work that they do. Responding to questions about the group’s interactions with Islamist extremist groups, Ms. Abazeed pointed out that the dominant force in Daraa province is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which controls all but a small pocket in the southwest near the border with Israel and Jordan, which is held by a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). There are more Islamist groups in the north, Ms. Abazeed explained, due to Turkey’s relatively open border, but regardless of the situation on the ground, the Syrian Civil Defense aims to act impartially and does not espouse any political movement. Mr. Mahameed echoed this statement, calling the Syrian Civil Defense a “strictly humanitarian organization” aimed at assuaging the impact of death and destruction caused by the conflict.

In Daraa, Mr. Mahameed noted, approximately ninety percent of civilian infrastructure has been destroyed: eight out of ten hospitals are out of service, children are learning in tents because schools have been bombed, and at one point Russian and Syrian warplanes were conducting some seventy airstrikes per day. Daraa’s proximity to Damascus makes it a “threat” to the regime and therefore a target of brutal siege tactics by pro-government forces. Humanitarian access by international non-governmental organizations is severely limited. In this context, the hope of the Syrian Civil Defense is simply to see an end to the war on civilians.

What’s Next for Syria?

Both Mr. Mahameed and Ms. Abazeed expressed a desire for the conflict in Syria to stop at all costs. There is no point to the humanitarian assistance the Syrian Civil Defense provides, Ms. Abazeed said, if the war continues indefinitely. The immediate goal, the two agreed, should be to stop the bloodshed: more international pressure is needed to stop the aerial bombardment of civilian areas, not only by the regime, but also Russia, Turkey, Israel, and the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. The establishment of “safe zones” in southern Syria through local ceasefire agreements and no-fly zones should be a policy priority. Once the slaughter of civilians stops, the second priority suggested by Ms. Abazeed would be the removal of foreign influences, such as Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias, so that Syrians can sit together and negotiate a political roadmap out of conflict. This initiative is much easier said than done, as Iran and Hezbollah are heavily entrenched in Syria, but it could be a function of safe zones to keep these groups out.

For Mr. Mahameed, the most important course of action pursuant to the establishment of safe zones is education and psychosocial support for children, who have experienced extreme trauma and whose schooling has been interrupted, influenced, or lost entirely to the war. He stressed the need for curriculum devoid of political or ideological bias. While Mr. Mahameed noted the importance of restoring civilian infrastructure and services like water and electricity, he maintained that those activities must wait for international funding, whereas efforts to support children can start as soon as their safety is ensured. This can only occur if ceasefires are implemented. Mr. Mahameed conceded that Assad would not willingly agree to stop attacking Daraa, but held forth that this is where the United States can have a meaningful role in Syria: by using its leverage to promote the establishment of safe zones.

According to Mr. Mahameed and Ms. Abazeed, civilians in Syria are optimistic about the direction of US foreign policy in Syria. Before the US strike on al-Shayrat air base in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons, the Syrian Civil Defense had “reached a point of complete and utter hopelessness. . . we had come to the conclusion that we would all be killed, and no one would even care about us after we died,” Mr. Mahameed said. The strike gave Syrians some hope that maybe the war could end if someone would end the indiscriminate killing of civilians by the regime, but one strike is not enough, Ms. Abazeed explained. There are still many weapons in the regime’s arsenal and many fully functioning airbases, she continued, and unless the United States and the international community pressure Assad and his allies, nothing will change for civilians. Mr. Mahameed and Ms. Abazeed said they were not sure what to expect from the new administration, but expressed hope that perhaps their stories will inspire political will to put an end to the war.

Image: Photo: Event photo from April 24, 2017 at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.