Civil defence volunteers left behind in southern Syria say they fear for their lives after the Syrian government condemned an operation to evacuate 422 of their colleagues with their families.
More than 400 Syrian rescuers and their families were evacuated from war-torn Quneitra province through Israel to Jordan on Saturday night, after rebels surrendered the last areas they held in the southwestern province to advancing government forces.
The international rescue operation was conceived by Britain, Germany and Canada and involved the cooperation of Israel, Jordan, the United States, and the UN. But on Monday Syrian government labelled the multilateral operation a "criminal process" designed to smuggle "terrorists" from the country.
The rescue operation was conceived of two weeks ago as Syrian government forces backed by Russia advanced in southwest Syria. As rebel forces negotiated surrender with government forces, the White Helmets were reportedly excluded from deals by Syrian officials and Russian representatives as a "a red line" who should be "eradicated," a source told the Associated Press.
The Syrian Civil Defence rescue group, known commonly as the White Helmets, has worked in rebel-held areas of Syria since 2013 to rescue survivors and retrieve the dead in the wake of bombings and chemical weapons attacks. Its 3000 volunteers claim to have saved 115,000 lives over five years, with one in four of its members being wounded or killed.
The White Helmets have financial backing from the US, Britain, and other countries and its work won it a Nobel Prize nomination.
Because of their work documenting atrocities, the group has also attracted the ire of the Syrian government, who smear them as terrorists and claim their rescues are staged, a claim that has been propagated online by conspiracy theorists.
In recent weeks, the rescue volunteers in southern Syria became squeezed between advancing government forces and an expanding local ISIS affiliate.
Evacuating them through Jordan quickly became impossible, as government seized a vital border crossing from the rebels and then deploying quickly along the border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he agreed to let them cross through Israel, after an appeal from US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Another nearly 400 people were meant to be pulled out as well. Most didn't make it in time to the assembly points, unable to make it through roads fast closing by advancing Syrian forces on one side and expanding ISIS militants on the other.
“We are in great danger,” a Civil Defense administrator in the Deraa countryside involved in coordinating the rescue operation told the Syria Direct website, after he was left behind.
As government forces reassert control over southwestern Syria he said he expected them to "take revenge" against White Helmet rescuers.
During previous evacuations from fallen opposition areas elsewhere, White Helmet volunteers have been targeted by government forces, removed from buses and forced into making “false confessions” about being paid agents, a source told the Associated Press. They were even filmed with weapons to support the government's narrative they work closely with the armed groups, he said.
Syria's foreign ministry on Monday called the rescue of the rescuers a "smuggling operation" that was evidence of a Western conspiracy to overthrow the government. A Syrian Foreign Ministry official repeated his government's accusations that the White Helmets staged and executed chemical attacks to blame Damascus.
It raised questions about the fate of 3,000 other White Helmets still operating in opposition-held northern Syria, living with other 1 million other displaced civilians in areas where the government is expected to target next.
The planners are still in touch with the volunteers who didn't make it out, advising them on what to do and where to be safe.
It is unclear if a similar operation can be reproduced. As for the hundred other volunteers in northern Syria, the source said the geography and landscape are different, with Turkish forces present in the area and far more options than the southwest, with firmly sealed frontiers from all sides.
In a statement Monday night, the White Helmets thanked "all governments who contributed" to the evacuation and asked the international community — if it won't act to end Syrian offensives — to "do more to help the hundreds of thousands remaining in southern Syria."
Germany, Canada and Britain have said they will resettle the White Helmets and their families within three months. The US and Jordan will not take any in.
But the international players appear unlikely to pull together the will for another rescue.
"A great many factors and partners had to interact in the right way," German Foreign Ministry spokesman Chrisofer Burger said.
Pressed whether the action set a precedent for further world help in evacuations, he said: "The factors that made it possible in this case to help in this way people who faced an acute threat, a very specific group, cannot be reproduced at will."