Support efforts of first responders in the Syrian conflict
Since 2011, the world has seen the brutality Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is capable of — a capacity for destruction unparalleled even by his father, Hafez Al-Assad. Last year, we saw the image of Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, washed up on the banks of a Turkish beach. Just last month, we witnessed five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting in the back of a White Helmets ambulance sporting a bewildered look on his face. The group, also known as Syrian Civil Defense, works indiscriminately to save lives from the rubble.
If we were paying attention in July 2014, we could recall the images of a man by the pseudonym of Caesar, shrouded in a blue jacket, as he addressed a closed Congressional meeting. That man, a Syrian defector, released 55,000 images taken by Syrian police depicting the torture of prisoners.
Violence against civilians is not limited to Syrian prisons. Rather, there is startling evidence that the Syrian government is deliberately targeting civilians. On June 17, 2015, the House Foreign Affairs Committee convened a hearing titled “Assad’s Abhorrent Chemical Weapons Attacks.” The witnesses in the hearing included Dr. Mohamed Tennari, the Idlib Coordinator for the Syrian American Medical Society. During the hearing, he shared a video depicting the horrifying effects of the chlorine gas in Assad’s barrel bombs on children’s lungs. The video featured three children convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Following the video, he shared the story of one of his friend’s families. After an attack on Idlib, his friend’s home was hit with a barrel bomb. Normally, the family would travel to the bottom floor of the home to protect themselves from shrapnel. The attempt to protect themselves was futile — the bottom floor of their house could not protect them from a chlorine-filled barrel bomb. In fact, their home effectively turned into a gas chamber. While the chlorine gas attacks are nowhere near as deadly as other attacks — only 1,500 people have been killed by the crude attack of chemical weapons (mostly attributed to the sarin gas attacks in 2013) — they serve to drive civilians out of a rebel-controlled area merely due to the threat, according to a Sept. 7 CNN article.
Despite the overall lack of humanity presented thus far in Syria, there is another part of the picture that we may fail to see. Beginning in 2013, the White Helmets — also known as the Syrian Civil Defense — began their rescue of Syrian civilians. So far, they have saved 60,000 lives. The volunteer-based rescue force impartially rescues individuals from the rubble and provides individuals with medical transport. This year, they were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Another group working in Syria that provides life-saving medical treatment is known as SAMS. According to the website, the organization has established 106 facilities for some 1,709 medical workers. In 2015 alone, SAMS’ facilities treated around 2.6 million Syrians. According to a February 2015 Physicians for Human Rights report, data from December 2014 indicates that there have been 599 deaths of medical workers since the conflict commenced. In that year, “a medical worker was killed every other day on average,” according to the report. While the work of these organizations must be applauded, forward steps must be taken to protect the lives of those prioritizing civilian safety.
Recently, a new Syrian government offensive in Aleppo has begun targeting the White Helmets. According to a Sept. 23 NBC News article, the group reported that three of its medical facilities were targeted in Aleppo during the offensive. The attacks on the first responders’ group came immediately following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Among the individuals injured in the attacks was a Syrian first-responder with the group Shafak. According to the same Sept. 23 NBC News article, “the 25-year-old sustained injuries to his chest and eyes, as well as burns on 20 percent of his body, when a phosphorous bomb hit his building when he was leaving to go to work, He was hit from shrapnel from a bomb as he tried to put out the fire sparked by the strike.” In fact, according to a September 26 BBC article, Bebars Mishal, a member of the White Helmets, claimed government planes were “using all kind of weapons — phosphorus and napalm and cluster bombs.”
Amid all the horror that is the Syrian conflict, groups like the White Helmets and SAMS restore some hope and dignity to Syria. Their members are all medical volunteers who put their lives at risk for the greater good — acting impartially to protect human lives. This year, we should support groups like the White Helmets by allowing them further recognition in Stockholm come December. Watch their new documentary on Netflix. Support their petition for the Nobel Peace Prize. Well over 140,000 individuals have already already signed on. We have all witnessed what the Assad regime is capable of — now is the time for us to see what we are capable of.