Syria’s White Helmets on Parliament Hill

Syria’s White Helmets on Parliament Hill

UPDATED March 28, 2018 11:32amET

Three members of the White Helmets (officially known as “Syria Civil Defence”) were at the Commons subcommittee on human rights tomorrow morning: two board members (Munier Mustafa and Nidal Ezeddin) and medical officer Mayson Almisri.

Stay tuned for the video-on-demand.

The White Helmets, a collection of some 3,000 civilian volunteers across 120 locations, have become internationally recognized for their humanitarian work and search-and-rescue efforts following airstrikes in Syria’s continuing civil war between the Assad government and its opponents.

The Canadian government and other western nations have provided funding for the White Helmets. The federal NDP supported the group’s 2016 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. A documentary about the group — Last Men in Aleppo — was nominated for a 2018 Academy Award. Another short documentary about the group — The White Helmets — won a 2016 Oscar.

The Syrian and Russian governments, meanwhile, have sought to connect the White Helmets with terrorist organizations as part of a disinformation campaign about their role in the conflict.

Here’s what a recent CSIS report said about “fake news” and the work of the White Helmets to document civilian suffering:

As became particularly clear during the siege of Aleppo in 2016, eyewitness evidence could discredit the Russian and Syrian attempts to militarise victims; airstrikes were hitting civilian buildings and civilians were dying.

In response, Syrian and Russian officials began to attack the credibility of such witnesses. One of the most important witnesses to the suffering was the aid organisation initially called Syria Civil Defence, later dubbed the ‘White Helmets’ after its staff’s trademark headgear.

In Aleppo, the White Helmets began as a rescue organisation in early 2013. As the conflict intensified and independent journalists no longer had access to the front lines, the White Helmets increasingly became a main source of evidence of the true nature of the bombings, posting GoPro footage of airstrikes and their aftermath. This put them on a collision course with the government and its allies.

Violence, displacement continues after seven years of conflict 

The committee hearing comes amidst a month-long Syrian government effort to retake the Eastern Ghouta region. A reported 1,700 people have been killed and thousands more wounded, with tens of thousands more still trapped, according to the United Nations.

The seven-year conflict has led to a series of sobering numbers — led by an estimates of between 350,000 and 500,000 killed. And from the UN:

More than 13 million Syrians remain dependent on humanitarian assistance, including 6.1 million internally displaced and over 5.5 million driven into refuge outside its borders. Furthermore, a third of houses and residences across the country and about half of all health facilities are estimated to have been destroyed.

More than 2.75 million children are out of school and about two-thirds of all Syrian children have lost a loved one, had their house damaged or suffered conflict-related injuries.

Here’s a December 2017 look at foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, courtesy of Perspective with Alison Smith:

-Andrew Thomson
TOP PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: A March 26 photo provided by Danny Makki, a British-born Syrian journalist, which has been verified and is consistent with other Associated Press reporting, shows a view of damaged buildings due to fighting and Syrian government airstrikes in the town of Harasta, in eastern Ghouta region east of Damascus. Visiting his house for the first time in six years in the town of Harasta, Makki couldn’t recognize it. (Danny Makki via AP)