By Oliviero Reusser
In the early hours of the 12th August 2017, reports emerged from the northwest of Syria that a group of seven Syrian Civil Defence members (known as White Helments) were found dead in their center in the town of Sarmin, located about 10km just east of Idlib. Seven bodies were discovered shot dead and much of their equipment, including the iconic white helmets and two vans, stolen. It is unknown who perpetrated this assassination, but activists point the finger towards the "Syrian Mukhabarat", the infamous Syrian secret intelligence service. Other likely perpetrators are ISIS sleeper cells or possibly a local gang operating in the area.
Warning: Graphic images below.
In an official statement published on their website, the Syria Civil Defence appeals to security services operated by the different factions in the region to make sure at checkpoints that any Civil Defence members carry the official seal; the gang could use the captured equipment to pose as White Helmets members for any purpose. The statement also mentions the names of the seven killed members: Ziad Hassan Qaddhoun (زياد حسن قدحنون), Bassel Mustafa Qassas (باسل مصطفى قصاص), Mohammad Shabib (محمد شبيب), Abdul Razzaq Hassan Haj Khalil (عبدالرزاق حسن حاج خليل), Mohammad Dib al-Hare (محمد ديب الهر), Mohammad Karuma (محمد كرومة ), and Obeida al-Radwan (عبيدة الرضوان).
The White Helmets are a very controversial organisation. Operating exclusively in opposition-held areas in Syria, they (as per their website) are dedicated to "Protect, Recover and Maintain" the civilians in Syria. They provide aid in the aftermath of airstrikes and other similar services such as maintenance of streets and water lines and similar. They have also been seen at the stage of public executions carried out by opposition factions in greater Idlib. They have often been accused of enabling and justifying the executions by their opponents and for staging their videos. Many of their members are former fighters with various opposition factions, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the now-rebranded former official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. Despite claiming to be neutral and impartial, concerns must be raised over these statements based on their actions. Nonetheless, some of the services they provide are crucial and life-saving in many cases of bombings or similar situations.