When the U.S. fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syria airfield last month in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack, it drew praise from across the Middle East from those frustrated by America’s perceived lack of strategy toward the region’s bloodiest conflict.
Among those cheering the loudest was Raed Salah, one of Syria’s leading humanitarian voices.
“People felt some relief and satisfaction,” Mr. Salah said in an interview. “But people want further steps to stop all the different kinds of weapons that are targeting civilians — indiscriminate weapons, particularly the barrel bombs.”
Few men in the world know the damage inflicted by indiscriminate bombardment like Mr. Salah. Since 2013, the 34-year-old former electronics salesman has expanded Syria’s Civil Defense — more famously the White Helmets — into a band of 3,300 volunteers, including 200 women. In a country where public services no longer exist, these unarmed first responders do the saving by frantically digging through bombed buildings to save fellow Syrians regardless of politics or religion.
They do their work in the face of a brutal civil war, now entering its seventh year, between the regime of President Bashar Assad and a motley collection of rebel groups and jihadi forces.
“Some think of us as heroes and what we do as heroism,” he said through an interpreter at a modest hotel behind the U.S. Capitol. Mr. Salah then rubbed his unshaven face. The loneliness in his eyes flickered. “But to us, it’s tragedy.”
The White Helmets are credited with saving the lives of more than 90,000 Syrians. “But we’ve lost so many more,” he said. “So many schools and hospitals. So many children.”
Attention good and bad
Mr. Salah and the White Helmets’ efforts have drawn international attention, and controversy.
This year’s Academy Award for best documentary short went to a 40-minute film about three White Helmets who trained in Turkey then ventured back to hell on earth — the besieged city of Aleppo. Once Syria’s most important commercial hub, Aleppo is now a bombed-out shell. There, the White Helmets provide emergency medical assistance to civilians.
At the Oscars ceremony in Hollywood, the White Helmets received a standing ovation, but several members scheduled to attend were missing. Visa problems often prevent their overseas travel, Mr. Salah said.
More good will came when a collection of humanitarian organizations advocating for the protection of Syrian civilians nominated the White Helmets for the Nobel Peace Prize. “Their efforts to save lives in the most dangerous place on earth are awe-inspiring and merit the deepest respect,” Wendy Chamberlin, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said in a nomination speech last year.
But the recognition has also meant deaths threats, which Mr. Salah didn’t want to discuss. He did explain the more broad dangers that White Helmets regularly face.
Russian and Syrian military jets target them. The regime and its key military ally will bomb a city block, he said, then wait for the White Helmets to rush into collapsed buildings and start digging people out. The jets then return and bomb the same block again.
Mr. Assad has said the White Helmets’ international reputation is a sham. The group has taken sides in the civil war, he said, and even works as an ally of al Qaeda inside Syria.
“White Helmets are al Qaeda members, and that’s proven on the net,” Mr. Assad said. “The same members are killing or executing or celebrating over dead bodies. At the same time, they are humanitarian heroes, and now they have an Oscar.”
As of this month, 141 White Helmets have died on duty.
“But worst of all are the barrel bombs,” Mr. Salah said.
Some Syrian neighborhoods receive more than 50 bombs and mortars a day, according to humanitarian estimates. The barrel bombs stand out for the psychological terror they inflict.
Jet fighter airstrikes are fast, but barrel bombs tumble from Syrian air force helicopters and circle overhead in what almost looks like slow motion. When the bombs finally drop, entire blocks scream out in anger, fear and disbelief that they are watching an old oil drum packed with explosives, nails and sometimes chlorine falling to earth to kill.
Mr. Salah fell silent and rubbed his face again. The loneliness in his eyes appeared to deepen to a memory he decided not to discuss.
Last year, Mr. Salah testified before Congress on how Syria’s war morphed from a peaceful uprising against Mr. Assad in 2011 into the 21st century’s bloodiest conflict. More than 465,000 people have been killed, more than 1 million injured and more than 12 million displaced from their homes — about half the country’s prewar population.
It is the world’s nastiest proxy war in decades and has drawn in troops from Iran, Russia, Turkey, the United States, Hezbollah, the Islamic State and countless other splinter jihadi groups.
Mr. Salah was in Washington to brief humanitarian organizations and leading think tanks on the conflict’s political landscape. He was critical of Moscow’s role in providing crucial military backing to Mr. Assad when his grasp on power appeared to be slipping.
“Russia attached itself to Iran, Hezbollah and to Iraqi militias rather than acting as a superpower and attaching itself to human rights, international principals and legitimacy,” he said. “It acts like one of those militias.”
Russian propaganda also has targeted the White Helmets, who receive support from the U.S., the United Kingdom and dozens of other governments, nongovernmental organizations and thousands of private donors around the world. The funds help pay the modest monthly stipend members receive.
Russians, he said, use “industrial-strength propaganda” to discredit the White Helmets by portraying them at times as extremists and associates of the Islamic State, at other times as puppets of the West. “The Russian accusations contradict each other,” Mr. Salah said.
“I believe the Russians have put themselves in a very embarrassing situation by supporting a brutal dictator who is committing so many obvious atrocities: killing civilians, targeting hospitals and torturing political prisoners,” Mr. Salah said. “They should stand with the people for once rather than supporting another dictator.”
Trump and Syria
International observers viewed the Obama administration’s Syria policy as weak and inconsistent. Mr. Salah sees hope in the Trump administration but notes significant contradictions.
Before the missile strikes last month, Mr. Trump opposed U.S. intervention, citing the confusing alliances in the war and the difficulty in determining the U.S. national interest. Video of the chemical attacks on Idlib a month ago appeared to change his policy, and Mr. Trump declared that the U.S. retaliatory strike was to protect a “vital national security interest.”
There is also the matter of refugees. Ever since his campaign, Mr. Trump has been hostile to accepting more Syrian refugees to the U.S. Ironically, Mr. Salah was denied entry into the U.S. last year at Washington Dulles International Airport and deported. He traveled to the U.S. to accept a humanitarian award.
For his latest trip, the White Helmets received four visas without any issues. “U.S. officials have been very welcoming, and it’s been easy to have meetings,” he said.
Mr. Salah sees a direct link between the refugee issue and the White House’s evolving policy toward Syria. “If President Trump does not want more Syrian refugees in the U.S., he needs to solve the refugees’ problems in Syria,” he said. “We encourage this. We don’t want more Syrians to become refugees. We want to solve the problem at the source.”
When asked what he would like to see from the White House, Mr. Salah offered three points:
• Stop the bombing and shelling of Syrian civilians.
• Apply pressure for a credible and serious political process.
• Start bringing to justice those who have committed atrocities and violations of civil rights in Syria.
At the end of the interview, Mr. Salah’s phone buzzed with news from home, and the loneliness left his eyes.
“We get strength from people all over the world supporting us,” he said. “And people all over Syria are waiting for us to help them.”