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Some White Helmet Rescuers Are Evacuated From Syria


The Syrian government has denounced the weekend evacuation of some rescue workers from the U.S.-backed Syrian Civil Defense group. They're known as the White Helmets, and their mission is to save civilian lives during Syria's civil war. Those who were rescued, along with some of their family members, were transported from Syria to Jordan. Joining us now via Skype is Ibrahim Olabi. He's a human rights lawyer who's worked with the White Helmets. Good morning, Mr. Olabi.

IBRAHIM OLABI: Good morning.

KING: All right. So around 422 people, White Helmets and their family members, were evacuated from Syria over the weekend. Why and how?

OLABI: Right. So, as you know, the Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, it's a humanitarian organization. They've been working on saving lives inside Syria. They started in opposition-controlled areas because that's where the majority of the bombardment has been happening by the Assad regime and their Russian allies. That naturally made them a target for these two parties to the conflict because, one, they've been showing a humanitarian side to the conflict, and, two, they've been witnessing the crimes that these parties are committing. And so they've been systematically targeted throughout the conflict since their establishment. And so when the regime gains more control, more land control, the White Helmets have no option but to leave that area. In situations like Aleppo, where they haven't - or, some members haven't, they were enforced. They disappeared, and then they appear on videos having to confess under force to say that they were part of some terrorist organization. And some of them are still missing.

KING: And yet the White Helmets do have their backers, including the United States, some European countries, Japan. And that was part of what got them out this weekend, was those countries effectively asking the governments of Israel and Jordan, among others, to help get them out. Let me ask you about the thousands of White Helmets who are still in Syria. Do they need to be evacuated, as well?

OLABI: Right. So, as you know, Syria is fragmented. So the south of Syria, not everyone was able to get out through this evacuation. I was speaking to some people, and they were saying that there are still members of the White Helmets there. They're trying to get them out. Now, that's the situation in the south. And so in the north, where it's still not some sort of ground advancement but more aerial bombardment, they still are fully operational. So the evacuation was not for every member of the White Helmets, just these who were stopped in the south of Syria with continuous kind of a land grab by the regime.

KING: Does the fact that the land grabs by the regime are successful at this point mean that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad is winning this war?

OLABI: It depends what you define by winning. If it's just a military matter then there is an argument to be made. But then that was only possible because of the Russian intervention in 2015. That was the thing that tipped things over. And the presence of Iranian militias. It is very rare that you see any sort of Syrian military advancement without heavy military support. We're not talking advisers. We're talking combatants, boots on the ground. We're talking airplanes, artillery. Yes, so in terms of military advancements, they are. But in a complicated war like Syria, winning the war by kind of deploying a policy where you leave no kind of civilian opposition to you is not how we would like to define winning. In the interest's term, perhaps, you know, they want to regain control. Those who don't want to stay can leave. But if winning means peace then that is not the case in Syria.

KING: All right. Ibrahim Olabi is a human rights lawyer who's worked with the White Helmets. Thank you so much, Mr. Olabi.

OLABI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.