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'We need action to stop the killing': On the frontline with Syria's White Helmet volunteer rescuers

Ammar Alsalmo is a gentle character, but right now he’s well known for being an an angry man.

In the aftermath of the bombing of an aid convoy outside the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, Ammar made his way through the burning debris pointing out the aid packages that had been destroyed, and guessing at the number of lives lost.

Images of him doing this then made their way across the internet, as international outrage at the attack gathered strength.

I met him in the Gaziantep offices of the volunteer organisation he works for, the White Helmets.

Ammar Alsalmo called for international action to stop airstrikes in Syria. Credit: ITV News

In rebel-held areas of Syria, they’re the guys who rush to the sites of the relentless air strikes, and do what they can to rescue those who have been trapped and get them to medical care.

Ammar tells me that after the first strike, there is often a second strike a few minutes later, specifically to target those who have come to help.

Since the White Helmets were set up in 2013, 150 of Ammar’s colleagues have given their lives trying to save others.

Civil defence members mourn the death of their colleague in airstrikes allegedly carried out by Russian forces. Credit: Reuters

I ask him what he thinks of the condemnation by Western political leaders of the attack on the aid convoy, and that makes him angry again.

“Condemnation does nothing for us," he says. “What we need is action, action that will stop the killing. Stop the aircraft from bombing the people.”

When I mention the difficulties and complications of Western military action against the Assad regime, he dismisses them.

He tells me that his quietest week ever as an emergency rescuer was immediately after the regime gas attack in east Damascus in 2013.

“Because Assad was expecting Obama to do something, he stopped his killing”, he explains.

Ammar Alsalmo points to a wall bearing the names of some of the 150 White Helmets who have lost their lives. Credit: ITV News

Simply the credible threat of force was apparently enough to stop the regime dropping its bombs.

That time has passed, and the situation is now yet more complicated, and yet more lethal, with the insertion of Russia into the military equation, shoring up Assad’s regime, and strengthening its military offensive.

Ammar is in Turkey for a few days’ respite from the conflict. He aims to be back in Aleppo by the end of the week.

The strain of his work is obvious, but he and his friends keep at it, in the certain knowledge that if they don’t help the injured of Aleppo, no-one will.