- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2018

The U.S. State Department announced Thursday it will release $6.6 million in financial aid to the Syrian Civil Defense, commonly referred to as the White Helmets, a group which has gained international attention for working to save civilians trapped in the aftermath of air strikes and bombings carried out by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its Russian allies.

“The United States Government strongly supports the White Helmets who have saved more than 100,000 lives since the conflict began, including victims of Assad’s chemical weapons attacks,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.

“These heroic first responders have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and continue to be deliberately targeted by the Syrian regime and Russian airstrikes.‎ Since 2013, more than 230 of these brave volunteers have been killed while working to save innocent Syrian civilians.”

The Assad regime has accused the White Helmets of collaboration with rebel groups, which they label as terrorists and consider a legitimate target.

While the U.S. has carried out retaliatory strikes on Syrian military assets after alleged chemical attacks by the regime, the stated purpose of American forces in Syria is to aid, train and support groups, specifically Kurdish forces, fighting Islamic State members still controlling territory in the country.

Some of the U.S. funds will also be directed to the United Nation’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM). Established in 2016 by a UN mandate, the organization’s duties are to investigate and prosecute people responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity that have occurred in Syria’s seven-year civil war.

It’s unclear how much money will go to the White Helmets and how much to the IIIM, which has received pledges from 39 countries for up to for $14.5 million for 2018.

“The IIIM’s work is vital to assisting the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria since March 2011,” Ms. Nauert said. “Their mandate, collecting and analyzing evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses‎ will help ensure those responsible for these crimes are ultimately held accountable.”

An estimated 400,000 people have been killed since the start of the civil war in 2011 and over 11 million displaced both within and outside the country, according to a report by Amnesty International. Accusations of atrocities are leveled at the Syrian government and its allied forces including Russia, Iran and proxy groups like Hezbollah.

They are accused of indiscriminate and direct attacks on civilians using heavy and aerial bombardments and chemical weapons; maintaining lengthy sieges on densely populated areas, restricting humanitarian and medical aid to thousands, Amnesty wrote in its report.

Rebel groups are also not spared responsibility, accused of indiscriminate shelling of predominantly civilian areas and making it difficult for humanitarian groups to access people in need.

Amnesty also accuses the U.S.-led coalition in the fight against ISIS as violating international humanitarian law with attacks that killed or injured civilians.

In a separate report, Amnesty accused Turkey and to “a lesser extent Kurdish forces” for putting civilian lives at risk during a two-month offensive by Turkish forces on the Syrian-Kurdish city of Afrin in the north-west of the country.

The Kurdish Red Crescent said Turkish military attacks killed 93 civilians, wounded 313 more including 51 children. Kurdish forces were accused of not allowing civilians to leave and shelling that killed four people including a young girl.

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