This article was co-authored with Disobedient Media editor Cassandra Hasenstein
The Syrian White Helmets, or Syria Civil Defense Force are lauded by mainstream news sources for their humanitarian work during the Syrian Civil War. But research by Disobedient Media reveals that the White Helmets are an organization supported by the United States for the purpose of regime change in Syria. We have also directly tied this group to varying levels of involvement with war crimes committed by rebel groups in Syria as well as uncovered evidence of their potential involvement in an effort to intentionally use millions of residents in the besieged city of Aleppo as bargaining chips with the Syrian government.
I. The White Helmets are Funded by the United States
The White Helmets are described by media sources such as Time as being “ordinary Syrians” who simply wanted to band together and help mitigate the damage caused by Assad’s Syrian government forces.
This could not be further from the truth. The Syrian White Helmets are an organization funded by the United States with the intention of using the group as part of America’s wider objective of forcing regime change in Syria.
The Syrian Civil Defense Force is funded in part by United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Included here are two links showing contracts awarded by USAID to Chemonics International Inc. (DBA Chemonics). The first award was in the sum of $111.2 million and has a Period of Performance (POP) from January 2013 to June 2017. It states that the purpose of the award will be to use the funds for managing a “quick-response mechanism supporting activities that pursue a peaceful transition to a democratic and stable Syria.” The second was in the sum of $57.4 million and has a POP from August 2015 to August 2020. This award was designated to be used in the “Syria Regional Program II” which is a part of the Support Which Implements Fast Transitions IV (SWIFT IV) program.
This funding was used, if not entirely, then in part to finance the White Helmets. The Syrian Civil Defense Force website lists Chemonics as its primary supporter alongside NGO Mayday Rescue, who operate out of offices in Turkey, Jordan and Dubai.
II. The White Helmets Were Involved With Depriving Five Million Civilians of Water Supplies in Aleppo
On December 31st, Jordanian news source Al-Bawaba reported that ISIS had shut down two pumping stations on the Euphrates River to leave over five million residents of Aleppo without water. The reports appear to have originated from Iranian news source Press TV on the same day. The shutdown of water supplies to Aleppo appears to be an effort on the part of rebel groups to strike back at the Syrian government following territorial losses over the past month and came on the heels of reports that other rebel groups had similarly deprived civilians in Damascus of water for weeks.
On December 3rd, a demand letter from rebels near the city of Aleppo emerged on several Twitter accounts:
A scan of the demand letter can be seen here:
In the letter, rebel groups stated that they would allow teams to restore the water supply to Aleppo if the Syrian Army and Hezbollah agreed to cease their assault on rebel held positions around the city and allow an international team of observers to monitor the ceasefire.
What made this letter truly significant was the fact that one of the signatories to the document was a representative of the White Helmets:
A quick reference to the Syrian Civil Defense Force website reveals the exact same logo as the one which appears in the letter:
This document indicates that the White Helmets are playing a troubling role in assisting rebel groups commit war crimes against civilians. This would hardly match the stereotype of being the purely humanitarian group the Western press loves to portray them as.
III. The White Helmets Have a Troubling Nexus to War Crimes and Members Often Appear to Actually be Rebel Combatants
The embarrassing revelation that the White Helmets participated in the deprivation of water supplies to civilians in Aleppo comes on the heels of reports that the White Helmets were present at the scene of extra judicial killings and their that members are allegedly involved with various rebel military groups.
On May 5th, 2015, the Al-Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra committed an extrajudicial killing of a prisoner, which was filmed for propaganda purposes. In the video, members of the White Helmets are clearly seen present at the scene of the execution helping to remove the body. They did not appear to make any effort to prevent the killing. Al-Nusra’s decision to kill their prisoner was a clear violation of 75 U.N.T.S. 135 of the Geneva Convention on Treatment of Prisoners of War, and at worst an outright war crime were the victim a civilian. Images of the execution video may be seen here, though the actual footage is too graphic to publish:
The damning revelations of the video forced Syria Civil Defense to put out a now-deleted statement on the incident admitting that their team was present during the execution and stating that they condemned the killing of civilians despite the fact that their members did not make attempts to protest the killing at the scene.
Despite their statement claiming that they do not support the murder of civilians, there are a number of videos circulating online where members of the White Helmets openly express support for al-Nusra and other mujahedeen extremist groups who operate in Syria:
There are also a number of images circulating online which appear to show that members of the Syria Civil Defense Force are also members of various rebel military groups in Syria:
Here a screenshot from a video run by Al Jazeera shows a White Helmet member next to a black jihadist flag:
The involvement of the White Helmets in assisting rebel groups to cut water supplies to civilians in Aleppo, their failure to take steps to protest or prevent murders of prisoners of war and civilians in Syria, and the alleged involvement of their members with various rebel groups raises questions about the true nature and purpose of the organization. More broadly, the fact that the Syria Civil Defense Force is backed financially by the United States casts a cloud over the ethics and overall goals of American foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.