US president Donald Trump has authorized $4.5 million in aid to the so-called Syrian Civil Defense (SCD), aka “White Helmets,” calling their work “important and highly valued.” The group’s critics point to its terrorist ties.
“Over the course of the 8-year conflict in Syria, the SCD has rescued more than 115,000 people, including many ethnic and religious minorities,” the White House said, announcing the aid on Tuesday.
However, the source of this figure is the group itself, and it has not been independently verified. Likewise, the organization has only been around since 2013.
Washington pledged $5 million in aid to the group at a conference back in March. Last May, the Trump administration had announced it would stop funding the White Helmets, only to backtrack a month later and send the group $6.8 million.
The group’s name is highly misleading, as the White Helmets have operated solely in areas controlled by anti-government militants, such as the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, now called HTS. The actual Syrian civil defense is part of the government, and has been subjected to US sanctions as such.
Currently the White Helmets operate solely in the parts of Idlib province controlled by the militants. Photographs of armed militants with “White Helmets” insignia, participating in the Turkish-backed ‘Operation Peace Spring’ against the Kurds in northern Syria, have appeared on social networks over the past two weeks.
Still, the US continues to encourage “allies and partners” to join in its support of the White Helmets, and “efforts to protect civilians, religious and ethnic minorities, and other innocent victims of the Syrian conflict,” according to the White House.
In December 2018, the Russia-based Foundation for the Study of Democracy presented evidence of their investigations in Syria, showing the group to be engaged in staging false chemical and other attacks, harvesting organs of the people they pretended to rescue, and looting the bodies of the fallen, among other things.