Through a series of personal interviews and war footage that captures the response of selfless volunteers to rescue victims of daily bombings and attacks in Syria, The White Helmets (2016) inspires hope for humanity and aims to expose the dire need for humanitarian intervention. This 40-minute Netflix Original documentary, directed and produced by Orlando von Einsiedel, tells a positive story about war-torn Syria that shines brightly amongst the negative news perpetually broadcasted by the media. It is one side of a controversial, complicated narrative.
Who are the White Helmets, as shown in the documentary and Western media as a whole? The White Helmets—also known as the Syrian Civil Defence—is a group of nearly 3,000 unarmed civilians working to provide disaster and war response in Syria. Distinguishable by their white helmets that are worn on search and rescue operations, volunteers are the first to respond to bombings incidents. The mission of the organization is to save the maximum number of lives in the shortest possible time while minimizing further injury to victims and damage to property. Above all, the vision of the White Helmets is the cessation of fighting and for peace and stability in Syria’s future.
One member featured in the documentary is a former armed fighter who chose to lay down his weapons in order to save lives rather than destroy them. In the words of Mohammed Farah, a former tailor and opposition fighter turned White Helmets volunteer, “It is better to rescue a soul than to take one.” Over 400,000 Syrians have been killed in the conflict, including approximately 150 White Helmets. According to Time, White Helmets deaths are largely a result of double-tap airstrikes conducted by the Bashar al-Assad’s government regime and Russians—a tactic that targets rescue workers responding to previous airstrikes.
But there are two sides to every story. Accusations of the group undermining United Nations aid work in Syria and propagating a Western political agenda have circulated the web and cast doubt on the White Helmets’ image as impartial humanitarian workers.
A two-part exposé by Max Blumenthal published on Alternet sparked much of the controversy. Blumenthal argues that the White Helmets are a publicity tool branded by a New York-based marketing company called The Syria Campaign, which itself was spun out of a politically-driven public relations firm known as Purpose. The Syria Campaign has undoubtedly been instrumental in promoting the White Helmets while concurrently endorsing regime change in Syria. Their efforts to support a regime change have included criticizing the United Nations coordination of aid deliveries with the Syrian government and politically polarizing the humanitarian community. These accusations have dangerous consequences for humanitarian workers and civilians alike because warring parties may treat them as an extension of one party in the conflict.
Acceptance of $23 million from a US federal agency, USAID, has also been a point of controversy for the White Helmets. In the past, grants authorized by USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives (OTI) have promoted regime change and advancement of democracy around the world. While the White Helmets acknowledge the sources of their funding and maintain that the support is necessary to buy equipment to perform their humanitarian work, previous OTI efforts in countries like Cuba and Venezuela suggest that the US’ financial backing is not apolitical but actually a political subversion tactic.
Despite serious questions evoked by these claims, the White Helmets remain highly acclaimed by publics in the West, where continued calls for world powers to intervene in the Syrian crisis have seemingly gone unanswered. Some UN member states have stepped back on their commitment to uphold Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Formulated in 2005, the concept states that the international community needs to step in to save civilians from genocide when local governments are unable or are carrying out the atrocities.
The Obama administration, in particular, has been criticized for its absence in the Syrian conflict. This reluctance to get directly involved is likely a result of lessons learned from the disastrous US-led intervention in Libya in 2011. Western intervention by NATO, which was originally invoked on humanitarian grounds, evolved into a military intervention that ultimately extended the duration of the war by six-fold and its death toll by 7 to 27. Post-intervention, Libya has experienced a renewal of armed conflict and human rights conditions are worse than in the decade preceding the war. Overall, US involvement in Libya and the surrounding region had a negative net humanitarian impact that the Obama administration does not wish to repeat by employing R2P in Syria. Even though the US has yet to overtly step in by invoking R2P, the extent of the country’s involvement is muddied by dollars earmarked for the White Helmets.
One important lesson from Libya is to be cautious of misinformation—due to inaccurate information or reporting bias—and disinformation from partisan propaganda campaigns. Western media coverage portrayed Libya’s uprisings as peaceful and democratic and reported that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi responded to demonstrations by indiscriminately slaughtering nonviolent protestors and civilians. This depiction is not supported by statistics, testimony, and documentary evidence. In reality, the initial uprising was violent and driven by religious extremism and Gaddafi’s intent was to target rebels and violent protestors and limit harm to non-combatants. Spurred by misperception, NATO’s intervention backfired by escalating and prolonging rebellion in Libya and elsewhere, thereby further endangering civilians. Protection of civilians transformed into the goal of regime change as a way to justify the use of Western force.
The misperceptions that instigated a failed humanitarian intervention in Libya beg the question: how much of the media’s coverage of Syria can we believe? Collectively, the good intentions of individuals based on the information readily available to us can morph into a detrimental undertaking with inadvertent consequences. This is not to say that humanitarian workers like the White Helmets are not doing everything in their power to save Syrians in this grave time of need, only that we have a responsibility to question the news and media we consume. Undoubtedly, crimes against humanity have been and continue to be committed in Syria. And while there may be two sides to every story, there cannot be two truths. The truth, as they say, usually lies somewhere in the middle.