The first ever Geneva Convention was an international agreement that began the legal process of defining the concept of a war crime.
On August 22 1864, 16 European nations recognized that opening fire on field medics or destroying field hospitals constituted a crime so morally and criminally repugnant that new international norms had to be created to end its practice.
This concept was understood 150 years ago. It has been codified by binding international conventions and international law. But in one state, by one leader, it has not only been serially and barbarically transgressed – but this crime has been flagged, in advance, in a public statement published by the media.
That state is Syria, and the leader in question: the Ba’athist dictator and president, Bashar Assad. His declaration - that he intended to murder Syrian civil defense volunteers - was delivered through Russian state media propaganda organs on July 26, 2018.
Referring to those civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, who provide medical services a first responders, as "terrorists," Assad boasted of his aim to commit a war crime, threatening them to "lay down their arms" (which they do not have) or "be killed."
States neighboring the war-torn southern Syrian border responded and 98 White Helmets volunteers and 324 members of their families were evacuated (or more appropriately, forcibly displaced).
But for some outside critics, that wasn’t the story, those weren’t the victims and that shouldn’t have been the ending. Because the volunteers were bussed by Israel from the Syrian border straight to Jordan, where they received shelter, a familiar club of conspiracists and pro-Assad shrills jumped into action, thousands of words, tweets, videos.
Did they denounce Damascus’ pronouncement of a death sentence on field medics? No. They denounced the White Helmets for choosing life.
Despite a deluge of disinformation, the facts remain very simple.
The White Helmets are a Syrian volunteer rescue organization part-funded by Western governments to provide civil defense services in opposition-held areas of Syria, from where the Assad regime’s own rescue services have been withdrawn or expelled during the course of the civil war. Without the organization, there would be no ambulances, no firefighters, no paramedics.
The Assad regime has repeated a clear and dismal modus operandi to force its opponents into submission. Withdraw services from opposition-held areas, then bomb, besiege and starve those areas until they submit.
Fortunately, various governments stepped in to fund a local organization tasked with alleviating the humanitarian situation deliberately created by the Assad regime.
White Helmets volunteers, along with their medical colleagues in NGOs like SAMS and MSF have lost more than most in the violence of Syria’s civil war. Their clinics, ambulances and depots are routinely targeted by both the regime and its key supporter, the Russian air force, often using double-tap strikes calculated to murder first responders.
It is no exaggeration to say they are victims of a systematic extermination campaign intended to punish Syria’s civilian population into submission, by taking out those delivering the most critical humanitarian assistance.
These men and women could have chosen another path. Many could have chosen to flee Syria anytime over the last seven years; many could have chosen to try their luck in pro-regime areas; many could have chosen to arm themselves to fight the regime that is trying to exterminate them.
But they did not do that. When bombs target civilians in Syria, the White Helmets are the people that run towards the carnage, putting their own lives at risk, to save the lives of others.
These men and women carry no arms, they commit no acts of violence and they provide medical care to those in need regardless of political affiliation. That was evident in their immediate treatment of the victims of the horrific bus bombing of refugees from Fua and Kefraya who were on their way to regime-held territory.
That is why the Assad regime’s public threat is so chilling, as is its projection and justification by pro-regime apologists in the West. It serves only one purpose: to strip these first responders of their internationally recognized status as medics to justify violations of the Geneva Convention.
Much has been written about the sophisticated state-sponsored disinformation campaign targeting the White Helmets. In this twisted world, the very act of repeatedly dismissing fabricated conspiracy theories about the group is exploited by their pro-Assad vendors, to legitimize those conspiracy theories.
However it remains our duty to the truth to attack the rotten foundations of this conspiracist thinking, not least as its proponents weaponized social media to amplify and troll their false narratives. Now Israel has a bit part in the drama, apologists who were already dedicated to framing the White Helmets as a tool of Western imperialists feel they have found a key justification.
The contrived controversy surrounding the group can be broken down as thus:
The al-Qaeda trope
The White Helmets only operates in rebel-held areas, some of which are held by or inhabited by extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda. Some are held by or include moderate anti-regime rebel groups that are actively at war with al-Qaeda. That geographic proximity is a key "gotcha" point for the conspiracists.
But the real reason both the Assad regime and the Russian government want these men and women dead and their good name contaminated is not because they work in areas that are also occupied by al-Qaeda.
It is because White Helmets volunteers have the temerity to film the atrocities to which they respond. By documenting barrel bombs and chemical weapons attacks, they have provided incontrovertible evidence that Russia and the regime are responsible for war crimes.
For that, the price is death. For that, the Russian government has deployed charlatans like alt-left blogger Max Blumenthal to spread Islamophobic smears about the group in order to shift public opinion towards tolerating or accepting military attacks on them.
And if more proof was even needed to dispel the al-Qaeda trope: Just this week, Syria's former al-Qaeda branch kidnapped another White Helmets volunteer. Hayat Tahrir a-Sham (formerly al-Qaeda) arrested Karam Saad al-Haj, a White Helmets photographer in Idlib; Karam is certainly not the first White Helmets volunteer to be kidnapped by the group. Far from being in league with them, Syria's Civil Defense volunteeers are also victims of Islamist terrorists.
The Zionist agent trope
Israel’s one-off role in bussing the contingent of White Helmets 422 at-risk civilians out of Syria, through Israel and into Jordan, has been seized on by Assad’s Western defenders, seeking to portray the White Helmets as both armed rebel Islamists and agents of the Israeli state.
