The call came on Saturday night. In the raging war zone that is southwestern Syria, with enemy forces on the march, the 98 White Helmets volunteers brought their spouses, children and a personal bag each. A total of 421 people massed at two collection points where they were to make their crossing to safety.
By the time they crossed, they were 422. One woman went into labour, requiring an emergency C-section. Her son, Nairouz, came into the world in an open field under the darkness of night just short of the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
It was just one moment of drama in a complicated international rescue operation to extract the Syrian volunteer rescuers who work in opposition areas through their country’s bitter enemy Israel by bus to a temporary haven in Jordan.
It was a nail-biting trip to a crossing over one of the most tightly sealed frontiers in the world. Up until the last minute, those on the ground were uncertain the operation would go through.
Another nearly 400 people were meant to be pulled out as well. Most didn’t make it in time to the assembly points, unable to go through roads that were closing fast by the advancing Syrian forces on one side and the expanding Islamic State militants on the other.
In all, it took about six hours to complete the evacuation, according to a person close to the operation who agreed to discuss the details on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“It was a ‘Hail Mary’ operation,” said the person familiar with the evacuation. “The only place of safety was through their evacuation to Jordan.”
The operation was conceived by Britain, Germany and Canada and supported by Israel, Jordan, the United States, and the UN. It took an unprecedented level of agreement and coordination — something international players have rarely demonstrated during eight years of war in Syria that have pitted world powers against one another.
The rescue of the besieged White Helmets was not without controversy. It raised questions about the fate of 3,000 other White Helmets still operating in opposition-held northern Syria, living with other 1 million other displaced civilians in areas where the government is expected to target next.
The Syrian government denounced the evacuation as a “criminal process” that “smuggled terrorists” whom it blamed for undermining the country’s security for years. A Syrian Foreign Ministry official repeated his government’s accusations that the White Helmets staged and executed chemical attacks to blame Damascus.
The White Helmets is an organization of volunteers that since 2013 took on the task of rescuing the survivors and salvaging the dead in war-ravaged held areas, whether digging them from under the rubble of bombed buildings or pulling victims of chemical attacks from site. It has had Western backing and funding, and its work brought it a Nobel Prize nomination. The government waged a virulent campaign depicting them as agents and terrorists because its volunteers helped document atrocities by government forces and their allies.
In five years of operations, over 3,000 volunteers saved more than 115,000 lives, according to the White Helmets. The cost for the group has been high, with one in four of its volunteers wounded or killed.
The plan was conceived in Europe and Canada about two weeks ago.
The Syrian government offensive in the southwest, backed by Russia, unfolded in mid-June. Though it condemned the assault, Washington, which along with Jordan had backed armed groups in the area and sponsored the White Helmets, signalled it wouldn’t help stop the advances.
By early July, government forces began negotiating surrender deals with armed groups and civilians in villages and towns that were fast crumbling under the assault. The negotiations allowed those who refused to live under government control — whether armed fighters, civilians or activists — to evacuate to the north. Except for the White Helmets, said the person close to the planning.
Government officials and Russian representatives said the White Helmets were “a red line” who should be “eradicated”, the source said.
This threat was particularly acute, he said, because during previous evacuations from fallen opposition areas elsewhere, nearly a dozen White Helmets volunteers were specifically targeted, pulled from buses, tortured and filmed making false confessions about being paid agents. They were even filmed with weapons to support the government’s narrative they work closely with the armed groups.
“It was a pattern of behaviour,” he said.
The discussions about the White Helmets’ safety started between Britain, Germany and Canada before the NATO summit on July 9. At the summit, there were leader-to-leader meetings over the issue.