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Oscar win for White Helmets highlights Syrian regime brutality

The violence in Syria is another world away for your average American and others in the West. But the world now has a chance to re-examine and understand more viscerally what is truly happening in Syria following Monday’s big Oscar win for Netflix’s “The White Helmets” documentary, which details the day-to-day travails of ill-equipped Syrian rescue workers digging victims out from the rubble of homes destroyed by regime airstrikes.

“The White Helmets” does a masterful job of cutting through the disinformation and confusion generated by English-language media outlets such as Russia Today (RT), and by conspiracy-theory blogs whose posts go viral on social media.

Parroting Syrian regime and Iranian propaganda, a bevy of social media and YouTube channels have sprung up churning out — some with notably high-quality production — videos and faux “news articles” to falsely label the White Helmets as “terrorists.”

These detractors are obsessed with generating sufficient disinformation to blur the lines in the public’s minds on who to blame for the atrocities in Syria. RT, Sputnik News, the Syrian regime’s Information Ministry and their ilk perceive the White Helmets, who carry no weapons and typically have to clear the rubble of destroyed buildings by hand, as a major threat to the regime’s and Iran’s narrative on Syria.

The Oscar win set in motion such a hostile response from certain corners precisely because it offered a visually striking explanation that detailed the pure horror of rescue workers having to dig out infants from homes flattened by warplanes manned by Syrian regime and Russian pilots. “The White Helmets” offers a counter-narrative to the regime, which claims it is merely fighting terrorists.

Regime propaganda outlets, and their corresponding Iranian and Russian counterparts, want the international community to believe that everyone in areas liberated from regime control are “terrorists.” Likewise, as Aleppo was besieged by Iranian militias, those same media outlets sought to drown out voices such as those of Bana Al-Abed, the Syrian girl whose live tweeting of the siege helped put a face on the Syrian people for distant audiences.

The Assad regime and its advanced Iranian- and Russian-supplied weaponry may be winning the war, but they cannot stand you wanting to see ‘The White Helmets.’ Oscar or not, that reason alone should push everyone to immediately watch this bold and beautiful film.

Oubai Shahbandar

It is that humanizing quality of “The White Helmets” that allows global audiences to relate to the victims of the regime war machine, and the heroes attempting to save as many lives as possible against the odds, of whom 163 have been killed in the line of duty thus far. Many were killed due to a tactic known as the “double tap,” when regime and Russian pilots purposefully target first-responders and ambulances rushing to the scene of an attack.

Barrel bombs, as all tools of genocide tend to be, began as a gradual experiment. Designed and produced by the regime’s Syrian Scientific Research Center, they were meant to serve as a cheap and easily mass-produced weapon to terrorize as many civilians as possible, and to force them to submit to the regime’s authority.

The civil-defense rescue workers in “The White Helmets” do not fear those bombs. That is largely why the regime fears them. Indeed, it went so far as to cancel the passport of the documentary’s Syrian cinematographer. 

“The White Helmets” manages to personify the David vs Goliath scene playing out in Syria. The regime and its advanced Iranian- and Russian-supplied weaponry may be winning the war, but they cannot stand you wanting to see “The White Helmets.” Oscar or not, that reason alone should push everyone to immediately watch this bold and beautiful film.

• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.