The day after “The White Helmets,” a 40-minute film on the work of Syria Civil Defense volunteers, popularly known as the White Helmets because of their protective headgear, won an Academy Award for best documentary short on February 27, the Russian embassy in London responded by tweeting:
“Russia welcomes #Oscars award for “White Helmets” film. Indeed, they are actors serving an agenda, not rescuers. #OscarMistake”
The White Helmets have been the subject of several spurious claims over the last few years, all eagerly endorsed by Russian and Syrian state media, keen to cast aspersions on a group whose efforts to help those affected by both parties’ indiscriminate bombing campaigns has drawn international attention.
Prior accusations have included claims that Syrian Civil Defense volunteers collaborated with Al-Qaeda, most prominently when White Helmet workers were filmed removing the body of a man who had been executed on the orders of a clerical court in rebel-held Hreitan, north of Aleppo, in May, 2015. The court in Dar al-Qadaa, a religious judiciary backed by the group then formally affiliated with Al-Qaeda and known as Jabhat al-Nusra, had sentenced the man to death after convicting him of murder. Syrian Civil Defense issued a statement several days later saying that they had been informed by the court in Dar al-Qadaa that there was a corpse to collect in the street, but had arrived to find the execution was still in progress. The organization noted that their charter requires them to provide emergency burial of the dead, a service that was not provided by any other body in Hreitan at the time.
Another claim, more pertinent to the Russian embassy’s tweet, came in December 2016, when Eva Bartlett, a Canadian blogger for Russia’s state-owned RT media outlet, claimed, during a press conference organized by the Syrian mission to the United Nations, that the White Helmets were using actors in videos of rescues released by the organization.
The UK’s Channel 4 News has published a thorough debunking of these claims, using photographs and videos presented by Bartlett as supposed evidence.
Key to dismissing claims that the White Helmets stage all of their rescue videos, is the fact, as mentioned in the Channel 4 News article, that Syria Civil Defense and its regional branches have released hours upon hours of footage of their rescuers responding to air strikes and hauling bodies and survivors from wreckage. The scale of such an operation with the exclusive use of actors would be absurdly large. Furthermore, many of the videos include footage of the air strikes themselves, proving that the White Helmet volunteers are indeed working on real emergencies, rather than posing in rubble left from previous attacks.
Syrian or Russian Air Force jets have regularly conducted follow-up strikes as rescue workers head to the scene, often killing or wounding White Helmet workers. According to Syria Civil Defense, 141 of their volunteers had been killed and more than 400 wounded by September, 2016.
Journalists working for foreign news outlets in rebel-held areas of Syria have also reported on the White Helmets’ activities as genuine. This includes reporters and photographers working for Agence France-Presse, Reuters, and CNN, amongst others.
It is therefore false to claim that Syria Civil Defense volunteers are acting rather than conducting rescue operations.