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Sam Hamad

The White Helmets: The beating heart of Syria's revolution

The White Helmets are volunteers saving people on all sides of the conflict [AFP]

Date of publication: 7 October, 2016

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Comment: The political Left have become the great detractors of almost every aspect of the Syrian revolution, as their criticism of the White Helmets demonstrates, writes Sam Hamad.

One of the most relentless aspects of the war in Syria is the targeting of medical facilities by the airforces of Assad and Russia. As one Syrian friend put it, "it's safer to be a member of IS than a doctor in Syria". While Assad and Russia claim to be fighting "terrorism", the reality is that their war seeks to annihilate rebel-held areas of Syria. 

These are areas that were liberated from Assad's rule by rebel forces or places that rose peacefully against him, establishing autonomy, but which now must be defended and protected against his, Iran and Russia's will to re-impose tyranny on these areas.

Assad and Russia want to destroy the remotest semblance of normality in liberated areas. A primary part of this is targeting the humanitarian core of the revolution - the hospitals, medical facilities and aid organisations.  All of the makeshift arteries of the modes of organisation that make life almost liveable must be cleansed with fire and destruction.

One of the targets of this counterrevolutionary malice is the White Helmets. This organisation comprises civilian volunteers who operate in the areas of Syria where civilians are indiscriminately targeted by Assad's bombardment.  They are the people who put their own lives on the line to save the lives of the injured and minimise the fatalities of Assad's attacks.

The White Helmets demonstrate to the world just how brutal Assad and his allies are, while providing the antithesis to this brutality. Assad has been successful in dragging the world down to his squalid level when it comes to narratives surrounding the war – he wants the world to believe that he's the one besieged by armed "terrorists" and that he's the protector of Syrians.

The detractors of the White Helmets often tell us that the group is essentially a proxy of the US

It's no surprise then than that the White Helmets have come under severe attack. While Assad and Russia viciously attack them on the ground, there's also a media war raging away, mostly involving the Left, alternative media and the extreme Right. Many of Assad's supporters around the world have mobilised to attack the group, accusing them of being Al-Qaeda or a secretive front that aims to lobby for "regime change" against the genocidal murderer Assad and his withering rump state.

It's along these lines that one of the most serious journalistic attacks was recently waged on the White Helmets, namely in an article for Alternet by writer and pro-Palestine activist Max Blumenthal.

The main thrust of Blumenthal's article is that the group is not impartial and that it has received funds from the US government, namely the federal agency USAID and its Office of Transition Activities. Blumenthal claims this office has "promoted regime change around the world", including "failed attempts" in Venezuela and Cuba. 

It's no irony that Blumenthal should mention Cuba and the PSUV government in Venezuela - both of these forces, at the height of Assad murdering and cleansing millions of Syrians, materially supported him.

This is not a tit-for-tat point, rather it underlies a dynamic completely absent from Blumenthal's article. All the forces combating Assad's brutality, whether it's those who carry guns or those who carry, as the White Helmets do, the bodies of maimed or all too often murdered children, have to grab resources from wherever they can get them. 

They don't interfere with the rebellion because this would limit their ability to save lives

The White Helmets, like almost every force on the ground in Syria, advocates no-bombing zones to create havens for civilians under threat from Assad and Russia's airforces.  It's a truly preposterous and monstrous twist of the truth that turns this desire into some nefarious will for "regime change", which conjures the Iraq war, as opposed to the reality of a popular revolution against a dynastic tyrant.  This is the kind of "regime change" envisioned by most Syrians.

The detractors of the White Helmets often tell us that the group is essentially proxies of the US calling for "regime change", but they also often claim that they are synonymous with al-Qaeda. At the time of the assassination of the Labour MP Jo Cox, who was a strong advocate of the White Helmets in life and who in death raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for them, there was a meme doing the rounds about her "supporting the White Helmets aka al-Qaeda". 

This meme was shared by as superficially disparate figures as English neo-Nazi Nick Griffin and leftist activist and TV presenter Tariq Ali. 

The White Helmets, as a civilian volunteer force comprised of locals, works within all areas of liberated Syria, as well as areas of Syria where Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (a group that was formerly affiliated to al-Qaeda) operate. They do not in any sense collaborate with these groups, other than maintaining peaceful relations with them in order to ensure that they can access the victims of Assad's attacks. 

None of the examples cited by Blumenthal demonstrate anything other than the fact that the group are an imperfect but strictly humanitarian organisation - they don't interfere with the rebellion because this would limit their ability to save lives.

Syria is a test for all of humanity, but it is the political Left who have become the great detractors of almost every aspect of the Syrian revolution. "Which side are you on?" used to be a rhetorical slogan of the Left, but these days, the alternative Left-wing media would do well to answer this question themselves. 

Progressives must mobilise to defend the White Helmets

After all, it is they who have, at every moment of the conflict, attempted to blame the rebels, never giving them the benefit of doubt, always assuming that these makeshift revolutionaries have more of a responsibility than the state forces, including empires, which seek to annihilate them. 

One must look at the motivations of those seek to make enemies out of victims. Are they with those who reduce buildings to rubble and destroy peoples' lives, or are they with those who search amid the rubble looking to salvage life?

Those who take life so recklessly are the enemies of humanity – those who appease and turn a blind eye to this, are scarcely any better. Those who seek to slander the very forces that resist this brutality are in the same squalid camp. 

We are witnessing the fascism of the 21st century in Syria - we see it in the barrel bombs, white phosphorous, sectarian death squads and cleansing. Most of us will do nothing - all we can do is support those who stare this monstrosity in the face every day.

This is why progressives must mobilise to defend the White Helmets. They are the beating heart of the Syrian revolution and, in a world where human life is so very cheap, an example to all of humanity.


Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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