Syria Civil Defense also known as the White Helmets, is a grassroots, volunteer civil defense organization that operates throughout opposition-controlled Syria. It emerged in early 2013, primarily as a response to indiscriminate bombardment of civilian communities in rebel-held areas by the Syrian Arab Air Force. Since then, it has grown to a national organization of over 2850 volunteers operating from 114 local civil defense centers across 8 provincial directorates (Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Hama, Homs, Damascus, Damascus Countryside, and Daraa). SCD is credited with having rescued over 41,000 people from the rubble of destroyed buildings in the aftermath of airstrikes, artillery shelling, missile attacks and other forms of bombardment.
SCD’s mission is “to save the greatest number of lives in the shortest possible time and to minimize further injury to people and damage to property.” Their work covers the 15 civil defense tasks as laid out in International Humanitarian Law (IHL); the bulk of their activity in Syria consists of urban search and rescue in response to bombing, firefighting, medical evacuation, evacuation of civilians from danger areas, and essential service delivery. Until October 2015, the most prominent role of SCD was rescuing civilians from strikes with barrel bombs, improvised explosive devices dropped from Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters by the SAAF.
Following the intervention of Russia in Syria on September 30, 2015, much of the work of SCD has been responding to attacks by Russian Air Force attack aircraft, including cluster munitions, which are regularly deployed in urban settings. Sometimes described as the most dangerous job in the world, SCD operations involve risk from a wide variety of war-zone threats, most notably “double-tap” strikes in which Russian or Syrian aircraft return to the site of a previous strike for a second strike. Approximately 100 White Helmets have been killed in the line of duty since the organization’s inception.
Media and Advocacy
SCD is widely cited, quoted, or depicted in regional and international media coverage of the conflict in Syria. As first responders, White Helmets are often able to provide media sources with more up-to-date information on attacks on civilian targets than are other sources. SCD has been the focus of several pieces by outlets such as Medium, Men’s Journal, CNN, the Guardian, and others. Raed Saleh, the Director of SCD, has been an outspoken advocate against bombardment of civilians, addressing the United Nations Security Council and other international bodies on a number of occasions.
Political Affiliation and External Support
SCD claims to be a neutral and impartial humanitarian NGO, with no official affiliation to any political or military actor and a commitment to render services to any in need regardless of sect or political affiliation. Like all NGOs operating in opposition-controlled areas, SCD negotiates humanitarian access with organizations such as local councils, provincial councils, and armed groups, with relationships varying widely from governorate to governorate. However, SCD is supported by the aid agencies of a number of external donor governments, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Kingdom Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF), and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.