The operation to evacuate 422 White Helmets rescuers and their families from southern Syria, preventing Assad regime retribution, was initiated by Canadian officials.
The Globe and Mail reported on Tuesday that last weekend’s operation began in late June in a meeting in Istanbul between White Helmets leader Raed Salah and Robin Wettlaufer, Canada’s special envoy for the Syrian ciris.
Saleh explained that, when a pro-Assad offensive reoccupied opposition territory in Daraa and Quneitra Province, no evacuation offer would be made to anyone who had worked with the White Helmets, who say they have saved 115,000 in the past five years.
The Canadians agreed to try and rescue more than 800 volunteers and family members. In the end, regime checkpoints and the presence of the Islamic State in the southwest meant only about half could be moved through Israel to Jordan. From there, they will be relocated in Canada, the UK, and Germany.
Continuing their disinformation campaign against the White Helmets, Russia and the Assad regime have portrayed the evacuation as a “Zionist” operation proving Israel’s support of terrorism.
But it was Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland who appealed to NATO members at a summit in Brussels two weeks ago.
“Three countries took the lead: Canada, the UK, and Germany. But the drive, the galvanization, came from Canada,” said James Le Mesurier, the co-founder of the White Helmets. “Robin [Wettlaufer] has been absolutely extraordinary.”
A senior Canadian official confirmed, “It was Robin that raised the flag that we don’t want to be seen turning our backs on a group that has been assisting civilians and needs our help.”
Omar Alghabra, the Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, added, “When Canada heard about the desperate situation of the members of the White Helmets, we could not turn our back on people who had been running around risking their lives when everybody else was running away.”
“An Important Humanitarian Move”
The original plan was to bring 800 White Helmets and their families directly to Jordan, but the rapid advance of pro-Assad forces cut off the path.
The only other option was via Israel, initially wary of setting a precedent that could prompt many other displaced Syrians to move towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. But, after discussions with Canada, Israel agreed to open the border and its military helped move the evacuees.
Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s ambassador to Ottawa, said he was approached on July 12, as Foreign Minister Freeland made her appeal at the NATO summit. Barkan met first with Mark Gwozdecky, an assistant deputy minister, and received a call from Ms. Freeland a few days later.
Barkan recalled Freeland’s message: “This was an important humanitarian move, the White Helmets are well-known and it’s important to save them from the changing realities.
He noted, “There was no disagreement. We saw eye-to-eye with her.”
Canada’s ambassador to Amman, Peter MacDougall, persuaded Jordan to accept the White Helmets with assurances their stay will be as short as possible.
The operation was completed on Sunday. Hours later, pro-Assad forces were along the escape route in Quneitra Province, preventing any further evacuation.
Le Mesurier noted the ongoing threat to those who could not be moved and to White Helmets in remaining opposition areas:
There continue to be 3,900 White Helmets in Syria, distributed across 140 different points. It’s terrific that a number of people are now in a place of safety, but the rest of them continue to do whatever they can, wherever they can, under extraordinary levels of risk.