The departure of heroic White Helmets is a tragedy for Syria's defenceless

Who will protect ordinary people now that the courageous lifesavers have been driven out?

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 14, 2017, file photo, provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows a civil defense worker carrying a child after airstrikes hit a school housing a number of displaced people in the western part of the southern Daraa province of Syria. The Israeli military said Sunday it had rescued members of a Syrian volunteer civil organization, known as White Helmets, from the volatile frontier area and evacuated them to a third country, the first such Israeli intervention in Syria's lengthy civil war. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP, File)
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Hard hat-wearing volunteers placing themselves in daily mortal danger to find and pull people, both alive and dead, from the scarred wasteland left by bombs from the Syrian regime’s jets, have been a rare source of hope in a conflict that has claimed more than half a million lives over the past seven years. Guided by a verse from the Quran – “to save one life is to save all of humanity” – the White Helmets have been the

that has witnessed savagery and death.

Countless Syrians caught up in the nightmare of war owe their lives today to the fact that members of the civil defence rescue team appeared in time to save them. But the organisation that persisted, despite the deaths of 200 of its members – and relentless campaigns by Damascus and Moscow to smear and discredit them as terrorists – is now vacating Syria, a measure of the Syrian regime's ruthlessness and ferocity as it seeks to retake territories in rebel strongholds.

On Sunday the White Helmets volunteers who had refused for years to leave their homeland were finally forced to flee Syria with their families, travelling to Jordan via the occupied Golan Heights as part of a deal that will see them resettled in Germany, Britain and Canada. Of the 800 people originally identified for removal for their safety, about 422 have been evacuated as Bashar Al Assad's forces close in on Quneitra and Deraa. Those remaining in Syria should be guaranteed safe passage and refuge to ensure their fate is not left in the hands of Mr Al Assad.

The rising number of the dead and displaced as he marches – abetted by Iran and Russia – into what were once bastions of the uprising betoken a tragedy that the White Helmets had sought to alleviate with their heroic work. Their protection for the countless lives they have saved is of utmost importance, yet their departure is a terrible blow to ordinary Syrians, who face an ever-bleak future of siding with the regime or being crushed. The White Helmets' departure coincides with the news that the Syrian actress May Skaf, another icon of resistance to Mr Al Assad, died in exile in Paris of a heart attack at the age of 49. Her last words, posted on Facebook, were: "I will not lose hope". Her death follows that of the actress and activist Fadwa Suleiman, who took part in anti-regime protests, last year. As the prominent figures who vocalised the dream of a better Syria leave the stage, all that is left is desolation. The White Helmets' devotion to the cause of saving the lives of people by putting their own on the line will long be remembered with gratitude and admiration. But their exit raises a question for the rest of the world that has looked away from the Syrian nightmare: who will protect Syrians now?