By Metin Mutanoglu, Faruk Tokat, and Adham Kako
ANKARA (AA) – Raed al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets (Syrian Civil Defense), told Anadolu Agency the group has been targeted with false allegations by Russia and other countries because it collects first-hand evidence of the atrocities committed by the regime and its allies.
The White Helmets have been battling two separate fights at the same time. While trying to save civilians from bombardments, they face dangers as they are turned into a "legitimate and open target" by the Bashar al-Assad regime and Russia.
On the other front, they fight smear campaigns and defamation. al-Saleh of the White Helmets, or Syrian Civil Defense, spoke to Anadolu Agency about their efforts for humanity.
Anadolu Agency: First of all, we'd like to thank you for speaking with us. Who are the White Helmets? How do you define yourself? When and why did you establish the White Helmets?
Raed al-Saleh: The White Helmets started to operate in Aleppo through the end of 2012 and early 2013. We’re a group of Syrian young people from different occupations. Our teams include carpenters, tailors, blacksmiths, traders, and doctors. We’re from different backgrounds.
As you know, the regime lost control of some regions in Syria at the end of 2012. Afterwards, the civilian settlements were hit from both the ground and air. This is when we started. In 2013, as volunteer groups, we began to operate in various cities. I joined the team in mid-2013.
Then, on Oct. 25, 2014, we held the convention for our official foundation. The foundation meeting of the civil defense, also known as White Helmets, was held in Adana [southern Turkey].
Seventy people from the administrative body of our search and rescue teams in Syria took part. In the meeting, we agreed on a local umbrella organization and the top structure of the White Helmets, which serves the people of Syria. We called it the Civil Defense.
At the beginning of 2015, people started calling us "White Helmets" because of the white helmets we use during operations.
In 2017, the number of our volunteers reached 4,300, including 400 women. However, after the regime seized many regions through so-called agreements, the number of our workers declined to 2,975. Today, we do rescue operations in every region we can reach.
Q: Can you operate anywhere in Syria?
al-Saleh: No, we operate only in the regions we can reach. We try to keep our presence in the regions where we’re not blocked. Nowadays, we operate in Syria's north, northwest, the Euphrates Shield zone [liberated by a 2016-2017 Turkish operation], and Afrin. However, we can’t operate in certain regions. As the regime labeled us a terror group, we can't operate where the regime is dominant. We’ve been threatened repeatedly. Bashar al-Assad is the leading figure among those who threaten us.
Also, we can’t operate under areas held by the YPG [the Syrian terror affiliate of the terrorist PKK] because our members were held by the YPG at the end of 2015. During this period, they also seized our search and rescue equipment together with ambulances. For similar reasons, we can't operate in regions under Daesh control. As you may know, Daesh held some White Helmets in 2015.
Q: How are the White Helmets managed? Can you tell us about your head, board of directors, administrative commissions and other structures?
al-Saleh: We regulate our teams in line with Syria's administrative structure. Our headquarters is located in northern Syria. For security concerns, I won’t reveal the locations where our teams are deployed. Sorry for that. Our headquarters is in northern Syria. Each province is connected to the headquarters, we have directorates. We have main and branch offices in settlements smaller than provinces.
Q: There are various allegations about you. Some claim that various countries and organizations fund you. What would you say to this? How do you ensure your finances?
al-Saleh: The accusations and finances are two different issues. We accept support and aid from anyone who wants to assist the Syrian people. For us, this isn’t an issue. The only condition we have is that there aren’t any political or military strings.
So, as long as the financing we’re provided isn’t conditional, we accept it. In this context, we’re provided with financing by various countries. In addition, we’re supported by people and charities. I mean, we have three sources of finances: countries, charities, and public campaigns.
The countries backing us are Qatar, Britain, the U.S., the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. Nowadays we’re at the stage of signing [an agreement] with France. In addition to getting direct support from some countries, we get support from institutions.
The Turkish Red Crescent and Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) have also supported us. Qatar al-Hayriyya and other Qatari charities also supported us. Numerous aid groups from Europe and Canada also provided us with support. Our public campaigns are carried out through the Internet. Thank God we’ve achieved good results thanks to these campaigns. We use the financing provided for emergencies, martyrs’ families, and the wounded. We also use it to help the families of our martyred teammates.
