ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The White Helmets rescue organization has offered to help with firefighting efforts in northeast Syria where thousands of acres of farmland have been recently destroyed, but Syrian Kurds who control the area have responded by saying that the group is not welcome.
The volunteer organization, officially known as Syria Civil Defense, has garnered much international attention for their work since 2014, most famously in photos and videos showing them pulling civilians from rubble following deadly bombings in various Syrian cities.
It made a public request on Wednesday “to open safe corridors in to fight the fires in the Aljazeera and Deir Ezzor regions in eastern Syria.”
White Helmets leader Raed Saleh also said in a tweet that he was receiving messages from the group’s volunteers in the area. “They’re worrying about the massive fire of the wheat and the barley fields which threat[en] the food security of all the Syrians.”
Khaled Khatib, a spokesperson for the organization told Kurdistan 24 that the offer came because the blazes are “getting worse and worse, and our duty is to try to help our people in the rest of the cities in Syria.”
After the call to facilitate their safe passage to the area, Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, posted on social media, “White Helmets would be helpful in fighting fires” in northeast Syria, adding that it could help to rebuild trust between Turkish-backed Syrian militants and the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the area.
However, Sinam Mohamad, the Washington representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF, flatly rejected the offer.
“We have full confidence in the abilities of our security and emergency services to handle any and all urgent issues in North East Syria,” she told Kurdistan 24.
“We are not in need of the White Helmets’ services. They are welcome in many other parts of Syria where they are more needed.”
She added that the US-led coalition now present on the ground in Syria could “provide resources such as funding and firefighting technology and equipment.”
On Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that a member of the SDF died while fighting the fires. Coalition officials have not yet publicly responded to requests for assistance.
Washington-based journalist and Kurdish affairs analyst focusing on Syria and Turkey, Mutlu Civiroglu, told Kurdistan 24 that it would not be realistic to expect Syrian Kurds to allow the White Helmets to come to areas under their control.
“They have a very negative reputation among Kurds. This is especially due to the fact [that] White Helmets entered Afrin region after Turkey took over the area on 18 March . Their presence in Afrin totally damaged their reputation.”
“The organization equals to other extremist groups in the perception of many Kurds.”
“No, that's correct at all,” White Helmets spokesperson Khatib said, responding to accusations of taking sides in Afrin, “because we have operated in Afrin in 2014.”
The White Helmets consistently claims it is neutral and did not support Turkey’s campaign. It was previously banned in Afrin by the local Kurdish administration in December 2015 and started working there again after Turkey took control of the area.
When asked by Kurdistan 24 if Wednesday’s announcement amounted to asking the SDF’s permission to enter northeast Syria to fight the fires, Khatib said, “Speaking about this point, the White Helmets just made like an international call for opening the way for us to get [to] northern east Syria.”
Nicholas A. Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Kurdistan 24 that the White Helmets, as an organization, referred to Turkey’s operation in Afrin as the “liberation” of Afrin and therefore are seen by the SDF as potentially being sent into the area as a “Trojan horse,” linked to Turkey.
He said, “There is credible evidence that some members of the White Helmets, especially from Azaz and Marea, actively facilitated the Olive Branch Operation by providing demining expertise for Turkish forces and Syrian rebel groups supported by Turkey.”
“Unfortunately, due to the White Helmets’ decision to cheerlead, and in some instances actively support the Olive Branch Operation, the White Helmets are not viewed by the SDF [as] a neutral actor.”
“If the White Helmets were to apologize for their role in supporting the Olive Branch Operation,” he concluded, “then that would be a necessary first step to even begin the discussion of allowing the White Helmets into SDF-administered areas of Syria.”
Editing by John J. Catherine