The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is reporting that they have evacuated “members of a Syrian civil organization and their families” from Southern Syria at the request of the U.S. and some European countries due to “an immediate threat to their lives” created by government forces closing in on the area. Euro News reports that those evacuated were members of the volunteer organization known as the White Helmets that operates in rebel-controlled Syria and Turkey. Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, stated Saturday that the operation was carried out as a result of an agreement reached at the NATO’s leaders’ summit in Brussels last week. The IDF called the activity an “exceptional humanitarian gesture.”
Those evacuated were taken to Jordan Saturday night where they will remain for no longer than three months. Within that time, they will resettle to Britain, Germany, and Canada. NBC News reports that they will be assisted by the United Nations’ refugee agency, known as the UNHCR, in their resettlement. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt commented on the service of the White Helmets and Saturday’s evacuation in a statement.
“The White Helmets have saved over 115,000 lives during the Syrian conflict, at great risk to their own. White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection. We therefore took steps with the aim of affording that protection to as many of the volunteers and their families as possible.”
The organization’s website says they “work to save lives and strengthen communities in Syria” by rushing “to the scene of attacks to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimise further injury to people and damage to property.”
The group is officially known as the Syrian Civil Defense but earned the name White Helmets because of the headgear they wear during their rescue efforts. They have roughly 3,000 members and are backed by the United States and other Western countries. In June, the U.S. State Department provided funding for programs seeking to provide stabilization in Syria so the White Helmets could operate through the end of 2018. Individuals involved in Saturday’s evacuation say that members of the group are considered likely targets of Syrian forces as they overtake the southwest region. Although they describe themselves as non-partisan, they are active only in rebel-held areas, leading to accusations by the Syrian government of being affiliated with rebel forces.