Canada is prepared to take up to 50 Syrian White Helmets as well as members of their families, which would amount to up to 250 people, following a dramatic rescue over the weekend facilitated by the Israeli military, according to Canadian officials.
The Trudeau government has been working with Britain and Germany, as well as Israel, to extract hundreds of the civil defence volunteers trapped by the Syrian government offensive in the south-west of the country, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said over the weekend.
The rescue operation saw the Israeli military slip hundreds of people from Syria to Jordan, though the exact numbers were still being determined; Jordanian officials initially said 800 Syrians were rescued, though that number was later revised to around 422.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he authorized the action after receiving requests for assistance from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump.
“These are people who have saved lives and whose lives were in danger,” Netanyahu said. “Therefore, I approved their passage through Israel to additional countries, as an important humanitarian gesture.”
Leveraging ‘special relation’ with Israel
Trudeau and Netanyahu also spoke on the phone on Sunday, according to a readout of the conversation provided by the Prime Minister’s Office.
“They discussed the regional security situation and the evacuation of White Helmets from Syria,” the readout said.
“Prime Minister Trudeau and Prime Minister Netanyahu reinforced the benefits of the close cooperation between Canada and Israel.”
Named for their trademark safety helmets, the White Helmets have been lauded and supported by Canada and other Western nations for their role as first responders and humanitarian workers who have saved hundreds of lives during Syria’s brutal civil war.
However, both Syria and Russia have accused the group of ties with extremist forces and of falsifying reports of casualties to justify Western intervention on behalf of the armed opposition.
A Syrian Foreign Ministry official described the evacuation as a “criminal operation carried out by Israel and its tools in the region,” according to Syria’s official SANA news agency.
“The smuggling of hundreds of the ‘White Helmets’ terrorist group … in cooperation with the governments of the United States, Britain, Jordan, Germany and Canada reveals the support given by these countries to these terror groups in their aggression against the Syrians,” the unnamed official was quoted by the news agency.
Target of Syrian and Russian propaganda efforts
The all-volunteer group denies the charges, saying it is neutral and its aims are humanitarian.
The White Helmets have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
“Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that the murderous Assad regime is desperately seeking to discredit the brave White Helmets, who have consistently risked and given their lives to save the very civilians that the Assad regime continues to target,” said Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Brittany Fletcher.
Canada and partner nations have written jointly to the UN Secretary General António Guterres regarding “the cowardly attempts to discredit the White Helmets,” a Canadian official speaking on background said.
Canada has been among several countries that have provided moral and financial support to the White Helmets, which are officially known as Syria Civil Defence, including $7.5 million for two projects to help recruit and train women rescuers over the past two years.
‘‘The White Helmets are courageous volunteers and first responders who risk their lives to help their fellow Syrians who have been targeted by senseless violence,” Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement on Saturday.
“We feel a deep moral responsibility towards these brave and selfless people.”
Exactly when the White Helmets will arrive is unclear; the rescued Syrians are expected to remain in a UN refugee camp in Jordan for at least three months to allow for processing.
With files from The Canadian Press