Canada to accept up to 250 Syrian White Helmet volunteers, family after dramatic escape

Canada is among three Western nations that will take in nearly a hundred volunteer emergency workers and their families that Israeli forces plucked from Syria under the cover of darkness in a dramatic international rescue, CBC News has learned.

Rescue operation came about after requests from leaders including Trudeau, Israeli PM says

A member of the White Helmets carries a child after airstrikes hit a school in Syria's Daraa province, in an image made from video on June 14, 2017. Hundreds of people, volunteers belonging to the rescue organization and their families, were extracted late Saturday from the southwestern part of the country. (Syria Civil Defence via Associated Press)

Canada is among three Western nations that will take in nearly a hundred volunteer emergency workers and their families that Israeli forces plucked from Syria under the cover of darkness in a dramatic international rescue, CBC News has learned.

Several hundred people — volunteers and their families — belonging to the rescue organization known as the White Helmets were extracted late Saturday from the southwestern portion of the war-torn country that's being overrun by forces loyal to leader Bashar al-Assad.

The Israeli military said Sunday it was responsible for rescuing members of the Syrian volunteer organization from the volatile frontier area and evacuated them to a third country — the first such Israeli intervention in Syria's lengthy civil war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement on Sunday saying the rescue came about as a result of recent requests by U.S. President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau "and others."

"These are people who have saved lives and whose lives were in danger," Netanyahu said of the White Helmets. "Therefore, I approved their passage through Israel to additional countries as an important humanitarian gesture."

The notion the White Helmets would be targeted for retribution has long been a fear of the human rights community. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

James Le Mesurier, who is considered the group's founder, said Sunday that 422 people were rescued, including 98 White Helmets.

However, as many as 800 others have been unable to leave Syria, according to Canadian government sources. Three groups were supposed to be lifted out of the country but only one made it out successfully. 

The White Helmets and their families have been trapped in what had been — until recently — rebel-held territory. The area has for more than a week been the focus of a furious assault by Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

The volunteers were spirited out of Syria in a highly secret international operation that involved the U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, multiple sources told CBC News.

Canada was not involved militarily in the evacuation, ​but ​helped lead the effort to bring them out of Syria and ​into Jordan.

'Impassioned plea'

Canadian officials are expected​ to​ immediately begin working with United Nations​ ​officials to help process families that will make their way to Canada in the coming weeks, possibly months.

The Liberal government has agreed to accept up to 50 of the White Helmet volunteers and their families, which could mean up to 250 people, according to senior officials who could not speak on​ ​the ​record because of the sensitive nature of the operation.

The number, officials said, could change.

The plight of the White Helmets, who claim to have nearly 3,000 volunteers in total, was the subject of intense debate among foreign ministers at the recent NATO conference, the sources said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made 'an impassioned plea' to her NATO colleagues, according to several sources. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made "an impassioned plea" to her colleagues, according to several sources.

The families would follow in the footsteps of thousands of other Syrian refugees who were resettled early in the Liberal government's mandate.

Britain and Germany have also stepped forward, but the sources said other countries are expected to join the effort and offers to resettle them are expected to exceed the number of evacuees by a large margin.

The German government said in a statement Sunday it will take in eight White Helmets rescue workers.

The White Helmets are known for rescuing people from war-torn Aleppo. (Sultan Kitaz/Reuters)

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was quoted as saying that "the efforts of the White Helmets deserve admiration and respect." Maas noted that the group has saved more than 100,000 lives since the start of the Syrian conflict.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said giving the rescue workers shelter "is a humanitarian obligation. Germany has provided the group with 12 million euros ($18.5 million Cdn) in funding since 2016.

At the moment, there are no plans for the United States to take any of the White Helmets, whose rescue efforts and documentation of civilian atrocities date back to 2013. Those volunteer efforts have drawn international praise as well as  condemnation.

At one point, they were thought to be favoured for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Russia, Syria pose threats

Russia and the Syrian regime, however, have labelled the organization, officially known as the Syria Civil Defence group, as terrorists and purveyors of fake news.

Ibrahim Olabi, executive director of the Syrian Legal Development Program, said those two governments have been trying to erode the group's credibility "because the White Helmets have done an incredible job documenting the crimes particularly of the Syrian regime and of Russia."

An extraordinary rescue team of Syrian civilians called The White Helmets run toward the scene of an attack to try to save lives. The team has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for saving tens of thousands of lives during Syria's civil war. 15:05

There are fears that the volunteers will be killed once forces loyal to Assad retake southwest Syria.

"Sensitive" international negotiations to arrange their extraction have been underway since the NATO leaders summit in Brussels.

Both Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at length with their alliance counterparts to galvanize support. Negotiations between the international community and the White Helmets have been more delicate, an official close to the discussions told CBC News.

Syria Civil Defence group, better known as the White Helmets, risk their lives scouring through rubble in Syria after bombings to find survivors. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

An important part of those talks has involved how many of the volunteers' family members can be brought with them and the fear anyone left behind might be killed, said the sources.  

The Russians have made it clear they want to "interrogate" the White Helmets on the way out of Syria, said a senior diplomatic official.

Borders shut

The U.S. has taken a hands-off approach to the unfolding drama in southwest Syria.

The territory under assault had been designated as a U.S.-protected safe zone, but the Trump administration has not made a move to enforce that as government forces tighten their grip on the region.

An evacuation of rebel-held territory has been underway since last weekend, but neighbouring countries have shut their borders to refugees.

A tweet by the White Helmets on Tuesday showed video of them helping people flee the city of Daraa, located about 13 kilometres from the border with Jordan.

The region is known as the cradle of the rebellion against the Assad regime, the place where some of the first Arab Spring protests originated.

The notion the White Helmets would be targeted for retribution has long been a fear of the human rights community. The group's website says it has nearly 3,000 volunteers in total.

Watch: White Helmets in action

Syria Civil Defence group, better known as the White Helmets, scour through rubble after bombings to find survivors 0:44

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

With files from The Associated Press