Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, is a civilian-run organization that according to their code of conduct aims to provide “disaster and war response in Syria, to carry out search and rescue operations and to save the maximum number of lives.” The organization was founded in 2013, two years after the civil conflict broke out in Syria. To date, the organization has saved 60,000 lives and currently has 3,600 members that carry out its mission primarily in Hama, Daraa, Aleppo, Homs, Al Qusayr, and Damascus among other cities across this war-torn country.
In 2016, the organization was the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, recognized for “outstanding bravery, compassion and humanitarian engagement in rescuing civilians.”
Munir Mustafa is the Deputy Director of the Syrian Civil Defense. Prior to the civil war, Mustafa was a firefighter in his hometown of Aleppo who decided he no longer wanted to serve the Syrian government and instead started a “civil defense” unit in 2012. He is among the first civilians who joined the White Helmets. According to Mustafa, since 2013, the organization has lost 207 of its members in the line of duty. He recently sat down with EWI Fellow Tara Kangarlou to discuss the work of the SCD and lessons from a war-torn Syria.
Q: Raqqa and Deir ez Zor are among the two recently liberated cities in Syria that are no longer controlled by ISIL forces. However, there is ambiguity and struggle over the political governance of these liberated areas. As a humanitarian organization, what’s the best governing solution that would help maintain the safety of the citizens in these two areas?
MM: We are an impartial organization and our sole mission is humanitarian support. We provide rescue services and much needed relief for people and neither care nor can we influence which political party or country or government has governance over the region or a city, but trust that consideration will be given to the welfare. As per our mission, what matters is if we can support the people.
Q: How difficult is it for the White Helmets to work in places like Raqqa or Deir ez Zor?
MM: White Helmets is not allowed to operate in the areas that are controlled by the Assad regime or Russia and their allies; but if we were allowed access into those areas we would have no problem providing support for the local population. The White Helmets first operated in groups and missions but later joined forces and the organization was formally founded in 2013-2014, a few years after commencement of the war,and that’s why the Assad regime sees us as part of the opposition and deems us illegitimate. They don’t recognize us. We offered multiple times to go into different areas that can benefit from our support—areas that are controlled by the regime, like suburbs of Damascus, parts of Aleppo—but they rejected us every single time.
Q: Considering that the majority of ISIL strongholds are being liberated inside Syria, what are some of the immediate threats that Syrians face? How is White Helmets responding to ISIL liberated areas?
MM: While Daesh (ISIL) is gone, there are other groups and militias—including the Shia and “Zeynabis” emerging in these areas that will ultimately lead to clashes; so not all those liberated places can be considered as secure. On the other hand there are other areas that were liberated by Daesh, like Jarablus and Al baab that are controlled and supported by the Turkish government, where we have been successful operating in and have opened three more centers there.
Q: There are multiple besieged areas inside Syria that have faced horrific humanitarian conditions and shortage of food, healthcare, and are denied basic necessities. Many UN and international relief agencies have not been able to access these areas. How successful has the White Helmets been in operating in besieged areas?
MM: It’s incredibly difficult to operate in these areas. We can’t transport any needed equipment in these areas, including much needed medicine, medical and rescue equipment that would make a tremendous difference on the ground; so instead, where can make an impact, and the only thing we can do in this circumstance, is to transfer funds to trusted, local contacts who are operating there. However, the process is not easy as it takes a lot to channel funds into those areas—more than 10 percent gets cut out in fees and commissions along the way. The besieged areas are the most difficult places to work in and support, but this is the price we have to pay to ensure some degree of impact.
Q: There have been talks and also some steps forward creating “safe zones” inside Syria. How successful can this idea be towards stopping the bloodshed?
MM: The creation of safe zones is in theory a great idea. If you have safe zones where you can start running a political dialogue then you may then have a possibility to reach a political solution for the crisis. Conversely, if you have safe zones where airstrikes are still ongoing—as is the case presently—then there is no point. For safe zones to be successful there needs to be a system of international monitoring and supervision that can guarantee safety.
Q: Seven years into this crisis, over 16 million people are internally displaced and five million are scattered across the Middle East as refugees. How do you view the prospect of a political transition in Syria ending the crisis?
MM: Syrian people won’t ever accept Bashar Hafez al-Assad as their President—especially after all the attacks we’ve seen—including the chemical massacres. In particular, they consider him a criminal, and therefore they can't acknowledge his leadership. The International Criminal Court and United Nations condemned the Syrian regime for his responsibility for many massacres, most recently the Khan Shaykhoun massacre which involved the use of chemical sarin gas that killed more than 90 people and caused many injuries. There have been numerous massacres by the use of barrel bombs in Aleppo city and many hospitals and civil defense centers were targeted because they were providing assistance and medical treatment to civilians. All this is part of a systematic criminal mentality on the part of the Syrian regime. Theoretically and practically Assad remaining in power is an impossible notion. I do not believe the Syrian people will ever accept him for the the degree of sadness and despair he has inflicted on every single household. How can he possibly remain as president?
Q: How can the international community and the United States help stop the bloodshed? And then support a political transition?
MM: First, if you want to stop the bloodshed, you have to understand the cause of this bloodshed. Most of the bloodshed is caused by airstrikes. On a percentage basis, I would project airstrikes account for approximately 70% of the deaths, as conducted by the Asaad regime and Russia. If the flights can be stopped, then the damage will be reduced to the approximately 30% caused by the mortar shells and rockets that cannot reach far distances but are on the frontliones of the fighting. In order to stop this we need to deploy peace teams and monitoring forces under the auspices of the United Nations. To stop the air war over Syria we need international agreements that will exert pressure on Russia and the Assad regime.
Q: Based on your first-hand work on the ground, what are the three mains things Syrians need in Syria?
MM: First, stop the fighting and bloodshed. Then, find a political solution, and finally a plan of reconstruction, which includes allowing the safe the return of displaced persons and refugees. However, we cannot talk about any negotiation or peace plans without stopping the killing inside Syria, and aircraft targeting of civilians. Only then we can talk about sitting at the negotiating table, followed by a process to hold accountable individuals accused of war crimes, and Bashar Al-Assad should be the first one of them. Finally, we can talk about the political solution and actual reconstruction to rebuild Syria again.
Q: You were a fireman before the war broke in Syria. What made you resign from your post and join the White Helmets? Aren’t you afraid of living inside Syria especially given the work you do?
MM: I was a fireman and yes, my work was a humanitarian effort, but after the war broke out, it became political and I was no longer serving people and community. Rather, I was dispersing protesters and people who opposed the regime. It was then that I decided that I no longer want to serve as a fireman and have my role be politicized. If one day, firefighters once again become a humanitarian organization that it was previously, then I will proudly go back to this profession.
As regards my personal welfare regarding the work I do—Syria is home, and you can’t leave home, regardless of the circumstances.
Q: If you could have a message for the U.S. President, on behalf of the White Helmets and the Syrian people, what would you tell President Trump?
MM: The United States is one of the strongest—if not the strongest country in the world—and I would ask President Trump to use all this power and weight to exert pressure on the Assad regime and Russia to end the bloodshed. I would ask him to help stop the conflict immediately and push toward a political solution. President Trump recently helped Syria greatly in defeating ISIL, and I believe he has the same capacity to end the bloodshed caused by Assad and Russia.
The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.
Photo: "Palmyra - تدمر" (CC BY-ND 2.0) by J_Llanos