It is rare for a short Netflix documentary to garner as much publicity or acclaim as The White Helmets has Promoted as “the story of real-life heroes and impossible hope,” the film is named for the civil defense organization whose members have gained international acclaim for saving lives in rebel-held territory in the hellish war zones of eastern Aleppo and Idlib. The film’s tagline, “To save one life is to save all of humanity,” that is remarkably similar to that of Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic, Schindler’s List: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
The Netflix feature comes on the heels of a Nobel Peace Prize nomination for the White Helmets, an “alternative Nobel” award known as the Right Livelihood Award and endorsements from an assortment of celebrities. “The move [by the celebrities] draws attention to both the horror of the conflict and the growing willingness of well-known Americans to adopt it as a cause célèbre,” wrote Liam Stack of the New York Times.
Footage of the White Helmets saving civilians trapped in the rubble of buildings bombed by the Syrian government and its Russian ally has become ubiquitous in coverage of the crisis. An international symbol of courage under fire, the group has become a leading resource for journalists and human rights groups seeking information inside the war theater, from casualty figures to details on the kind of bombs that are falling.
The bravado displayed by the White Helmets under Syrian government and Russian bombardment has captivated some of the most influential observers of the Syrian conflict. Among the group’s biggest boosters is Sophie McNeill, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation correspondent who was among the first reporters to publish the now-famous photo of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh being extracted from the rubble of an Eastern Aleppo apartment building.
On her Twitter account, McNeill urged readers to donate money to the White Helmets and expressed her hope that the group wins the Nobel Prize. (McNeill did not respond to questions sent to her publicly listed email.) Laura Rosenberger, a foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, also took to Twitter to promote the group, posting a Wall Street Journal article hailing the civil defense group as “white knights for desperate Syrians.” Hillary Clinton quickly retweeted Rosenberger, registering her own tacit endorsement of the White Helmets. On September 22, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that he was “honored to meet [the White Helmets] leader and Aleppo activists,” hailing the organization as “brave 1st responders on the scene.”
The White Helmets are touted for saving tens of thousands of lives, though estimates on exactly how many varies dramatically depending on the source. The recently released White Helmets’ Netflix documentary claims they’ve saved “over 55,000” people, while Georgetown Security Studies Review had the number at 15,500 in May 2015. The State Department claimed this April that 40,000 had been rescued by White Helmets, but AJ+, a subsidiary of Al Jazeera, asserted around the same time that “more than 24,000” have been saved.” In a separate report published four months later, AJ+ quoted the figure at 60,000—which is the figure the White Helmets themselves claim. Whatever the number, there is little dispute that the White Helmets’ rank-and-file are saving lives in what seems to be an increasingly desperate situation in eastern Aleppo.
Yet the group is anything but impartial. The White Helmets’ leadership is driven by a pro-interventionist agenda conceived by the Western governments and public relations groups that back them. Anyone who visits the group’s website—which is operated by an opposition-funded PR company known as the Syria Campaign—will be immediately directed to a request to sign a petition for a no-fly zone to “stop the bombs” in Syria. These sorts of communiques highlight the dual role the White Helmets play as a civil defense organization saving lives while lobbying for a U.S. military campaign that will almost inevitably result in the collapse of Syria’s government.
According to a 2012 Pentagon estimate, a no-fly zone would require at least “70,000 American servicemen” to enforce, along with the widespread destruction of Syrian government infrastructure and military installations. Also sometimes called “safe zones” or “buffer zones,” from Yugoslavia to Iraq to Libya, no-fly zones have served almost without exception as the preamble to regime change. With no clear plan in place for the day after the government falls, or any conclusive evidence that its ouster is what most Syrians want, the Western governments, professional activists and public relations specialists who created the White Helmets are intensifying their push for regime change.
The White Helmets were founded in collaboration with USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives—the wing that has promoted regime change around the world—and have been provided with $23 million in funding from the department. USAID supplies the White Helmets through Chemonics, a for-profit contractor based in Washington DC that has become notorious for wasteful aid imbroglios from Haiti to Afghanistan. While members of the White Helmets have been implicated in atrocities carried out by jihadist rebel groups, the names of many of the firms that supposedly monitor and evaluate their work have been kept secret by USAID on unspecified security grounds.
Away from the battlefield, the White Helmets have proven one of the most effective tools in the Syria Campaign’s public relations arsenal. Apart from the group’s own calls for a no-fly zone, the White Helmets have been at the center of the Syria Campaign’s ongoing attack on the United Nations, which it accuses of illicit collusion with Assad. This month, the White Helmets joined 74 other groups operating in rebel-held territory announced their refusal this month to cooperate with the U.N. as long as it recognizes the Syrian government. In a separate move, the Syria Campaign launched a petition to demand that the United States National Security Council share confidential radar information with White Helmets teams operating on the ground, apparently including in areas controlled by extremist rebel factions.
In May 2015, White Helmets spokesperson Raed Saleh met privately with U.N. and EU officials to push for a no-fly zone. A month later, Saleh’s colleague Farouq Habib testified before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs in support of a no-fly zone, claiming to possess first-hand knowledge of chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government. With the Obama administration having drawn its “red line” at the deployment of chemical weapons, allegations like these are potential trigger points for full-scale U.S. military intervention.
The White Helmets’ Netflix documentary studiously avoids any discussion of the group’s interventionist, hyper-partisan agenda and omits any mention of its actual origins among Western governments, leaving the impression that the White Helmets are an organically developed band of politically impartial volunteers reflecting the Syrian consensus.
Critical questions about the White Helmets’ role in an interventionist public relations apparatus have been raised by only a few marginal websites that generally support the Syrian government — and those who raise them have been subjected to scorn and castigation. Thus the issue has been kept off the table, along with the public debate over the consequences of a regime change policy that the Obama administration still supports.