Chrystia Freeland says plight of stranded White Helmets keeps her 'awake at night'

The international community has not given up hope of rescuing more White Helmet volunteers and their families who want to leave Syria, Canada's foreign affairs minister said Tuesday.

'We continue to feel a strong moral responsibility to the White Helmets who are still in Syria'

Canada is one of three Western nations that will take in up to 250 White Helmets volunteers and their families after they were rescued from Syria by Israeli forces under the cover of darkness last weekend. (Sultan Kitaz/Reuters)

The international community has not given up hope of rescuing more White Helmet volunteers and their families who want to leave Syria, Canada's foreign affairs minister said Tuesday.

Last weekend's international rescue operation, instigated by Canada, Britain and Germany — and shepherded by Israel — was "very tricky" and likely can't be repeated, Chrystia Freeland told CBC News in an interview.

Several hundred people — volunteers and their families — belonging to the first responders organization 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.

Some White Helmets still on the ground have taken to social media and others have given interviews describing how the exodus of hundreds of their companions on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights has sharpened the desire of Assad's troops to kill them.

"It is keeping me awake at night. It's dreadful," Freeland said, prior to departing Toronto for an official visit to Mexico. "I don't want to give false hope to anyone, but I do want to assure people that we continue to feel a strong moral responsibility to the White Helmets who are still in Syria. We are in close communication with the White Helmets themselves."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland talks about the moral responsibility she feels towards the White Helmets. 0:26

The group has been saving the lives of civilians and documenting the atrocities committed against them since 2013. Their efforts have earned international praise, but Russia and the Syrian regime have labelled the White Helmets, officially known as the Syria Civil Defence group, as terrorists and purveyors of fake news.

Freeland said Canada and its allies had been prepared for up to 1,200 people to cross over and make their way to Jordan. The Jordanian government initially reported late Saturday that up to 800 had made it.

In fact, the final tally on Sunday was far short, at 422 first responders and family members.

Getting to the departure points was, according to published reports in the region, a nightmare of dark roads and hostile checkpoints, some organized by ISIS extremists who refused the first responders passage.

Canada plans to accept up to 250 of the displaced Syrians, who will be subject to the same kind of security screening as the 40,000 others who were resettled here early in the Liberal government's mandate.

"Security will be rigorous, as rigorous as any other resettled refugees," Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said.

The fate of the White Helmets left behind, who are thought to be moving within Syria amid the chaos of an outgoing offensive by Russian-backed Syrian government forces, was the subject of discussion Monday between Freeland and Raed Al Saleh, leader of the White Helmets.

Freeland has also spoken with German Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas and Britain's newly minted foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

"It is a very, very difficult situation," she said. "We absolutely haven't given up hope."

What happened last weekend was an extraordinary set of circumstances — geographic, political and diplomatic — that allowed the operation to proceed, Freeland said.

The participation of the Israelis and the fact Syrian government forces had not sealed off the Golan Heights were essential.

Canada's foreign affairs minister discusses balancing Jordan's concerns with rescuing the White Helmets 0:24

How to extract others, should they still want to leave, is a puzzle.

"We continue to be looking at the situation; to be talking with the White Helmets and to be talking with our allies about what we might be able to do," Freeland said.

She was effusive in her praise of Israel and thankful to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who also played a key role.

Britain's Hunt and Germany's Maas met on Tuesday and expressed relief the international community accomplished what it had under such precarious circumstances.

"The close work we did together to ensure the evacuation of the White Helmets is one of many many examples of the wonderful co-operation between our two countries," Hunt said during a news conference with Maas in Berlin, "but I do want to join you, Heiko, in celebrating the fantastic news that we've been able to get these brave people and their families out of Syria after the extraordinary work they've done saving lives."

In Jordan, the United Nations acknowledged it had taken supervision of the volunteers and their families. A spokesman for the high commission for refugees underscored that their stay is intended to be short.

Canada played a role in the international effort to rescue White Helmet volunteers from Syria. CBC's Murray Brewster reports. 4:09

"While in Jordan, the UNHCR — the UN Refugee Agency, in close collaboration with the involved governments, is supporting their temporary stay in anticipation of their onward relocation to third countries," Francesco Bert said. "UNHCR highly appreciates the generosity of [the] Jordanian government and its people for temporarily hosting them."

The notion there could be renewed efforts to rescue White Helmets left supporters of the volunteers torn.

"Our goal is not to dislocate people — or to be like refugees in the country," said Muzna Dureid, who acts as a liaison for the group in Canada. "Our goal is to help people in Syria."

She said it's too soon to say whether another rescue attempt is possible.

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 Reuters


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