A White Helmets volunteer rescues a child from rubble of a building hit by pro-Assad bombardment, Idlib Province, August 10, 2018
The White Helmets civil defense has appealed to Western countries to protect the last major opposition area in Syria — Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo Provinces in the northwest.
Raed Saleh, the head of the rescue organization, visited British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt last week. He said of a Russian-Turkish agreement on September 17 for a demilitarized zone around Idlib and northern Hama:
We would emphasise that we cannot rely on the Russians or trust guarantees provided by them, because we have seen how their commitments were fake in previous de-escalation zones in Homs, in Daraa, in eastern Ghouta. So we need more commitment from the western world to protect the Syrian people.
Russia, alongside Turkey and Iran, had proclaimed “de-escalation zones” across Syria in 2017, but then provided the airstrikes to enable pro-Assad forces to overrun East Ghouta near Damascus, northern Homs Province in the northwest, and opposition territory across southern Syria between March and July 2018.
Moscow threatened an offensive for the Assad regime to reoccupy Idlib and northern Hama, but was blocked by the resistance of Turkey, which has armed forces alongside rebels in the area.
Saleh said of Idlib and northern Hama, which has an estimated three million residents — half of them displaced from other areas of Syria:
A military offensive means a disaster, and not only for Idlib. It will have an impact on neighboring countries, as it would push hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people to march to the border trying to escape.
Turkey hosts about 3.5 million Syrian refugees, but closed its border in 2016 to any more.
Saleh urged international assistance to secure and rebuild the opposition area: “We believe there is very important work to be done on stabilisation, with the potential to reduce the scale of the refugee crisis, by improving life conditions inside Syria, and maybe inspiring people to return, and paving the way for reconstruction.”
However, he said Western support for reconstruction in pro-Assad areas should not be assured until the Assad regime provides justice for hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed through attacks, torture, and detentions since 2011. He also said the regime must stop blocking the political process, including the formation of a Constitutional committee:
“There are parties currently who want to try to claim that it’s time now for reconstruction and constitutional reform, as if the crisis had ended, which is not true.
“We want to send a message that there is a need for accountability first in order to build peace. We cannot practically work on reconstruction and constitutional reform if there is no political solution, and there is no transitional justice and accountability mechanisms.
The White Helmets, formed in 2013, say they have saved more than 115,000 lives and recovered the bodies of many others killed by pro-Assad attacks. They have been the target of a disinformation campaign, backed by the Russian State and the Assad regime, to portray them as illegitimate.
Saleh noted the campaign’s attempt to break will in opposition areas, alongside attacks on medical facilities and civil defense centers: “Imagine when someone is putting his life in danger to rescue others, then he hears that people are calling them a bad guy or terrorist. That over time may affect the morale of the volunteers.”