(CNSNews.com) – Israel won praise from the United States, the European Union and Britain for evacuating more than 400 Syrian civil defense volunteers and their families from the country’s southwest ahead of the advancing forces of the Assad regime which portrays them as terrorists.
The unprecedented operation saw Israeli soldiers escort the Syrians through Israeli territory and then to Jordan, whose government confirmed it will accommodate them temporarily, pending their resettlement with the help of the U.N. refugee agency in Canada, Britain and Germany.
The Israeli Defense Forces spokesman’s office said the Syrians, members of the group known as the White Helmets, “faced an immediate threat to their lives in Syria. We rescued hundreds of them and their families. They passed through Israel and are now out of harm’s way.”
Footage showed men, women and children being escorted onto buses. The State Department said more than half of the evacuees were children.
The IDF quoted the commander overseeing “Operation Good Neighbor” as saying, “When they reached the border with Israel, their eyes were filled with tears of happiness, knowing that they had gotten their lives back.”
(Operation Good Neighbor has seen Israel treat thousands of Syrians, many of them children, in field hospitals and public hospitals in northern Israel over the past five years. Syria has been a sworn enemy since Israel’s establishment, and the two fought wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973.)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a statement President Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others had contacted him in recent days, asking for Israel’s help to evacuate “people who have saved lives and whose lives were in danger.”
Israel did so “as an important humanitarian gesture,” he said.
The Assad regime reviles the White Helmets, formally known as Syrian Civil Defense, accusing it at the least of collaborating with, and at worst of being, terrorists belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.
Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies accused the group of having staged a chemical weapons attack near Damascus last April that prompted a U.S., British and French missile strike on regime chemical weapons-linked installations.
The narrative promoted by Assad and his allies includes accusations that Israel and the United States have been covertly supporting al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in Syria, for their own ends.
In its report about the rescue operation carried out by “the Israeli entity,” the Assad regime’s SANA news agency said the group was established in 2013 with “British-U.S.-Western funding.”
“The organization has raised many questions about its alleged humanitarian action, particularly as the group’s work has been confined to places where terrorist organizations are positioned, with its members frequently appearing in videos carrying machineguns and fighting alongside terrorist organizations.”
Running ‘towards danger’
Supporters in the West credit the White Helmets with having saved tens of thousands of civilians’ lives during Syria’s drawn-out civil war.
“We are glad that these brave volunteers, who have saved thousands of lives, are now out of harm's way,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement after the evacuation.
“We deeply appreciate Israel's role in facilitating the transit of the White Helmets and their family members,” she said, adding the administration commendation for Jordan’s generosity.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the E.U. “recognizes the essential efforts of Israel and Jordan, and of all others – including several E.U. member states – who contributed to bringing the White Helmets and their families to safety.”
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt thanked Israel and Jordan “for acting so quickly on our request” to help secure the rescue workers and their families.
A British statement praised the volunteers for their efforts on behalf of “Syrians on all sides of the conflict,” putting the number of those saved at more than 115,000.
Many of the volunteers, they said, “have also been killed while doing their work – trying to rescue civilians trapped in bombarded buildings or providing first aid to injured civilians.”
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland also praised the group.
“When children, women, and men in Syria flee for their lives, the White Helmets run towards danger, towards the rubble, to save the innocent and the wounded,” she said.
By contrast, Russia’s Sputnik news agency accused the White Helmets of “aiding jihadists.”
“The White Helmets claim to report chemical attacks allegedly conducted by the Syrian Army, despite the country's weapons stockpiles having been destroyed long ago under the supervision of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” it said in a report repeating a series of accusations Russia has leveled at the organization.
Under a deal brokered by Russia – in a successful bid to prevent punitive airstrikes by the Obama administration following a deadly 2013 chemical attack – the regime agreed to surrender its “declared” chemical weapons stockpile in an operation overseen by the OPCW.
Since then, Assad and his allies maintain that any use of chemical weapons in Syria cannot be the work of the regime since it possesses none.
Despite those denials, a joint U.N.- OPCW taskforce accused the regime of using sarin gas in an attack in Khan Sheikhun in April 2017, and of having used chlorine gas as a weapon on at least three occasions in 2014 and 2015.
Russia late last year used its U.N. Security Council veto to shut the taskforce down.