When “The White Helmets,” a documentary short about volunteer rescue workers in Syria, took home an Oscar on Sunday night, the group's press officer was elated. He tweeted: “The world stands with the white helmets. Standing ovation at the Oscars. We have won.”
The film follows three volunteers from Syria Civil Defense, more commonly known as the White Helmets, as they do the heartbreaking work of rescuing civilians from the rubble. (At one point, they pull a 1-month-old “miracle baby,” unharmed, from a collapsed building. He'd been trapped for half a day.) The group was founded by locals along with a former British army officer and United Arab Emirates-based consulting firm called Analysis Research and Knowledge. Its membership is overwhelmingly Syrian, though it has received training from ARK and a Turkish NGO. The White Helmets receive funding from U.S. and European governments, operating on a budget of about $26 million.
The organization says it has saved about 60,000 lives. More than 140 of its volunteers have been killed. For these efforts, the White Helmets have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The documentary has garnered good press and glowing reviews. But not everyone reacted so positively to the win. The Twitter account run by the Russian Embassy in Britain attacked the film Tuesday morning, calling the documentary a fiction populated by actors.
— Russian Embassy, UK (@RussianEmbassy) February 28, 2017
That message is part of a prolonged effort by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Kremlin to delegitimize the group. As Scott Lucas, a professor of international politics at Britain's University of Birmingham, explained: “The volunteers are a threat to the Assad regime. Damascus’s strategy — now shared by Russia — is not just to fight rebels on the battlefield, but also to destroy any semblance of organized services and infrastructure in opposition-controlled areas. If water, electricity, schools and markets can be blown up and cut off, then civilians can be forced to surrender, or at least reduced to powerless, besieged bystanders.”
The organization has not been afraid to attack Russia and Assad. In December, the group released a letter to the United Nations accusing the Russians of killing some 1,200 civilians, including 380 children, with airstrikes between July and December. “Evidence clearly indicates that Russia has committed or been complicit in war crimes in Syria,” the letter said.
Enemies of the White Helmets have launched a media attack against them. In several articles, government-funded Russia Today suggested that the group has “ties with terrorist organizations.” They quoted a “geopolitical analyst” who explained that all of the footage had been provided to directors by the White Helmets. “What this film is essentially a PR cushion for a $100-$150 million covert op, which is basically an NGO front funded by USAID, the British Foreign Office, various EU member states, Qatar, and other various and sundry nations, and members of the public, who quite frankly in my opinion and many others, have been duped into donating their money for this rescue group, that is anything but,” the analyst told RT. “It essentially functions as a support group alongside Al-Nusra and al-Din al-Zenki and other known terrorist groups operating in Syria.”
Assad and his supporters have attacked the group's ties to Western governments, suggesting that the White Helmets are really terrorists in disguise. In an interview with the Associated Press, Assad was asked whether he'd support the group for a Nobel Peace Prize. His response: “What did they achieve in Syria?” White Helmet centers have been targeted in bombing campaigns, according to Time magazine and others. One string of bombings left five volunteers dead and three of the group's four bases damaged. The regime has taken to “two tap” strikes aimed at wounding first responders.
The White Helmets and the director of “The White Helmets” film vociferously deny those charges. “When the Russians talk about the White Helmets,” founder Raed al-Saleh told the Daily Beast, “they try to undermine our efforts and throw fake accusations against us. Like we are not neutral or we are affiliated to radical armed groups or we are armed or have fighters. Actually, we don’t deny that our doors are open to fighters if they want to lay down their arms and join us, if their pledge to respect our charter of principles, which is in compliance with international humanitarian law, and if they want to join our rescue team which saves lives instead of takes lives.”
“We went through dozens and dozens of hours of footage,” director Orlando von Einsiedel told the Daily Beast. “I don’t think anyone with any serious background thinks they’re collaborating with extremists.”