Q: What will you say about the accusations?
al-Saleh: If there was a single accusation based on evidence, I'd be able to answer and comment on the issue. There are multiple accusations against us. When you see someone working and can't find any sort of fault, you begin busy.
Some said that we were Turkish intelligence. Others claimed we were working for the intelligence agencies of Qatar or Saudi Arabia. It was said that we were U.S. intelligence. We were accused of being affiliated with British intelligence, Mossad, Daesh, al-Nusra. These conflicting accusations show that we’re doing credible work in Syria. With the aim of serving Syrian people, the motto of the work we’ve devoted ourselves to is, "And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely," which is verse 32 from the Al-Maidah surah of the Quran. So it’s clear what God almighty said. Saving an individual means saving all of humanity. I believe in the greatness of the work we’re doing, and it requires great sacrifices.
Q: Are you the Syrian wing of British intelligence, MI6? One of the accusations against you is that a former British security expert and intelligence officer established the White Helmets.
al-Saleh: To begin with, he’s not one of the founders of our group. We have never had a founder. This isn’t true. There isn't anyone you could call our founder. I believe you’re speaking of James Le Mesurier. He’s the founder of Mayday Rescue. Mayday Rescue is only an organization that supports the White Helmets.
The Civil Defense (White Helmets) was founded in 2013. Mayday Rescue, on the other hand, was founded in 2014, I guess. James runs one of the institutions that backs the White Helmets, which doesn't mean that he founded the White Helmets.
As I've just said, the White Helmets was founded by Syrian youth. What’s more, those who aren’t Syrians can't work with the White Helmets.
Q: What kind of relationships do you have with the countries or organizations that finance your work?
al-Saleh: Our relationships with the friends and partners that support us are based on mutual respect. Within this framework, no one can impose conditions on us.
Our work with organizations is based on the principle of transparency. And we operate in accordance with justice and accountability.
We question anyone involved in corruption. There are legal checks within the organization. Also, there are procedures for foreign aid.
We convene with our finance providers periodically, then draw up the budget and where it would be used. Our work falls in line with openness and transparency. While doing the annual budget, we convene with the finance providers. We determine what we need. Then, they provide suitable financial support. Also, this is how we start our annual work.
Q: Whenever we talk about the White Helmets, we see young people. Are there any women on your teams?
al-Saleh: Yes, of course there are. By the end of 2017, we had 450 women volunteers. Unfortunately, we lost most of them. Some had to leave due to living conditions. At present, there are some 240 women volunteers in our crews.
Q: Were any team members martyred as a result of bombing during search and rescue operations?
al-Saleh: Since the first days of our efforts, we’ve saved more than 115,000 people, while 255 of our team members have been martyred.
Q: Is the total number of your search and rescue operations clear?
al-Saleh: Well, the number of operations we’ve carried out is just too many. It’s impossible to know the exact figure. We carry out 4,000-5,000 rescue operations a month. So it’s impossible to count our operations in Syria.
Q: Which of your tasks is the most challenging?
al-Saleh: Without a doubt, chemical weapon attacks are the ones that civil defense units have the most difficulty in dealing with. That's because we don't have the sufficient equipment to deal with such attacks. This [lack of equipment] prevents us from doing things properly.
– Russian and regime attacks
Q: You’ve been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times. On the other hand, the Assad regime and Russia accuse you of being a terrorist group. What do you say?
al-Saleh: Russia and the Assad regime throw baseless accusations against us. Of course, there are some reasons for that because we’re the first-hand witnesses to all the massacres and violations in Syria. Hence, Russia does its best to paint the Syrian regime as innocent. We saw that clearly last year. The UN issued a report on Oct. 28, 2017. The report pointed out that on April 4, 2017, the regime carried out a chemical weapon attack in Khan Shaykhun. Later on, Russia used its right of veto seven times to stop efforts to probe the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. Russia basically worked to prevent a probe into the chemical attacks in Syria. That was a significant blow to the credibility of Russia that protected those who carried out chemical attacks and violations.
So they’ve been smearing us since that time. That's because we were the first ones to witness all the massacres and violations in Syria. We witnessed the airstrikes by the regime and Russia.
