Helmet Heroism: How the White Helmets’ heroism can’t escape politics

In 2016, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his efforts in negotiating a peace deal that would have ended his country’s longstanding civil war. Santos received this honor over other contenders who worked for change in a number of important fields, including the European migrant crisis, cybersecurity, and sexual violence. In the lead-up to the ceremony, however, it seemed as though one nominee for the prestigious award was able to capture the public’s imagination more fervently and forcefully than any other humanitarian nominee: the White Helmets.

Numbering approximately 3,000 members, the White Helmets, who are identifiable by their eponymous headgear, are a volunteer force of Syrians whose actions are estimated to have saved 40,000 to 60,000 lives since their inception.

Formally known as the Syria Civil Defense, the White Helmets were founded in 2013 as part of an effort to provide search-and-rescue services to rebel-controlled communities in Syria, where indiscriminate bombing is an all-too-common occurrence. Numbering approximately 3,000 members, the White Helmets, who are identifiable by their eponymous headgear, are a volunteer force of Syrians whose actions are estimated to have saved 40,000 to 60,000 lives since their inception.

Upon reaching Western media, stories of the White Helmets’ operations received an enormous outpouring of support across various platforms, with their work lauded in pieces by CNN, the New York Times, and the Guardian. They have been described as a “glimmer of hope” against a starkly war-torn backdrop, as men who drop what they’re doing to “dash for the door” at the sound of military aircraft, and as heroes who “run towards bombs” in order to save others at significant risk to their health and wellbeing.

Videos of the White Helmets in action – including one in which a White Helmet volunteer wept after rescuing a baby from the rubble of a destroyed building – have also gone viral on social media. Celebrities such as George Clooney and Justin Timberlake have vocalized their endorsement of the organization’s work by signing a popular petition for the White Helmets to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Netflix released a popular documentary, which interviewed and detailed the daily field activities of individual White Helmets, describing their job as “the most dangerous…in the world.” Donations totaling about $1.4 million from the general public flooded into a “hero fund” to aid their efforts. The group was even formally recognized with the Right Livelihood Award, colloquially known as the “alternative Nobel Peace Prize.” And although the actual Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Santos, the public called for the White Helmets to be considered again for next year’s award – no easy feat, as contenders for the Prize vary substantially from year to year.

Yet despite this widespread support, the White Helmets have not escaped their share of controversy. Like many other humanitarian aid organizations, the White Helmets claim complete political impartiality and neutrality, a stance grounded in the conviction that political affiliation neither should nor will affect their rescue activity. However, some claims have emerged asserting that the White Helmets are not entirely unbiased, but rather possess their own political agenda.

the group has been politicized and propagandized, drawn into a greater symbolic conflict between the Assad regime, Russia, the United States, and many other involved groups. However, considering the White Helmets’ life-saving work and impartial provision of emergency services, the source of the funding should be rendered inconsequential

These assertions are based primarily on the nature of the White Helmets’ funding. Namely, the White Helmets’ annual budget of $30 million, which is mostly spent on equipment to remove rubble, comes largely from the West. USAID, the humanitarian wing of the US State Department, has been a substantial donor, with other Western governments and private organizations rounding out the bulk of their funding. As a result, the group has been politicized and propagandized, drawn into a greater symbolic conflict between the Assad regime, Russia, the United States, and many other involved groups. However, considering the White Helmets’ life-saving work and impartial provision of emergency services, the source of the funding should be rendered inconsequential.

But beyond funding, the White Helmets are frequently depicted through favorably linear narrative structures in Western media. One New York Times article gives readers the opportunity to follow the White Helmets as they search for survivors in the aftermath of a bombing through a series of brief videos. Such widely-circulated stories create emotional connections to the White Helmets that can feel more like the construction of a story arc than a piece of unbiased journalism. In these Western portrayals, the group is seen as unquestionably good – an invincible example of popular solidarity, with Syrians helping Syrians against a landscape riddled by violence. There tends to be little background or context about the organizational structure of the White Helmets, since the focus is almost always on their heroism.

On the other hand, non-Western media, particularly RT, the Russian government English-language news service, sees and depicts the White Helmets in an entirely different light. Russian media outlets accuse the West of censoring critical information about the group to promote a certain view of the Syrian conflict. It is true that in popular Western media, it is generally more difficult to find articles about the potentially problematic aspects of the White Helmets’ budget, operations, and relationships with foreign actors. Both of these portrayals are often skewed, and the result is that the White Helmets are effectively caught up in a propaganda war, detracting from both their mission and a larger understanding of the Syrian conflict.

The controversy surrounding the White Helmets is far from unfamiliar in the larger conversation of politics, humanitarianism, and aid. Even if most major NGOs and aid organizations claim political neutrality, it is naive to think that any individual can remain forever unaffected by greater political, ideological, and historical contexts, especially in a war zone. The White Helmets are human beings whose lives have all been affected in some way by the war in Syria. The fundamental issue is whether their actions remain neutral in spite of these private views and personal experiences and whether the organization’s neutrality is concretely affected by the sources of their funding.

If support for humanitarian organizations comes from parties representing certain sides of a conflict, that organization must be impacted in some way and may no longer be apolitical.

With the White Helmets, as with any other humanitarian organization, there is an implicit fear that those who wield the funds will attempt to exert a degree of influence over the group’s activities. The underlying ideological debate at the core of this controversy seems to create a dichotomy that is both moral and practical: If support for humanitarian organizations comes from parties representing certain sides of a conflict, that organization must be impacted in some way and may no longer be apolitical.

For the White Helmets, there is no evidence that the group altered its selection of whom to save during aerial bombardments based on positive coverage or funding sources. Indeed, it is unlikely that the White Helmets have the time or ability to pause and inquire of the political affiliations of the survivors that they encounter during search-and-rescue operations. Further, the White Helmets have not made any effort whatsoever to conceal the sources of their funding, which is allocated by leadership in the organization through a policy of complete transparency.

Functional emergency and rescue services for civilians are desperately needed in rebel-held sections of Syria consistently bombarded by the Assad regime and Russian forces – the White Helmets are not allowed to operate in regime-controlled territories. Few alternatives to the White Helmets exist, as not many international aid groups operate in these areas due to the dangers of such work. To date, over 140 members of the White Helmets have died in the field, and many suspect that the White Helmets are being directly and strategically targeted by the Assad regime’s forces. This is all besides the fact that their work is also highly complex and exhausting, taking a constant emotional, mental, and physical toll on those who perform it.

The true nature of the White Helmets falls somewhere in between their heroic persona in Western media and their more mixed perception in Russian news sources. The symbolic resonance of the group should not be taken separately from the imminent realities on the ground. The group continues to help people regardless of background or politics. So if the work of the White Helmets can save the lives of civilians who would otherwise be collateral victims of overarching violence, then perhaps the best route forward is to acknowledge that the role of the White Helmets is not apolitical but essential for the safety and security of Syrian civilians.