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.
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.
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.