‘We are trapped’: White Helmets plead for evacuation from Syria

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Members of the Syrian civil defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, bury their fellow comrades during a funeral in Sarmin, a jihadist-held town nine kilometres east of Syria's northwestern city of Idlib on August 12, 2017. (AFP)
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A wounded Syrian is carried by a member of the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the white helmets, to a hospital in the rebel-held besieged town of Arbin, in this November 16, 2017 file photo. (AFP)
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In this file photo taken on April 8, 2017, members of the Syrian civil defence volunteers, also known as the White Helmets, remove a victim from the rubble of his house, following a reported air strike by government forces on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa. (AFP)
Updated 27 July 2018
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‘We are trapped’: White Helmets plead for evacuation from Syria

  • More than 200 volunteers have been killed in the seven-year civil war
  • Syria war estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced 11 million

BEIRUT: A senior member of the Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers called on Thursday for the United Nations to save his colleagues trapped in the southwest by advancing government forces.
Israel and Western powers helped evacuate 422 White Helmets and their families from Syria into Jordan last week but others were unable to make it out because of government checkpoints and the expansion of Daesh in the area.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, backed by the Russian military, have captured most of the southern province of Daraa in an offensive that began in June.
“We want the UN or any international agency to remove the White Helmet volunteers from Daraa to Idlib so we can continue to work in the north of Syria” said Majd Khalaf, one of the founders of the White Helmets. “It is so hard when White Helmets have to leave people behind — and they also have to start their lives over,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Istanbul, Turkey.
He declined to say how many White Helmets were still at risk in the area, but said that the group has more than 3,700 women and men in Syria and that more than 200 volunteers have been killed in the seven-year civil war.
The group, known officially as Syria Civil Defense, has been widely hailed in the West and credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas during years of bombing attacks by Damascus and its allies.
Its volunteers, famed for their white helmets, say they are neutral. But Syrian President Bashar Assad and his backers, including Russia, have dismissed them as Western-sponsored propaganda tools and proxies of insurgents.
The Syrian government on Monday condemned last week’s evacuation as a “criminal operation” undertaken by “Israel and its tools.”
Government forces backed by Russian air power have swept through southwestern Syria in the last month, in one of the swiftest campaigns of a war estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced 11 million.
“After the control of the regime on all borders and the whole area, we are trapped and cannot move,” one White Helmet in Daraa, who declined to give his name, said via WhatsApp, adding that he fears being arrested.
Raed Al Saleh, director of the White Helmets, said his volunteers were “helpless” as they are a civilian organization.
“Unfortunately we wish we could stay in these areas, but it is not in our hands,” he said by phone from Turkey. “We are asking for their evacuation to protect them.”


US weighing options on American Daesh sympathizer in Syria

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard on top of a building on February 17, 2019, in the frontline Syrian village of Baghuz. (AFP)
Updated 20 February 2019
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US weighing options on American Daesh sympathizer in Syria

  • Neither option would likely pass muster in the cases of US citizens, who enjoy strong legal protections under the Constitution

WASHINGTON: The United States said Tuesday it wanted to ensure foreign terrorists remain off the battlefield as it weighed options on an American detained in Syria who says she wants to return home.
The United States has urged European powers to take back hundreds of their citizens who fought with the Daesh group in Syria, but acknowledged the situation was complex in the rare case of an American terrorist.
Hoda Muthana, a 24-year-old from Alabama who became a prominent online agitator for the extremists, said in an interview published Sunday with The Guardian that she had been brainwashed online and “deeply regrets” joining the movement.
While declining to discuss Muthana’s case specifically, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said that the status of US citizens detained in Syria “is by definition extremely complicated.”
“We’re looking into these cases to better understand the details,” he told reporters.
Palladino said that the United States generally did not see a different solution between what to do with US fighters and with foreigners, saying the fighters pose “a global threat.”
“Repatriating these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin, ensuring that they are prosecuted and detained — that’s the best solution, preventing them from returning to the battlefield,” he said.
The situation of foreign terrorists detained by US-allied Kurdish forces has taken a new urgency as President Donald Trump plans to withdraw US troops from Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces say they may have to refocus on fighting Turkey, which has vowed to crush Kurdish fighters it links to separatists at home.
Trump has contemplated reopening the US military base at Guantanamo Bay to take in new foreign inmates, while Britain on Tuesday revoked the citizenship of a female terrorsist who wanted to return home with her newborn baby.
Neither option would likely pass muster in the cases of US citizens, who enjoy strong legal protections under the Constitution.
Muthana, who was married three times to terrorists and has a son with one of her husbands, fled her family in 2014 to join the Daesh group in Syria, where she took to Twitter to urge attacks on fellow Americans.
In the interview with The Guardian, Muthana said that she was “really young and ignorant” when she joined Daesh and has since renounced radicalism.
“I believe that America gives second chances. I want to return and I’ll never come back to the Middle East,” she told the newspaper.
Hassan Shilby, a lawyer for Muthana, told ABC television’s “Good Morning America” that the young woman had been “brainwashed and manipulated” and is “absolutely disgusted” by the person she became.