As Bashar Al-Assad’s forces bolstered by Russian troops recaptures territory in the southwest and other regions of Syria, Western allies have grown increasingly concerned about the safety of a group of unarmed volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets.
The fate of some 1,000 volunteers and their family members, and the need to plan a possible evacuation for them, has become a focus of discussions at the recently held NATO Summit in Brussels.
The Netherlands, Britain, France, Canada and Germany have been trying to find a way to get an estimated 1,000 White Helmets volunteers and their family members out of Syria.
In the plans under discussion, the volunteer rescue workers, who are officially named the Syrian Civil Defense, would be resettled in several countries; two diplomatic sources mentioned the possibility of resettling some of the group in Canada and the United Kingdom, while another two sources said Germany is expected to take some rescuers.
President Donald Trump discussed the possible need to evacuate members of the group during his meetings at the NATO summit last week, a source confirmed. In a statement to CBS News, the Trump administration acknowledged its concern for the White Helmets, but stopped short of commenting on efforts to rescue them.
"We are concerned about the humanitarian situation in the southwest since the Syrian regime and Russia violated the ceasefire," National Security Council spokesperson Garrett Marquis said in a statement to CBS News' Margaret Brennan. "This includes the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the fighting. Among them are many who fear regime reprisals, including specific groups, such as the White Helmets. We are pushing for Russia and the regime to allow international aid convoys to deliver badly needed assistance to the civilians in the Southwest."
British Prime Minister Theresa May brought up the issue during her meeting with Trump in the UK, and that the topic may also be discussed at Trump's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The White Helmets was founded in Turkey in 2013 by former British MI5 officer James Le Mesurier.
Since its establishment, the group has received at least $55 million from the British Foreign Office, $23 million or more from the U.S. Office of Transition Initiatives and untold millions from Qatar. As of April 2018, the organisation claims to have saved over 114,000 lives in Syria and to have lost the lives of 204 White Helmet volunteers in the process.
Scared and injured but alive, a child was rescued by the #WhiteHelmets from under the rubble of her bombed home after Russian air raids on #ElTaebah city in the eastern countryside of #Daraa yesterday. #Act4_southernsyria #Act4Daraa pic.twitter.com/LsaCEp4hEW
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) June 28, 2018
The emergency talks were triggered in recent weeks as aid groups working with the White Helmets struck an increasingly alarmist tone as they watched Assad's forces close in on territory that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump had once agreed would be part of a U.S.-protected safe zone. Despite that 2017 agreement to carve out safe zones, the Trump administration decided not to take action to stop the current military assault.
Both the Syrian and the Russian governments have labeled the group terrorists, a designation that the international community and the rescuers themselves have rejected.