The U.S. just pulled funding from one of the only on-the-ground groups saving lives after airstrikes in Syria.
About a third of the funding for Syria Civil Defence, known popularly as the White Helmets, came from the U.S., with the rest coming from the U.K., Germany, and other governments. Until very recently, the group had a positive relationship with the U.S., which has provided the group about $33 million in funds since 2013. But now, at the president’s request, the State Department has pulled funding.
In March, the group’s leaders even had a visit with the U.S. State Department. The meeting had gone well, one of the group’s leaders told CBS News: “Our meetings in March were very positive,” Raed Al Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, said. “There were no suggestions whatsoever about stopping support.” Less than two months later, their funding is now under review at the State Department.
The White Helmets are a group of over 3,000 mostly Syrian civilian volunteers, who, donning their signature white helmets, rush in after airstrikes in Syria to try to rescue their neighbors from the rubble. They say they’ve pulled more than 100,000 people out from under war-torn wreckage since the group was formed in late 2012. They’ve borne critical witness to the war, too, documenting the use of chemical weapons in several instances over the course of the six-year conflict.
“The U.S. jointly supports the White Helmets with other donors, and we expect their operations to continue as a result of additional multilateral donations,” a State Department spokesperson told VICE News in an email. The White House says the conflict in Syria is winding down and U.S. support isn’t as necessary anymore. On May 2, Syrian forces conducted five airstrikes on the Syrian city of Abu Kamal, according to Airwars.
Though their work has largely gained them international recognition as brave rescue workers, they’ve come under attack from a massive propaganda campaign pushed by Russian state media to discredit their work. Both Russia and Syria have tried to tie the group to al-Qaida, relying on state media, online trolls and conspiracy theorists to push their counter-narrative. The Russians support the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad, who’s accused of using chemical weapons against his own people.
After a British documentary about the White Helmets won an Oscar for best short documentary, the Russian embassy in the U.K. put out this tweet:
The first three results for a “White Helmets” search on YouTube are videos posted by RT, Russia’s state news agency. One of them is this clip, with the headline “How impartial are Syria’s White Helmets?” which links the group to ISIS.
The group says they have an emergency plan to keep their operations going without U.S. funding, but they’re worried about the consequences of a longer-term funding cut.
"If this is a long-term or permanent halt, it would have a serious impact on our ability to provide the same intensity and quality of services that we currently provide to civilians," Al Saleh told CBS News.
In late March, President Donald Trump froze $200 million in funding for recovery efforts in Syria. Funding for the White Helmets has been frozen, but it’s not clear where other U.S.-funded programs in Syria stand. Last year, the U.S. pumped $225 million into recovery efforts in the area, including funds for defusing unexploded bombs. The funding for the White Helmets has been frozen pending review, but it’s not clear what other Syrian relief programs have had their U.S. funding put on ice.