For instance, the market massacre in Etarib (Aleppo), the massacre that targeted a Red Crescent team in Orum El-Kubra (Aleppo), the strike on the hospital of Doctors Without Borders in Marattunuman (Idlib)… We witnessed all of them and these are all war crimes. They have to be tried for these crimes.
Q: Do regime forces directly target you?
al-Saleh: Yes, our center in Khan Shaykhun was directly targeted seven times. Seven people were martyred in these attacks. Six people who were injured still aren’t able to work. Last year, following the chemical weapon attack in Khan Shaykhun, our center in Kafr Zita was targeted in an airstrike. Eight of our workers were martyred. In addition, our friends in Eastern Ghouta were attacked while performing their duties. A large number of images were published proving the attacks on our teams. Also, the Russian airstrikes targeted our center in Etarib. There we had four martyrs. So both Russian aircraft and regime planes have targeted us many times.
Q: I'd like to ask about videos. The Assad regime claims that you doctored some videos and there wasn't actually a chemical attack. Are these videos fake?
al-Saleh: No. While shooting images of the massacres, we don't share any details because these images are important evidence of the massacres. We post only some portion of the images. We share photos and quite short videos. We send the detailed images to the related international expert commissions as evidence of crime. That's because the expert commissions can’t rely on videos on social media as evidence.
Q: Do you prepare reports on the crimes committed by the Assad regime?
al-Saleh: Frankly, we don't prepare legal reports. However, we publicize these crimes. Then international probe commissions launch legal investigations. We convey the testimony of our volunteer friends who witness these crimes.
Q: Russia has accused you of having relations with the terror groups Daesh or al-Nusra. How do you evaluate this?
al-Saleh: I believe that the Turkish organizations are the best ones to assess that. We’re in a number of places in the field and operate with them. For example, in the field, we carry out joint operations with AFAD [the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Agency] and Turkish Red Crescent. As I said before, Russia is trying to put an end to the White Helmets.
So Russia wants to refute and discredit all the evidence and testimony we’ve presented to the international investigation committees on the massacres and violations.
Q: There are claims that you’ll carry out a chlorine gas chemical weapon attack in Jisr al-Shughur and put the blame on the regime.
al-Saleh: They say that we got barrels of chlorine gas from Turkey and will use them in Jisr al-Shughur. We aren’t capable of carrying out a chemical weapons or chlorine gas attack. It’s clear who uses the chemical weapon and chlorine gas in Syria. There are clear reports related to this. Who has the chlorine barrels? The regime does. Regime forces use barrel bombs in the country. The Syrian regime is the only one with Sarin gas. The regime forces are the only ones able to carry and use it.
But the White Helmets, Turkey, and sometimes Britain are accused of using chemical weapons. Sometimes they claim that extremist groups carry out chemical attacks. These accusations are all baseless. Who carries out the chemical attacks is obvious. Frankly, these sorts of allegations make us take the highest level of precautions. Because these accusations might refer to the time before the Assad regime used chemical weapons. And they use this and say that they "previously warned" us. The U.S. announced that it had documents suggesting a chemical attack by the regime in Syria. During this period, we paid some visits to the Turkish observation points in Idlib. We told them to focus on this. God forbid, if there is a chemical weapons attack, we should see who carries it out, and the people in the region should be protected from these attacks.
Q: After the last two chemical weapon attacks, the U.S. and Western countries struck the Barzah scientific research center in Damascus on April 15. The question is, if it was a facility producing chemical weapons and gas, why didn't the chemical gas spread around the surrounding settlements? Is there an explanation for that?
al-Saleh: I don't have enough technical knowledge and experience to comment on this, but who benefits the most from these attacks? According to the Syrians, these attacks have been in favor of the regime. These attacks led to a course of legitimacy as if the regime was fighting Western countries and imperialism, even though it has killed more than 700,000 people in Syria.
‘We won’t accept support from Israel’
Q: Does Israel finance you? Some of the White Helmets went to Europe through Israel. How did this happen?
We will never accept financial support from Israel. We see it as an occupying state. The evacuation of our volunteers wasn't through Israel. The volunteers went to the occupied [Syrian] Golan Heights before moving to Jordan. From there, they will go to other countries.
Q: Did you share your office in Idlib with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham?
al-Saleh: Absolutely not. This has never happened. Numerous news agencies from Turkey and Europe, the international press, and Turkish media visited most of our centers in the region. We have centers that are independent and isolated from other groups. We have equipment and machines and we need an independent center for that.
