Israel plays key role in evacuating Syrian rescue workers

Photo: screenshot/Twitter

Despite hostile relations between the two countries, Israel led a multi-nation evacuation of hundreds of Syrian rescue workers from their nation, transferring them to safety in Jordan earlier this week.

The elaborate and harrowing operation involved the evacuation on July 21 of 421 (plus a baby born along the way) White Helmets, a group of volunteer rescue workers, and their families who feared reprisal by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

With Syria and Russia labelling the White Helmets foreign “agents” and accusing them of staging scenes of chemical weapons attacks in order to blame Assad, group members fear for their lives as the government reasserted control over much of the war-torn country.

“The civilians were evacuated from the war zone in Southern Syria due to an immediate threat to their lives,” the IDF said on Twitter. “The transfer of the displaced Syrians through Israel is an exceptional humanitarian gesture.”

Aside from regularly allowing wounded Syrians to cross the border to seek medical treatment in Israel, this is the first time the Israeli military has intervened in Syria’s eight-year war. Despite its help in this mission, Israel said it “continues to maintain a non-intervention policy regarding the Syrian conflict.” 

The United States and other nations has asked for Israel’s help and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to let them cross through Israel after an appeal from U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The United States has contributed $30 million to the White Helmets, comprised mostly of civilian volunteers who respond to airstrikes and bombings mainly in opposition-held parts of Syria. After this evacuation, more than 3,000 members still remain in Syria. 

Britain has also been a supporter of the White Helmets and conceived of the plan to get them out.

“The White Helmets have saved over 115,000 lives during the Syrian conflict, at great risk to their own,” Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, and Penny Mordaunt, the United Kingdom’s international development secretary said in a joint statement. “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.”

Jordanian media reported that the evacuees will remain there for three months until they are resettled to Canada, Britain and Germany.

The odds of the operation’s success were uncertain. Another 400 people meant to be evacuated that night failed to arrive at assembly points on time due to both the advancing Syrian forces and expanding Islamic State militants.

According to the White Helmets, their 3,000 volunteers are responsible for saving some 115,000 lives while one in every four of them have been wounded or killed.

Recently the White Helmets had become trapped in an area of south-western Syria near the border with the Golan Heights after an offensive by the Syrian military.

“In our minds, there were no guarantees this evacuation was going to happen,” one civil defense volunteer said. 

On the night of July 21, the call went out and evacuees met at the border and crossed on foot. They were received by Israeli soldiers who checked their identities and transferred them in buses to Jordan.

Organizers of the operation are in touch with the volunteers who didn’t make it out, but pulling off another such evacuation is a long shot.

“A great many factors and partners had to interact in the right way,” said German Foreign Ministry spokesman Christofer Burger. “The factors that made it possible in this case to help in this way people who faced an acute threat, a very specific group, cannot be reproduced at will.”