‘Rescuing the Rescuers’: Stranded Syrian White Helmets Evacuated by Israel

Hundreds of Syrian rescue workers from the United States-backed White Helmets group have been evacuated through Israel into Jordan, escaping an onslaught by the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on one of the last opposition strongholds in the country, NPR reports.

The Israeli military said it carried out the “humanitarian” evacuation – its first such intervention in Syria’s eight-year-war, after a request of the United States and European allies. Jordan’s state news agency said the evacuees will remain in the country for approximately three months and then be resettled to Canada, Britain and Germany.

“It was a night of rescuing the rescuers. There’s a real sense of tragedy that this had to happen at all. But also, a real joy that it took place,” a source close to the evacuation told NPR. They asked not be named because they did not have permission to speak publicly.

In a rare candid statement, the IDF confirmed that it had been involved in “a humanitarian effort” at the behest of the United States and European countries. The “out of the ordinary” mission was carried out due to the “immediate risk” posed to the White Helmets by an ongoing regime offensive—backed by Iranian-aligned Shiite troops and under the cover of Russian air power—to retake rebel-held areas in the south.

The evacuees, who were hemmed in from one side by advancing hostile Syrian troops and from another by militants affiliated with the Islamic State group, were transported to Jordan, from where they are expected to be resettled in Europe and Canada in the coming weeks, Time adds. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Sunday that 422 White Helmets volunteers were evacuated, instead of the initial 800 cleared for the operation.

The Israeli operation was carried out at the request of a number of countries including the UK, the British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, said in a joint statement. Evacuation plans were drawn up after discussions at . Israel’s military said the overnight operation was “an exceptional humanitarian gesture” at the request of the United States and European allies due to an “immediate threat to the (Syrians) lives.” It posted a video online showing its soldiers handing out water bottles to the evacuees.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a separate video statement, said U.S. President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others had asked him to help evacuate the group’s members.

“These are people who saved lives and whose lives are now in danger. I authorized bringing them through Israel to other countries as an important humanitarian gesture,” Netanyahu said.

According to The Guardian, the UK is willing to offer asylum to some of the 500 members or relatives of the Syrian volunteer civil defence forces known as the White Helmets who have been rescued from Syria and evacuated to Jordan, the Guardian has learned. Britain would not confirm reports from Jordan that Germany, Britain and Canada had given a legally binding undertaking to take the refugees within three months, but indicated that the processes established by the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) for the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme was expected to be used to identify those White Helmets eligible to come to the UK.

The German interior minister, , told Bild newspaper that Germany would take in eight White Helmets members and their families. The move was “an expression of my stance of ensuring humanity and order in migration policy”, he said. Canada will take in up to 50 White Helmets volunteers and their families, totalling up to 250 people, the country’s public broadcaster CBC said, citing senior officials.

Whereas Sunday’s revelation for many Israelis reflexively conjured up memories of past covert humanitarian missions such as Operation Moses, the 1984 airlifting of approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Sudan during the latter’s civil war, according to most security analysts the IDF played only a minimal role in the rescue, which they claim did not constitute a departure from Israel’s longstanding positions on Syria, Jerusalem Post explains.

Yossi Melman, an expert in Israeli security policy at the Jerusalem Report, agrees that Israel’s involvement in the operation was “within the lines of providing humanitarian aid to Syrians. Opening the border is not new, as [the IDF] does this occasionally to receive Syrians who need medical treatment. Israel also has been opening the border to distribute aid. This time it was on a larger scale but it is not extraordinary. It was not difficult to coordinate the mission because of the ongoing close security ties between Israel and Jordan.

“It also fits a pattern of the Syrian regime’s goal of reaching agreements with those in the south,” he expounded to The Media Line. “While most of the locals stay, the rebels or whoever is in danger are usually allowed to be evacuated. The White Helmets are just one example. It is another humanitarian achievement, to the credit of Israel.”

Indeed, the Jewish state two years ago launched Operation Good Neighbor, geared towards providing humanitarian support to Syrians. However, Jerusalem repeatedly has made clear that it will not absorb any refugees, a red line again starkly drawn last week when the IDF refused entry to some 200 hundred civilians that converged on the Golan Heights border.

Dr. Jacques Neriah, formerly the deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence and currently an Arab world expert at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, likewise stressed that “Israel only allowed passage to the White Helmets because direct entry into Jordan was impossible [due to the Assad regime’s recapture of the major border crossing earlier this month]. So Israel did no more than act as an umbrella during this intermediary stage, and this only after the Americans asked for it.