We’re an organization similar to AFAD in Turkey. We do similar things. In order to do our job, we need to own independent centers.
Q: Some say that some of your employees are on the side of terrorists. For instance, there is a person here in this picture. He is from the White Helmets. In this picture, the same person is allegedly seen among terrorists. Is he really from your teams?
al-Saleh: No, these are different people. They look like each another, but they’re different people. The one with White Helmet is from us but the other is someone else.
Q: What about the person carrying a group banner in this picture?
al-Saleh: Yes, this person was from the Civil Defense, but he was expelled right after the picture. He didn't follow the discipline and instruction of the Civil Defense. We questioned him and cut ties as he violated the disciplinary rules due to this behavior.
Q: What sort of disciplinary rules do you have?
al-Saleh: We have rules of participation and behavior. For participation, the candidate has to be age 18-30. He/she has to have a good character and be viewed as a good person. He/she can't be a member of any military or political group. Also, he/she has to be a citizen of Syria, or own a similar citizen document equal to it. We have Palestinian brothers. They, too, have a document in Syria. With this document, they’re able to work on our crews.
Q: Do you break off from those not following the disciplinary rules?
al-Saleh: Absolutely. Those who don't follow these rules are immediately let go. Our organization requires that our members follow the principles of the Civil Defense and provide services in a neutral and transparent manner. They’re required to bring service to all of Syria, regardless of political, ethnic, or religious affiliations.
Within our establishment, we have an office monitoring the volunteer employees. This office follows their behavior and social media accounts. We hold those who don't follow our rules accountable. So these sort of mistakes are personal and don't interest the organization.
Q: How do you use funds, what do you spend them on?
al-Saleh: We do a study every year. We have a budget to cover working costs. This budget includes expenses like search and rescue, firefighting, first aid, and repair. Also, it covers the expenses to ensure the life of the families of our volunteers and their spending for operating with us. In the budget, we have a plan to buy ambulances and firefighting gear. We gradually buy vehicles to fill the equipment gap.
Also, we buy search and rescue and firefighting equipment. With these funds, we’ve launched some workshops in Syria. Some of them make special clothes for the Civil Defense. We buy medical and technical equipment.
We also spend on technical equipment like computers. We spend on communications tools like satellite Internet. We spend on radios to connect teams to each other.
Q: You’re loved by the Syrian people. Could you summarize the services you offer? Could you tell us about your restarted work in Afrin?
al-Saleh: We carry out programs that inform about search and rescue operations, firefighting, first aid, social awareness, and what to do during attacks.
Here, we tell them what to do before, during, and after attacks. I raise awareness among schoolchildren about how to interact with unknown materials. We teach them who to report to. We’re working to ensure that the life in operation zones goes back to normal. We eliminate troubles with the water and electricity network. We also have road work.
Following [Turkey’s] Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, people began to go back to their homes. We saw the need for Civil Defense there. We sent four emergency intervention units to the region. We had coordination with AFAD and Turkish Red Crescent units there. We also served those in the camps. We provided water and food aid.
Also, together with [Turkey’s] Hatay Governorship, we launched a campaign to normalize life in Afrin. Under the campaign, we worked to clear the roads and rubble in the district. We strive to ensure stability in the region and enable those forced to leave to return.
– Looking to the future
Q: What are your plans for the future of Syria?
al-Saleh: We always have plans. We constantly update these plans. Three years ago, our goal was to be a national group serving throughout Syria. This is still our main goal.
However, we see that the political situation in Syria has changed. Honestly, it is difficult to predict where Syria is going. Our main goal is to establish a Syrian civil defense institution that is able to serve Syrians.
Because we had a small similar organization before 2011. This organization was affiliated with the Defense Ministry. I mean, the organization was affiliated with the army. It was known as an establishment that didn't serve Syrian civilians. Now, our plan is to support efforts aiming for stability in Idlib and northern Syria.
Thus, despite everything that happened, we want to show the world that there’s a society there which has the potential to raise the region, govern itself, and be an alternative to the murderer Assad regime in Damascus.