Neither of these accusations is true. But both lies have by now been weaponized by pro-regime activists seeking to portray all of the Assad’s atrocities as a Western-backed plot to undermine the Ba’athist regime.
That conspiracy theory rests on both a characterization of Israel as prime mover in the White Helmets' evacuation and as a hardened enemy of the Assad regime.
One the first point: The events surrounding the July evacuation were well documented - and Israel's role was minor, to transit the evacuees through several hundred meters of territory under its control before handing off to Jordan. The operation was conceived by Britain, Germany and Canada and supported by Israel, Jordan, the United States and the U.N.
And on the second: Far from being a serious enemy of the Assad regime, Israel under Prime Minister Netanyahu greenlit the Assad regime’s barbaric offensive in southern Syria, which caused one of the largest forced displacements of the entire conflict.
As rebel-held areas fell to the regime one-by-one, the regime presented rebels with a choice: either accept forced displacement to northern Syria, or surrender to the regime and face the consequences.
Whereas some volunteers managed to accept forced displacement to Idlib, many did not. Some White Helmets volunteers are now trapped in regime-controlled areas and are living in fear of their lives. The Assad regime has made it clear it plans to murder them.
Despite this, Assad’s Western cheerleaders continue to extrapolate a larger conspiracy out of the 422 civilians who took a bus ride through Israel to Jordan. Part of their strategy is to harness justifiable - but entirely unconnected - anger against Israel’s occupation of Palestine to demonize these refugees for wanting to live.
But the pro-Assad shills can't even keep this conspiracy theme straight. Take for example the fact that Israel, alongside Jordan, armed and funded small rebel groups on the Syrian border to fight ISIS, in an attempt to ensure ISIS wouldn't encroach on their borders.
Those groups have now been absorbed by the Assad regime and are now operating as a pro-regime militia. Seemingly Israeli-armed militants being admitted into the regime’s militias generates little outrage in the pro-regime choir.
The ire instead has been focused on search and rescue volunteers' bus ride through Israel. This is no coincidence. It is the PR strategy of the Russian government to shift Western public opinion against the White Helmets to provide cover for Russia's own violations of the Geneva Convention.
The grotesque, racist, Islamophobic attacks from Russia’s propaganda organs that routinely seek to demonize the White Helmets as "terrorists" do so to dehumanize them in the public eye, in order to justify their murder. Sadly, appallingly, they have encountered and recruited a willing army of Western misinformation troops eager to carry this out.
The White Helmets are not the only humanitarian group targeted by Russia and its cronies. Blumenthal has also vented his disgust at a charity raising money to "fortify medical facilities" in rebel held areas.
Why do medical facilities need fortification? Because clinics run by Medicins Sans Frontieres and the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation are being bombed deliberately by the Assad regime and Blumenthal’s deployers in the Russian government.
Again, the Geneva Convention is very clear. Every medic must be protected, regardless of whatever insinuated and baseless claim of to whom they swear allegiance.
Why, one might ask, would self-described leftists not draw a straight line between attacks on medical facilities in Syria and U.S. aerial attacks on medical facilities in Afghanistan, such as on the Kunduz hospital, initially dismissed as a "Taliban" medical facility?
Back then, the Western left categorically rejected that designation, because the targeting of medical facilities, regardless of who they serve, is a war crime and has been understood as a war crime since 1864.
The difference, of course, if that in Syria, the superpower war criminal isn't America, it is Russia.
And that makes all the moral and propaganda difference – and not only for the far left, but also the far right, which is why both political extremes have such a meeting of minds regarding the necessity of apologetics for the Syrian regime's campaign of mass murder.
These far-right activists have also found kinship and alliance with far-left activists like pro-Palestinian activist and Electronic Intifada co-founder Ali Abunimah, who compared the White Helmets volunteers to the disbanded South Lebanon Army fascist militia.
There is no reason for pro-Assad voices Ali Abunimah and Katie Hopkins to simultaneously push this line other than a desire to defend the Russian government’s campaign to exterminate witnesses to the Kremlin's crimes.
When the White Helmets released their statement about the evacuation, they understandably minimized Israel’s role in the process.
Israel has consistently proved itself to be no friend to the Arabs. Israel’s new racist nation-state law, its continued oppression and occupation of Palestine, and its decision to coordinate with Putin to facilitate the return of southern Syria to Assad's control, cannot be ignored by Syrians or human rights activists anywhere.
But if the choice is death or a bus ride through Israel, how can any "human rights activist" condemn 422 civilians for choosing to live rather than die?
The question such pro-Assad activists should rather ask themselves is: Why am I effectively pushing for the murder of the White Helmets, and silent about the flouting of the Geneva Convention? Why do I condemn Israel's human rights abuses but ignore Assad's?
Hero of the West's far-left and far-right, Bashar Assad has declared openly he intends to "liquidate" the volunteers still remaining in Syria.
So when the Ali Abunimahs of the world routinely try to compare a group of civilian aid workers, paramedics and search and rescue volunteers to armed fascist militias, and when the Blumenthals accuse them of being Islamist "terrorists," the outcome is clear. They are encouraging their murder.
These transparent propagandists are not merely agitating war propaganda on behalf of Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad. They are effectively accomplices to war crimes.
Oz Katerji is a writer, filmmaker and conflict journalist with a focus on the Middle East and former Lesvos project coordinator for British charity Help Refugees. Twitter: @OzKaterji
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