Israel helps evacuate Syria's White Helmets to Jordan

Rescue comes after Syrian forces tighten grip

By OREN LIEBERMANN AND SHEENA MCKENZIE, CNN
Paul Ronzheimer

Buses carrying more than 400 Syrians, including members of the White Helmets rescue group, arrive at the Syria-Jordan border on July 22, 2018.

JERUSALEM (CNN) - Israel has assisted the evacuation of 422 Syrians -- including members of the White Helmets rescue group -- to neighboring Jordan in an international humanitarian operation coordinated by the United Nations.

Western powers had become concerned in recent weeks that the volunteers' lives were at risk as Russian-backed Syrian forces tightened their grip on one of the last rebel-held areas in southern Syria.

Regime forces had increased their offensive in the area in recent weeks, making the rescue effort even more urgent.

The Syrians were transferred to Jordan via Israel, at the request of the United States and some European countries, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a statement after the operation. Israel described the move as an "exceptional humanitarian gesture," adding that it "continues to maintain a non-intervention policy regarding the Syrian conflict."

The transferred Syrians will remain in a restricted area in Jordan for the time being, Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Mohammad al-Kayed told the Jordanian state-run Petra news agency, before onward transfer to Britain, Germany and Canada within the next three months.

Jordan had originally said 800 Syrians were evacuated and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi tweeted on Sunday that the original agreement was for 800 but that they later settled at 422.

"For humanitarian reasons, Jordan gave the United Nations permission to organize the passage of Syrians who entered the Occupied Golan after Britain, Germany and Canada presented a legally binding pledge to resettle them after three months," Safadi tweeted Sunday. "The number requested was 800 but the actual number settled at 422," he added.

Israel has not given an exact number of evacuees.

A number of those evacuated were from the White Helmets volunteer rescue group, known as the Syrian Civil Defense.

Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman for the White Helmets in northern Syria, told CNN, "A number of civil defense volunteers -- White Helmets -- have been evacuated with their family members for humanitarian reasons. They were besieged in a very dangerous area. They have reached Jordan, thank God. "

The White Helmets confirmed in a tweet Sunday that volunteers and their families were evacuated to Jordan for "purely humanitarian" reasons after becoming "trapped in a dangerous area."

Through videos, pictures, and social media, the White Helmets are widely seen as having played an important role in showing the international community the horrors of the Syrian civil war. Their volunteers have gone into war-stricken areas, searching for survivors, winning them support from many countries, including the United States.

The civilians' passage out of Syria was organized by the U.N., Petra reported. The U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) administers a buffer zone between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syria. UNDOF is also in charge of a border crossing near Quneitra, one of the last areas in southern Syria that remains under rebel control.

"These Syrian citizens who were working in the civil defense, had fled the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition after the Syrian army's attack in those areas," Petra reported. It added that they were evacuated because of "a risk to their lives."

Western countries celebrate rescue

The United Kingdom and Canada were quick to celebrate the evacuation, with U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt calling it "fantastic news" in a tweet Sunday.

Hunt described the White Helmets as "the bravest of the brave," adding that "in a desperate situation this is at least one ray of hope."

Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, also praised the evacuation and said her country had provided funding to the volunteer group.

"The White Helmets have witnessed vicious atrocities committed by the Assad regime and its backers," she said in a statement, adding "Canada has been a key partner of the White Helmets and is proud to have provided funding to support their emergency training and to increase the number of women White Helmets."

Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Mohammad al-Kayed told Petra that while Jordan already hosts 1.3 million Syrian refugees, it "won't hesitate to perform its humanitarian duty despite the great burdens placed on the Kingdom."

Both Syria and Russia consider the White Helmets a terrorist organization, a designation that the international community has rejected.

Syria's state-run news agency SANA reported on Sunday that Israel "smuggled" the White Helmets to Jordan, saying the volunteer group had links to terrorist groups including the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

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