Turkey-Syria earthquake: Who are the White Helmets and why are they key to rescue efforts?

Members of the Syrian civil defence, known as the White Helmets, sit by a fire as search efforts continue in the village of Salqin at the border with Turkey. Credit: Getty

A giant operation to support the victims of the earthquake in Turkey is underway, but for the people impacted in Syria, assistance is harder to find.

The earthquake that struck at the start of the week has killed more than 21,000 and left millions at risk.

Getting aid to Turkey is challenging but for Syria, it is almost impossible.

A member of the White Helmets stands in front of the rubble of a building in the rebel-held Syrian town of Jindayris Credit: Getty

The area impacted in Syria includes the last rebel stronghold of the civil war, creating an extremely difficult diplomatic situation with few diplomatic corridors.

On top of this, some four million people displaced from other parts of the country by the war live in the impact zone.

This has left much of the immediate rescue operation in the hands of local groups.

Rescuers and residents search through the rubble of collapsed buildings in the town of Harem, Idlib province. Credit: AP

One of the main groups carrying out this assistance is the White Helmets, who became both famous and controversial for helping civil during the Civil War.

How are the White Helmets helping in the earthquake?

After the earthquake, the White Helmets quickly began offering assistance.

Video released by the group on Tuesday showed rescuers in rebel-held Jinderis encouraging a boy called Haroun with words like "you’re a hero" as they pulled him from the rubble.

'Come on Haroun': The moment Syria Civil Defence rescuers free a boy trapped under rubble

This video contains distressing images

Deputy head of the White Helmets, Munir Mustafa, said earlier this week the earthquake was two tragedies, the quake itself and "a catastrophe that has been ongoing for 12 years and the criminal has not been held accountable, and this one is a natural catastrophe."The group has also been one of the main recipients of aid and assistance by western governments who are unwilling to cooperate with the Assad government.

Both the US and the UK have offered them equipment.

Who are the White Helmets?

The White Helmets have years of experience in digging victims out from buildings crushed by bombardment from Russian warplanes or Syrian government forces.

The group, officially known as the Syria Civil Defence, is a volunteer organisation that aimed to help civilians during the civil war.

They formed in 2014 and assert they are neutral in the conflict but have spent the majority of their time helping in rebel-controlled areas.

The group claims to have saved more than 100,00 people throughout the conflict and have lost 204 of their own members while carrying out their work.

They became well known for filming atrocities carried out by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

The videos, particularly of chemical attacks, fuelled international opposition to the regime.

They also became celebrated abroad, particularly in the west, for their stories of heroic efforts to save civilians from the brutal civil war.

With pro-Assad forces now in control of most of Syria, numerous White Helmets have been evacuated from the country.

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In 2018 almost 100 members of the group were evacuated to Jordan with the assistance of Israel, a move that infuriated Assad.

The group was founded by former British military officer James Le Mesurier.

Mr Le Mesurier was found dead outside his apartment in Istanbul in 2019 after falling from his balcony.

Turkish authorities in 2020 ruled the death a suicide, but many remain suspicious.

Why are they controversial?

The White Helmets have been the target of numerous conspiracy theories by pro-Russia and pro-Assad groups, often promoted by Damascus and Moscow.

They have claimed the White Helmets staged many of the atrocities they filmed during the Syrian Civil War including chemical attacks.

The Syrian government has long described the White Helmets as a terrorist organisation and backed these theories.