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Here's how 98 trapped White Helmets escaped Syria

The call came on Saturday night. In the raging war zone that is southwestern Syria, 98 White Helmets — members of a volunteer rescue organization also known as the Syrian Civil Defence — brought their spouses, children and a personal bag each.

Evacuation required unprecedented level of international co-ordination

Abir Moussa, a volunteer with the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the White Helmets, puts on a helmet as she prepares to go on a rescue mission in rebel-territory in southwestern Syria in October 2016. Late Saturday, nearly 100 White Helmets were evacuated from northern Syria. (Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images)

The call came on Saturday night. In the raging war zone that is southwestern Syria, 98 White Helmets — members of a volunteer rescue organization also known as the Syrian Civil Defence — brought their spouses, children and a personal bag each.

A total of 421 people massed at two collection points where they were to reach freedom in Jordan. But by the time they reached safety, they were 422. One woman went into labour on the journey. Her son, Nairouz, came into the world just short of the Syria-Israel border.

It was just one moment of drama in a complicated rescue operation to extract the Syrian volunteer rescuers, ferry them through their country's bitter enemy, Israel, and reach Jordan by bus.

Up until the last minute, those on the ground weren't certain whether the operation would succeed.

Another nearly 400 people were meant to be pulled out as well. Most didn't make it to the assembly points on time, unable to make it through roads blocked by advancing Syrian forces on one side and expanding Islamic State militants on the other.

In all, it took about six hours to execute the evacuation, which was conceived by Britain, Germany and Canada, and supported by Israel, Jordan, the United States and the UN. And it took an unprecedented level of agreement and co-ordination — something international players have rarely demonstrated during eight years of war in Syria.

The White Helmets is an organization of volunteers that since 2013 took on the task of rescuing the survivors and salvaging the dead from the war in opposition-held areas. It has had Western backing since its inception and its work brought it a Nobel Prize nomination. But it has drawn the ire of the Syrian government because its volunteers helped document atrocities by government forces and their allies — including chemical attacks.

In five years of operations, the White Helmets say their 3,000 volunteers have saved more than 115,000 lives. The cost for the group has been high, with one in four of its volunteers wounded or killed.

The White Helmets risk their lives scouring through rubble in Syria after bombings to find survivors. They have been in increasing danger in northern Syria over the past number of weeks. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

'Hail Mary' operation 

The evacuation was a "Hail Mary operation," said a person familiar with the plans, which were conceived in Europe and Canada about two weeks ago.

In early July, government forces began negotiating surrender deals with armed groups and civilians in villages and towns that were fast succumbing to the latest Syrian government offensive. The negotiations allowed those who refused to live under government control and to relocate to the north. 

But not the Syrian Civil Defence. Syrian government officials and Russian representatives said the White Helmets were "a red line" who needed to be "eradicated."

Discussions about the White Helmets' safety started between Britain, Germany and Canada before the NATO summit on July 9. Moving them through Jordan quickly became impossible, as government forces advanced, seizing a vital border crossing from the rebels and then deploying quickly along the border. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would let them cross through Israel, after an appeal from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The White Helmets are regularly called upon to inspect damaged buildings and search for bodies after airstrikes. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

Elaborate logistics

Locating the volunteers in the quickly shifting battlefield was a challenge. Conscious not to raise expectations, the planners only asked the volunteers whether they would accept an opportunity to evacuate through Israel. Some declined, the source said, fearing the serious dangers associated with the rescue.

There was an unexpected twist, too. As rebel forces retreated and surrendered in many villages between Daraa and Quneitra provinces, it was an ISIS affiliate — not government forces — that moved in. This changed the landscape again, blocking some escape routes to the evacuation points.

"In our minds, there were no guarantees this evacuation was going to happen," one civil defence volunteer said. The small window was quickly closing. On the night of July 21, the evacuees congregated at two points in the northern end of the frontier.

They crossed on foot and were received on the other side by Israeli soldiers, who verified their identities and took them in buses to one of the two crossings into Jordan.

Germany, Canada and Britain said they will resettle the White Helmets and their families within three months. The planners are still in touch with the volunteers who didn't make it out, advising them on what to do and where to be safe.

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

Reproducing the same operation and getting the remaining 100 volunteers in northern Syria won't be easy, however. International players appear unlikely to pull together that same will again.

"A great many factors and partners had to interact in the right way," German Foreign Ministry spokesman Chrisofer Burger said. But when pressed whether the action set a precedent for further world help in evacuations, he said: "The factors that made it possible in this case to help in this way people who faced an acute threat, a very specific group, cannot be reproduced at will."

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