White Helmets return to Afrin to mixed reception

The White Helmets in Afrin have drawn backlash from some residents who are accusing the group of whitewashing Turkey’s occupation of the northwestern Syrian Kurdish enclave.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The White Helmets in Afrin have drawn backlash from some residents who are accusing the group of whitewashing Turkey’s occupation of the northwestern Syrian Kurdish enclave.

Turkish-backed Islamist militias and the Turkish army took over Afrin from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) earlier this year in a battle that lasted over two months and displaced over 137,000 civilians and evicted the local Kurdish-led administration in Afrin. 

The White Helmets, officially known as the Syrian Civil Defense, entered the Kurdish canton after Turkey took over the city on 18 March. Jamal Hafez, the head of White Helmets in Mar`a, was killed in a village of Afrin during demining operations on 6 March during Turkey’s attack.

The group has since suggested they want to ‘rebuild’ Afrin.

“The Syrian Civil Defense [the official name of the White Helmets] on the first of August launched ‘together; we can rebuild it,’ to rebuild the city of Afrin with the participation of 150 volunteers,” Khaled Khatib, a spokesperson of the White Helmets told Kurdistan 24. 

“The campaign aims to remove rubble, garbage from the sidewalks in preparation for the rehabilitation of public facilities in the city. Also, this campaign was coordinated with the local council of Afrin,” he added.

The local administration in Afrin banned the group in December 2015, and their volunteers were arrested and their equipment confiscated. The group was likely banned to its alleged links to rebel groups that, in April 2015, kidnapped 300 Kurds. 

“We have been working again in Afrin after the YPG no longer controlled the city,” Khatib said.

However, the group says it remains neutral. Kurds, on the other hand, claim the White Helmets only operates in areas controlled by the Turkish-backed rebels.

“I am in daily contact with people of Afrin. They know the reality of the White Helmets,” Roj Moussa, a journalist from Afrin told Kurdistan 24. “Turkey is trying to clean their reputation in Afrin. The White Helmets are seen as heroes in the West, in Europe, in Canada,” he said. 

“They [Turkey and rebels] killed a lot of people, burned forests, kidnapped civilians,” he said. “The White Helmets work in areas ruled by Jabhat al-Nusra [Al-Qaeda],” he said.

After Turkey took control of Afrin, the pro-Turkish government newspaper Yeni Safak, published a story headlined on 30 March, "White Helmets resume operations in liberated Afrin.”

Sinam Mohammed, representative of Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) in the US, in an interview with Kurdistan 24, accused the White Helmets of changing the demography. “It’s about 140 families, and they are changing the demography of Afrin. It’s not a solution for the solving the problem in Syria,” she said. 

“They are making ethnic cleansing in Afrin, and we don’t accept that,” she said. “The White Helmets should be focused on humanitarian issues, but they are now getting into politics, and changing the demography,” she argued. 

“Their task is humanitarian, but now they are there, accepting to be in somebody’s house, where is the humanity here,” she added. “There people who were working with the White Helmets were in places where jihadists are active, like in Idlib, Jarabulus, and they went to places where Jihadists are active.”

However, the White Helmets deny the allegations.

“We seek to work in all areas of Syria, where we can, that's why we operated in Afrin for some months, but the YPG didn't allow us for our volunteers to come to Afrin,” Khatib said. “The people there [in Afrin] need the services of the White Helmets. We always do our best to serve our community.”

The head of the White Helmets, Raed al Saleh, in November 2016, said the group had welcomed former fighters who had laid down their weapons. But he added that Syria Civil Defense members filmed holding weapons or flying the flags of terrorist groups “do not represent the organization’s general principles and humanitarian values.”

Khatib said they also have Kurds from Afrin. “Because usually, we choose the volunteers from the same areas, we work, but we don't know what percent are Arab or Kurds. They are mixed right now because you know, our volunteers who have evacuated from Homs, Daraa, Ghouta, are now working in the north,” he said.

However, journalist Roj Moussa asserted they have no Kurdish members. “They have no Kurdish members after they entered Afrin. I asked a lot of people,” he said.

Azad (54), the pseudonym civilian from Afrin told Kurdistan 24 that people in Afrin are suspicious of the group. “Some people are worried and don’t really trust them and don’t consider them neutral. But others don’t care about their existence, and some don’t even know who they are,” he added.

“The people are very confused, and the only thing they care about is to have the Turks, FSA, and Ghouta settlers to leave Afrin,” he added.

Editing by Nadia Riva