-‘Turkey must play a greater role’
Q: As a human rights advocate and the head of the White Helmets that care about civilian lives, what are your views on the [Sept. 17] agreement on Idlib?
al-Saleh: In my eyes, the agreement between Turkey and Russia is a great victory for Turkish diplomacy. In that, with its serious efforts, Turkey managed to protect civilian lives in Idlib. That's a real achievement. It is literally a success.
Saving millions of people from relocation, attacks, and being killed is a great success. We expect Turkey to play a bigger role. We believe that by pressuring Russia, Turkey will play a huge role in saving Syrians all over the country, not just northern Syria.
I came to Turkey in 2011. Everything I saw in Turkey was respect, love, and tolerance. I saw that we were the children of brotherly nations.
To be fair, there used to be a mistaken perception of Turkey. Turkey had been perceived as the "gallows of the Ottoman Empire." But when I came here, the situation was completely different. After coming to Turkey, I read a lot about Turkish history. I learned that hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Turks sacrificed their lives to defend Canakkale [1915-1916 battle] or in different battles.
Back to Turkey's role in Syria, Turkey has to play a greater role to protect the Syrian people. That's because we were on the verge of a humanitarian crisis in Idlib. We got past it. Now, we have to think about those who were forced to leave their villages. We need to protect those coming from Homs and Ghouta.
We believe and trust in Turkey that it will protect the Syrians in Turkey or Syria. In addition to the Syrians on its soil, Turkey protects 4 million others in northern Syria.
Q: As a civilian organization, were you prepared for the attacks the Assad regime and Iranian-backed foreign terror groups would carry out in Idlib?
al-Saleh: As the Civil Defense, we’re a structure founded amid a wartime environment. So we’re prepared for attacks anytime. However, the service we provide during the attacks is all about reducing the damage. We can’t prevent the attacks.
So while you’re planning to reduce the damage and work for that, someone else prevents the emergence of such damage, bringing happiness to you. Nobody will die due to the attacks. Houses won’t collapse. The schools won’t collapse and so on. In our eyes, this is a great stance. Therefore, we would like to thank Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for their efforts to protect civilians in Idlib.
-Hope for the people
Q: How do the people of Syria see you?
al-Saleh: The Civil Defense teams created a ray of hope for the Syrian people. In 2015 we did a poll, and asked: "Who would help you if you needed help?" 80 percent of the people said friends or neighbors. In 2017, we asked the same question to another group of people. This time, 85 percent of the people said "Civil Defense."
For us, this is a great achievement. I said this elsewhere before: Our greatest success is not that we saved 115,000 civilian lives but the fact that we planted seeds of hope into the heart and brains of a nation that was about to lose its hope.
Q: Can you provide service to minorities in Idlib?
al-Saleh: As the Civil Defense, we provide everyone in Syria with services. We provide services regardless of people’s ethnicities or political or religious affiliations. No member of the Civil Defense will ask a person under the rubble if they’re a Muslim or Christian. This isn’t possible. It’s also irrational.
For example, we’re doing restoration and repair work in all regions. About a month and a half ago, we restored a church in rural Jisr al-Shugur, we cleaned it and brought it back to life. The Christians in the region have begun to practice their religion freely.
Q: Some of the opposition groups in Syria accept non-Syrian foreign fighters. Why don't you accept foreign civil defense volunteers into the White Helmets?
al-Saleh: We don't know how military groups accept foreigners. As for us, we accept financial support from foreigners, but can't accept them coming to Syria and working here. Also, this is against the international civil defense law.
I mean, for instance, it wouldn't be a problem for an international group to help and train us with international permission. But coming to Syria as individuals and joining the Civil Defense in Syria violates both international civil defense law and our internal rules.
Q: What’s your final message?
al-Saleh: In conclusion, I'd like to send a message to our people in Syria and Turkey. There are many Syrian citizens in Turkey. Besides, there are many Turkish brothers serving in Syria. I want my Syrian brothers living in Turkey to follow the rules and traditions of Turkey. We need to show the brightest side of Syria there.
As for our Turkish brothers, I'd like them to ignore the hatred campaigns on social media which aim to plant the seeds of hate among us, we would like them to be sensitive to this. We will get through these days if we move with reason instead of emotions. We’re all brothers and a family. Let’s not forget that 150 years ago we were in the same country.
*Ali Murat Alhas contributed to this story from Ankara