In recent days, there has been an upswing in news about Syria’s “White Helmets,” and for good reason.

Known for the color of its protective headgear, the group is dedicated to rescuing civilians from the devastating effects of Syria’s ongoing civil war. Muftah editor Riad Alarian has written about how White Helmets’ rescue workers are frequently the first (and last) line of emergency support for Syrians living outside of government controlled-areas. Another Muftah editor, Heather Hartlaub, pointed out this week that a Netflix documentary, premiering on September 16, takes a deep look at the organization’s work. The dedication, perseverance, and service of the White Helmets has even earned the group a nomination for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which will be announced on October 7.

But, not everyone supports the White Helmets’ work. The trailer for the upcoming documentary, for example, has a strange pattern of “dislikes” and hateful remarks in the comments section.

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Comments on the trailer for the upcoming Netflix documentary on the White Helmets

Which leads one to wonder: why is there such intense backlash against such a seemingly altruistic group?

A Campaign of Misinformation

One possible answer is that the Russian and Syrian governments are actively trying to undermine these brave first responders. Neither the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad benefits from a focused spotlight on the White Helmets. International recognition for the group is a great embarrassment for both governments, particularly since the group’s very existence is a result of Russian and Syrian bombardment campaigns against civilian infrastructure.

To try and mitigate this reality, pro-Syrian and Russian regime propagandists appear to be working behind the scenes to undermine the White Helmets’ reputation. The New York Times has noted Russia’s effectiveness in sowing criticism about the Syrian opposition among Westerners. Twitter accounts, along with fake news sites and bogus non-profits, are all part of a Russian strategy to prevent Western countries from taking action in Syria that would harm Russia’s interests.

This strategy now seems to include targeting the White Helmets for its work. One small example of this is an online petition by the so-called Syria Solidarity Movement on Change.org to block the White Helmets from receiving the Nobel Prize. Rife with misinformation, the petition states:

The White Helmets claim to be “unarmed and neutral” while embedded in areas occupied solely by Al Nusra [Al Qaeda] and ISIS. They are armed. They have been photographed and filmed supporting Al Nusra/Al Qaeda who are foreign mercenaries massacring the Syrian people.  

Groups like the former al-Nusra front and ISIS are documented enemies, making it wholly ludicrous to believe the White Helmets could be working with both, in tandem.  

Unsourced, inaccurate, and unverified claims like these are misleading at best and wildly damaging to the Helmets’ reputation at worse. But, of course, those who make these slanderous claims have little concern for consistency or facts. Instead, their goal is to muddy discussion about the Syrian conflict and further the Syrian and Russian regimes’ military campaign. To achieve this, they often play on fears about terrorism, which are so common among both Western audiences and Syrians themselves. 

Putting aside these biased and destructive narratives, the truth about the White Helmets is plain. The group and its member are a shining example of humanity at its best: selfless individuals stepping up to help their communities, despite the many challenges and risks to their own lives.  

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  • Mustafa Kemal

    This kind of propaganda won’t help your cause. Everyone knows this is an American alliance proxy war and that the Syrian government called upon Russia to help it fight the terrorists sent in by that alliance.

  • Are you suggesting the White Helmets are neutral? They are obviously not! Always talking about the “regime bombs”. Did you track their fundings? US & UK! Their goal? A NFZ. That would mean another imperialistic invasion in the Middle East.

  • sai

    The criticism of the White Helmets is valid. They are a propaganda tool for regime change. It’s a fact that they are working with Al-Nusra, AND, that they only exist in terrorist held areas. They’ve even been caught assisting Al-Nusra executions. Numerous photos show members standing right next o them AND waving their flags. They claim to be unarmed. Video footage shows them armed. They claim to treat all with respect, yet they celebrate the deaths of Syrian soldiers, and throw their bodies “in the trash” (one of their members words). They claim in writing on their website to be independent – excepting no money from governments. Yet, they do – millions. Their leader was deported from the US because of connections to terrorists. Just a snap shot.

  • family_style

    Those of you critisizing the White Helmets for only working in rebel held areas: you realize the rebels don’t have barrel bombs and fighter jets right? You think maybe, just maybe that has something to do with it?! Also, they’d be hunted down and killed in regime held areas, regardless of whether they cooperate with rebels in rebel areas. Saving civilians targeted by Assads bombs is reason enough for SAA to want to kill them.

  • Sergey Bardashov

    May be if they would not support Nusra and other terrorist groups they will not be hunted like Red Cross for example. Dont u think so?