Canada to accept up to 250 Syrian White Helmet volunteers, family after dramatic escape

Canada is among three Western nations that will accept hundreds of volunteer emergency workers plucked from Syria under the cover of darkness in a dramatic international rescue, CBC News has learned.

Several hundred people — volunteers and their families — belonging to the rescue organization known as the White Helmets were extracted late Saturday from the southwestern portion of the war-torn country that’s being overrun by forces loyal to leader Bashar al-Assad.

International reports have said up to 800 people arrived in Jordan, but senior officials say the numbers are in flux and will “likely fall below” the first reported estimates.

The White Helmets and their families were trapped in what had been — until recently — rebel-held territory. The area has for more than a week been the focus of a furious assault by Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

The volunteers were spirited out of Syria in a highly secret international operation that involved the U.K., France, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, multiple sources told CBC News.

Canada was not involved militarily in the evacuation, ​but ​helped lead the effort to bring them out of Syria and ​into Jordan.

‘Impassioned plea’

Canadian officials are expected​ to​ immediately begin working with United Nations​ ​officials to help process families that will make their way to Canada in the coming weeks, possibly months.

The Liberal government has agreed to accept up to 50 of the White Helmet volunteers and their families, which could mean up to 250 people, according to senior officials who could not speak on​ ​the ​record because of the sensitive nature of the operation.

The number, officials said, could change.

The plight of the White Helmets was the subject of intense debate among foreign ministers at the recent NATO conference, the sources said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made ‘an impassioned plea’ to her NATO colleagues, according to several sources. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made “an impassioned plea” to her colleagues, according to several sources.

The families would follow in the footsteps of thousands of other Syrian refugees who were resettled early in the Liberal government’s mandate.

Britain and Germany have also stepped forward, but the sources said other countries are expected to join the effort and offers to resettle them are expected to exceed the number of evacuees by a large margin.

At the moment, there are no plans for the United States to take any of the White Helmets, whose rescue efforts and documentation of civilian atrocities date back to 2013. Those volunteer efforts have drawn international praise as well as  condemnation.

At one point, they were thought to be favoured for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Russia, Syria pose threats

Russia and the Syrian regime, however, have labelled the organization, officially known as the Syrian Civil Defence group, as terrorists and purveyors of fake news.

There were fears they would be killed once forces loyal to Assad retake the region.

“Sensitive” international negotiations to arrange their extraction have been underway since the NATO leaders summit in Brussels.

An extraordinary rescue team of Syrian civilians called The White Helmets run toward the scene of an attack to try to save lives. The team has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for saving tens of thousands of lives during Syria’s civil war. 15:05

Both Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at length with their alliance counterparts to galvanize support. Negotiations between the international community and the White Helmets have been more delicate, an official close to the discussions told CBC News.

An important part of those talks has involved how many of the volunteers’ family members can be brought with them and the fear anyone left behind might be killed, said the sources.  

The Russians have made it clear they want to “interrogate” the White Helmets on the way out of Syria, said a senior diplomatic official.

The U.S. has taken a hands off approach to the unfolding drama in southwest Syria.

The territory under assault had been designated as a U.S.-protected safe zone, but the Trump Administration has not made a move to enforce that as government forces tighten their grip on the region.

An evacuation of rebel-held territory has been underway since last weekend, but neighbouring countries have shut their borders to refugees.

A tweet by the White Helmets on Tuesday showed video of them helping people flee the city of Daraa, located about 13 kilometres from the border with Jordan.

The region is known as the cradle of the rebellion against the Assad regime, the place where some of the first Arab Spring protests originated.

The notion the White Helmets would be targeted for retribution has long been a fear of the human rights community.

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