In July, 422 rescue workers from Syrian Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets, were evacuated to Jordan ahead of advancing pro-Assad forces. The workers and their family members received support from the United Nations agency for refugees (UNHCR) and are seeking asylum in several countries. The main reason for the evacuation is that the rescuers fear reprisals at the hands of the government, which has labeled them “terrorist collaborators.”
Throughout the Syrian Civil War, the White Helmets not only rescued civilians injured in pro-regime air strikes and artillery attacks, but also documented such attacks as well as the use of chemical weapons on several occasions. They are seen as witnesses to potential war crimes, and therefore regarded as targets of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
On Wednesday August 15, Sputnik, a Russian state-owned news agency, ran an article whose headline said the United Nations was guilty of spreading disinformation about the White Helmets.
The story quotes Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who criticized the UNHCR for assisting in the evacuation of the White Helmets and repeated the claim that they collaborate with terrorist groups. The article also repeats the Russian and Syrian government claim that the group “staged” a chemical weapons attack in the town Douma earlier this year.
Polygraph.info has tackled the terrorist accusations against the White Helmets in the past. In December 2017, The Guardian featured a contextual story about White Helmets conspiracy theories, noting that the theories often originated largely in Russian state media and are spread via Western “alternative news” sites, social media accounts often by bots and trolls. Detractors of the organization have taken a handful of isolated incidents, some of which they either deliberately or unwittingly misinterpreted, and woven them together to inventfalse narratives about the organization as a whole. For example, when some members of the group took part in the so-called “Mannequin Challenge” in order to garner global attention for their cause, conspiracy theorists on the internet used this as “proof” that they stage massacres using actors. The organization later apologized for the video, recognizing that it was a poor decision.
To date, detractors of the White Helmets have failed to provide any concrete evidence that the organization staged any of the chemical attacks that it investigated. Those claims have also been thoroughly debunked.