Israel Evacuates Syria's 'White Helmets' to Jordan

U.S. officials had said they were finalising plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defence workers and their families from south-west Syria as Russian-backed government forces closed in on the Quneitra province.

It said they were transferred to a neighbouring country, which it did not identify.

Huge plumes of smoke could be seen from the occupied Golan Heights just across the fence in Syrian territory as government and Russian forces launched air strikes and tanks shelled the area.

The White Helmets have enjoyed backing and received finances and training from the United States and other Western nations for years.

"The Russians are speaking about [the 100km buffer zone] and are committed to it, but we said there are also long-range weapons beyond this zone, and all those forces must leave Syria", the official said.

On Saturday, Canada said it was working with the United Kingdom and Germany to "ensure the safety of the White Helmets and their families".

The Syrian government and its ally Russian Federation stepped up their offensive to defeat the last rebels holding territory in southwestern Syria.

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) have continued to advance and take control of the Quneitra district, leading to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights border, raising concern for Israel, on Sunday. A Syrian offensive that began last month has battered the few remaining rebel holdouts, and Assad continues to solidify gains and his power.

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The latest deal for Quneitra was reached on Thursday.

In the southwestern campaign, however, the White Helmets said the deals agreed "did not include any guarantees of safe passage for displaced humanitarian workers to other areas of Syria", making the worldwide evacuation necessary.

"The White Helmets" organization was founded in Turkey in 2013 by former British MI5 officer James Le Mesurier.

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a statement: "The White Helmets have saved over 115,000 lives during the Syrian conflict, at great risk to their own".

The statement, however, did not mention the group by name at the time, but German tabloid Bild said some 800 members of the "White Helmets" were expected to be brought to Jordan through Israel to be reportedly resettled later in the UK, Canada, and Germany. When Israeli sensors realised they would land on the Syrian side, David's Sling was given an abort order for the interceptors to self-destruct in mid-air.

A number of those evacuated were from the White Helmets volunteer rescue group, known as the Syrian Civil Defense.

Numbering about 3,000 volunteers, they also carry out essential fix works. Some 200 members have been killed.

Netanyahu planned to meet Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and its armed forces chief, General Valery Gerasimov, later in the day, a visit the Israeli leader said was arranged last week at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since its establishment, the group has received at least $55 million from the British Foreign Office, $23 million or more from the US Office of Transition Initiatives and untold millions from Qatar.

  • Sonia Alvarado