With Syrian government forces closing in on the opposition’s last redoubts bordering the Golan Heights, hundreds of volunteer rescue workers from the group known as the White Helmets and their family members have been evacuated through the Israeli-held territory and transported to Jordan.
The daring rescue operation, which took place under cover of darkness starting late Saturday, was carried out at the request of the U.S. government and Western allies, according to Israeli and Jordanian officials. The 422 evacuees, more than half of whom are children, are expected to be resettled in Canada and Europe in the coming weeks.
Officially called the Syria Civil Defense, but known as the White Helmets because of its hard hats, the group of first-responders has been lauded in the United States and elsewhere for rushing to the scene of airstrikes to pull victims from the rubble. It is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives since it was founded in 2013.
But President Bashar Assad’s government and its Russian allies have labeled the group a terrorist organization because it operates in areas controlled by the armed opposition and have accused it of staging attacks to blame on Syrian authorities. Their forces frequently target the volunteers, more than 230 of whom have been killed.
The evacuation took place as government forces, backed by Russian air power, have been making sweeping gains in southwestern Syria, a strategic region bordering Jordan and Israel that has been in rebel hands for years. Over the last month, the fighting has sent hundreds of thousands of people fleeing toward the sealed borders.
As in previous campaigns, the government has offered fighters and their families who don’t want to live under its authority the option to be bused to rebel-held territory in the northern province of Idlib. But pro-government forces have been known to pull members of the White Helmets from such convoys and detain them.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said President Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others contacted him several days ago to ask for assistance getting the rescue workers and their families out of Syria.
"These are people who have saved lives and whose lives were in danger,” Netanyahu said in a statement Sunday. “Therefore, I approved their passage through Israel to additional countries, as an important humanitarian gesture.”
Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said the kingdom agreed to the transfer — which was coordinated by the United Nations — after receiving assurances from Britain, Germany and Canada that the Syrians would be resettled within three months. The initial request was to receive 800 people, but only 422 made the trip Sunday, he said in a tweet.
Safadi did not provide a reason. But a source familiar with the operation told the Reuters news agency that an initial plan to get out more people was hampered by Syrian government checkpoints and the presence of forces loyal to the extremist group Islamic State.
An Israeli aid official also familiar with the plan said that everyone who was supposed to leave Sunday did so. “No one was left behind,” said Gal Lusky, founder of Israeli Flying Aid, a nonprofit that has been instrumental in getting humanitarian assistance from Israel into Syria.
Some White Helmets decided to continue working in Syria but wanted to know that their wives and children would be safe, she said without providing further details.
A member of the group reached in Syria confirmed that some volunteers had opted to remain in the southwestern provinces of Dara and Quneitra while others planned to evacuate to Idlib. He asked not to be identified for safety reasons.
The Israeli military called the evacuation of the White Helmets “an exceptional humanitarian gesture,” which it said was approved “due to an immediate threat to their lives.” The military released video showing men, women and children filing across the border on foot and boarding buses, where Israeli soldiers passed out cups of water.
The Syrian rescue group receives financial and other support from the United States and was the subject of a film, “The White Helmets,” that won last year’s Academy Award for best short documentary.
The Trump administration expressed gratitude Sunday to Israel and Jordan, as well as to the countries offering permanent homes to the evacuees.
“We are glad that these brave volunteers, who have saved thousands of lives, are now out of harm's way,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
The sentiment was echoed by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who tweeted, “The [White Helmets] are the bravest of the brave and in a desperate situation this is at least one ray of hope.”
Assad’s government has vowed to recapture all regions that have fallen from its control, including Idlib, now home to more than 2 million people, many of them displaced from other parts of the country.
The bus trip there can be a harrowing experience, despite the government’s promises of safe passage. On Sunday, pro-government fighters outside the city of Homs held up a convoy from Quneitra for hours — sometimes at gunpoint, according to images panicked passengers shared on social media.
“It’s not the army. It looks like they are all militias,” Huda Dairi, an activist who has been documenting the conflict, said when reached in the convoy through a cellphone messaging application. “I swear the situation is terrible. We have been held up for over five hours. There are so many women and children, some in need of medical assistance.”
The convoy was eventually allowed to continue on its way, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group based in Britain.
Dairi did not respond to subsequent messages.
Times staff writer Zavis reported from Beirut and special correspondent Tarnopolsky from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Kareem Chehayeb contributed to this report from Beirut.