Freedom Award Presented to Syria Civil Defense

Frederic Hof delivered the following speech when presenting the Freedom Award to Mr. Raed al-Saleh and Mr. Farouq al-Habib, who accepted the award on behalf of Syria’s White Helmets.

For over five years Syrian civilians have suffered in agony. They have been on the bullseye in a war where civilians are the principal victims. Their victimization has not been accidental.

This has been a war in which a government has inflicted mass homicide on its own citizens. A government sworn to protect its people has instead targeted them. It has inspired similar behavior by some of its opponents. It has given rise in Syria to another abomination: the so-called Islamic State.

The world has paid little heed to the apocalypse that is Syria. It is as if a quarter million dead, five million fleeing the country, seven million displaced internally, and a lost generation of children is, taken collectively, someone else’s problem. Yes, we pay attention when the humanity hemorrhaging from Syria comes to us for shelter and a chance to live in safety and dignity. We define ourselves by how we respond.

The Atlantic Council and its Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East are trying to right something that is wrong; to shine a light on a humanitarian catastrophe; to illuminate its harsh political consequences; and to point the way toward practical policy changes to protect civilians and to promote peace.

Tonight, we focus on brave Syrians who will not let the indifference of the world stop them from saving lives. The White Helmets—Syria Civil Defense—have stood for courage, decency, mercy and honor in a conflict often devoid of each. This all-volunteer team is not political. But because a government has deliberately and remorselessly targeted its citizenry, the White Helmets must concentrate their work in neighborhoods assaulted from the skies by the Syrian Air Force.

Recently, five White Helmet volunteers were killed when their local headquarters was bombed by regime or Russian aircraft. They are most vulnerable, however, when trying to rescue others. Government aircraft often return to the scene of the original crime during rescue operations to strike again: the infamous “double-tap” tactic. This organization of some 3,000 has saved nearly 50,000 of their fellow citizens while losing over 120 of its own members.

In a conflict defined by horror, heartbreak, and death, the White Helmets have stood for decency, hope, and life. Earlier this year the President of the Atlantic Council joined with Members of Congress and others to nominate Syria Civil Defense for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Words cannot adequately describe the inspired work of these brave women and men. Here are some images that depict the enormity of what they are doing.

Ladies and gentlemen, accepting the Freedom Award on behalf of the White Helmets are Mr. Raed al-Saleh and Mr. Farouq al-Habib. Please welcome them to the stage.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Photo: A civil defense member attends a training course in Maarat Al-Nouman, south of Idlib, Syria March 3, 2016. The text on the wall reads in Arabic: "My brother the savior, The life of others depends on you." REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi