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Syria's First Responders Say They Need a No-Fly Zone, But No One Listens

Syrians working to save civilians from deadly barrel bombs and alleged chlorine gas attacks again went to the UN to ask for help.

For the second time in as many months, United Nations Security Council members have heard from Syrians working to save civilians from the government's exploding barrel bombs and alleged chlorine attacks, and again were asked to impose measures, including no-fly zones, to save lives. But diplomats and officials, including those in the US government, say such steps are unlikely.

Last Wednesday, Raed Saleh, the head of Syria's "White Helmets," a volunteer civil defense search and rescue corp that responds to victims of the country's four year civil war, met privately with EU diplomats and United Nations representatives, accompanied by a representative from Mayday Rescue, a group that has trained and supported the White Helmets.


In an interview with VICE News, Saleh said he wants the "Syrian people to get safe zones to protect civilians from the airstrikes of the Syrian Regime."

"The Syrian people have lost confidence in all the international community," said Saleh. "The Syrian people have been killed for 4 years and nobody acted seriously to stop the killing."

Related: Horrifying Videos Shown at UN Display Carnage of Suspected Chlorine Attacks in Syria

Saturday brought news that regime airstrikes reportedly killed at least 42 civilians, including 28 women and 11 children, in the towns of Kafar Awid and Sarqib, in Idlib province, according the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. On Saturday night, civil defense teams documented three alleged chlorine attacks in the village of Mhamshan, also in Idlib. According to James Le Mesurier, founder of Mayday Rescue, a 20-year-old mother was killed and more than 40 civilians were treated for chlorine exposure. VICE News could not independently verify these reports.

Before being appointed to lead the national operations of the White Helmets — so-called for the minimal protective headgear they wear — Saleh was director of civil defense in Idlib province. The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have suffered significant setbacks in the province in recent months, and responded with a stepped-up aerial campaign that includes, according to locals, activists and Western governments, the use of chlorine in jerry-rigged barrel bombs.


The White Helmets have documented at least 21 chlorine attacks, including the March 16 assault, in the two months since the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning its use on March 6.

Chlorine is a dual-use substance that can be used as a cleaning agent, and is only illegal under international law when employed directly as a weapon. Exposure can lead to burns, and inhalation of Chlorine can cause respiratory failure, vascular abnormalities, and in high enough quantities, death.

 The Assad government has denied it is using Chlorine in this way. In September, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it had "compelling confirmation" that chlorine had been weaponized "systematically and repeatedly" in the country. Locals, human rights groups and Western Security Council members point out that Syrian regime is the only force in the area with access to aircraft that can drop barrel bombs and chlorine. The OPCW, however, is not mandated to assign blame.

Asked about the perpetrators of the chlorine attacks, Saleh laughed.

"There are two options," he said. "Either it's the regime or the international coalition."

Russia, one of the Security Council's five permanent member with veto power and a principal backer of Assad, has similarly denied charges that the government is using Chlorine. The Obama administration has drafted a resolution that would establish a separate UN mechanism to identify perpetrators of Chlorine attacks, but has not yet introduced the text.


Related: Obama Has No Good Options for Ending the War in Syria | VICE News

Saleh said the number of regime airstrikes in Idlib province had recently been counted as high as 180 each day.

"We believe that the recent escalation from the regime comes as a reaction to the victories of the revolutionaries on the ground," said Saleh. "The regime applies a collective punishment policy to make revenge on the population that are supportive of the revolution."

US-led coalition airstrikes have targeted opponents of the Assad regime in Syria, including the Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusrah Front. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, has been documented committing war crimes in both Iraq and Syria and the UN says it is likely the group committed genocide against Iraq's Yazidi minority. In Syria, however, UN officials claim Assad's forces are responsible for a majority of civilian deaths. Some 220,000 have died in Syria's civil war.

"The political decision to launch airstrikes against ISIS alone, and not against Assad imposes more frustration," said Saleh.

Despite pressure from countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the US has shied away from considering no-fly zones over rebel controlled areas of Syria.

In April, In April, UN Security Council members met with Mohamed Tennari, a Syrian doctor who has helped treat victims of alleged chlorine attacks in Idlib province. Diplomats were shown video of victims, including three young siblings who perished in a purported chlorine attack on March 16 in Sarmin, a village in Idlib. Saleh said twenty civil defenders were sickened by gases when they responded to that attack.


Tennari and anti-Assad activists pushed the Security Council toward the creation of no-fly zones, as did Saleh, who said at least "safe-zones" should be guaranteed for civilians fleeing both regime and rebel forces.

An US official, speaking to VICE News on condition of anonymity, threw cold water on the idea, which would require at the very least the threat of military response to violations.

"The creation and enforcement of no fly zones and other military-enforced zones present significant challenges, including military, humanitarian, and financial challenges," said the official.

While in New York on Wednesday, Saleh met in private consultation with Security Council diplomats from France, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, and with representatives from the European Union and the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Earlier in the week, he met with with American officials in Washington.

Le Mesurier said Security Council members, and American officials in Washington "supported measures to cease the indiscriminant bombardment of the Syrian population."

"But there was no endorsement of how this might happen," he added.

Other Security Council diplomats VICE News spoke with called the idea a non-starter.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, told VICE News there was little reason to believe steps would be taken to curtail Syrian government bombardments of civilian areas.


"With the US not involved in this, it's not going to happen," said Shaikh. "Even though there's a lot of chatter about Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with their more active foreign policy, doing it by themselves, that's not going to happen."

"We know Assad is under increasing pressure and that pressure is likely to continue," said Shaikh. "It is quite clear with Idlib city and Idlib province the regime is trying to make those areas ungovernable by continuing to rain down barrel bombs and chlorine against the civilian population."

Saleh, who before the civil war traded electronics, said the White Helmets will continue their work, despite what they see as international abandonment and the dangers of responding to airstrikes. At least 82 members of Syria's civil defense teams have been killed in the last two years, he said, at times targeted by barrel bombs as they respond to initial attacks. Saleh's wife and two children, aged six and seven years old, have fled to a refugee camp in Turkey.

After a stop in Geneva to speak with UN human rights officials and UN Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura, Saleh will return to Idlib to oversee search and rescue operations.

Saleh said while the White Helmets primarily respond to regime airstrikes and shelling, they have also scrambled to save victims of rebel assaults and, on occasion, casualties from coalition airstrikes.

"I'm sorry to say that death has become very usual in our lives," said Saleh.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford