Resettlement of Syrian White Helmets deserves greater scrutiny
A lot of things about the war in Syria, which has raged since early 2011, have passed under the radar or been taken at face value. Now that the conflict is wrapping up, the fog of war can finally start to lift, but we cannot be complacent in accepting that the narratives we were fed during this conflict constitute objective reality.
For example, one of the critical turning points of the Syrian conflict was U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw funding for Operation Timber Sycamore — a $1 billion covert CIA operation to train and equip Syrian rebels, who were portrayed as the “good guys” fighting against the “bad guy,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The reality wasn’t quite that simple. Weapons provided to these fighters were reportedly ending up in al-Qaida’s hands. Meanwhile, America’s partner in the Syrian rebel project, Saudi Arabia, was supporting the enemy it was supposed to be eliminating: the Islamic State.
In 2016, the New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia’s spy service was supporting the Syrian rebels, with the kingdom contributing large sums of money to Timber Sycamore. The Saudis’ involvement in backing Syrian insurgents is still not as stunning as their backing of ISIS terrorists. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to implicate the Saudis in a 2014 email to political adviser John Podesta that was latter published by WikiLeaks: “[W]e need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
The fact that America ended up spending money in cooperation with the state sponsor of ISIS should be enough to make us question other aspects of the Syria narrative. For example, where did all the terrorists go? Did they all get killed? Not quite.
The BBC reported in November 2017 that hundreds of ISIS terrorists were given safe passage out of Raqqa, the former capital of their so-called caliphate, right under the nose of Western forces, to other locations in Syria or even further abroad.
Now, there are reports that the Syrian White Helmets, typically described as a humanitarian group, are being exfiltrated from Syria under Israel’s watch for eventual resettlement in Western countries. How can we be sure that we know who these individuals are and what their role has been in Syria — particularly when there has been so much deception and manipulation on other fronts?
My sources in Syria tell me that the White Helmets have an odd knack for being able to operate in zones controlled by al-Qaida or Islamic State fighters. Although typically described as “volunteers,” the White Helmets are generously funded by Western governments (including the U.S. State Department until recently).
The group has two main claims to fame: slick videos purportedly showing the conflict in Syria (one film about the White Helmets’ activity was awarded an Oscar for Best Documentary Short last year) and humanitarian rescue operations. Critics have suggested that the former is a propaganda operation targeting the Assad government for regime change, and that the latter is simply cover for the former. The group was founded by a British mercenary, which raises further questions about its real mission.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that his country was spearheading the White Helmets’ evacuation.
“Several days ago, U.S. President Trump contacted me, as did Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and others, and requested that we assist in evacuating hundreds of White Helmets from Syria,” Netanyahu said.
The operation yields more questions than answers. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (the Red Cross in Syria) is another non-governmental organization that has been on the ground in a humanitarian capacity throughout the conflict, yet no one is calling for the evacuation of its members for resettlement in the West.
Would Israel mount this exfiltration operation simply because Canada and the U.S. want it to, or does it have a vested interest? It’s an oddly interventionist position during the conflict’s last gasps for a country that until now has assumed a non-interventionist posture. Why does Israel suddenly have an interest in the White Helmets?
Hasty conclusions should be avoided on all sides, of course. But in the wake of a highly opaque conflict rife with manipulation and lies, perhaps Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and other countries should delay the resettlement of White Helmets members until there is a thorough examination of the group’s activities.
Rachel Marsden is a columnist, political strategist and
former Fox News host based in Paris.