Syria's White Helmets chief offers safety advice to Ukrainians facing Russian bombardment

Raed Al Saleh tells 'The National' Moscow is carrying out similar assaults in Ukraine as it did in Syria

Raed Al Saleh, head of the White Helmets civilian defence group, which operates in opposition-controlled areas of Syria and he says has saved the lives of 125,000 people since the civil war began. Photo: Raed Al Saleh
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The chief of the White Helmets in Syria said the volunteer search and rescue group was using its own experience with “Putin’s bombs” to support people in Ukraine.

Raed Al Saleh told The National that training videos and manuals on how to save and protect civilians from the worst effects of Russian military tactics had been prepared and were currently being translated into Ukrainian.

“The same attacks Russia did in Syria are those being used in Ukraine today. The only difference is that in Syria they used the excuse that they were ridding the country of terrorists and now they say they are bombing Ukraine to get rid of Nazis,” said Mr Al Saleh.

Syria Civil Defence, commonly known as the White Helmets, was created in 2013 as a volunteer rescue operation comprising former bakers, teachers, electricians and other citizens working together to save the lives of those wounded in the civil war.

Having endured years of heavy Russian bombardment in Syria, Mr Al Saleh said his team was used to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military strategy and had some advice for those enduring the assault in Ukraine.

“Build small volunteers groups that can move around quickly; create small discrete field clinics that can reduce pressures on the larger hospitals; set up cameras in different locations to record these crimes being committed,” he told The National.

“Russia always focuses on destroying infrastructure, hospitals, schools and water supplies. It forces people to move on, to make them refugees. It is their scorched-earth strategy.”

A White Helmets volunteer surveys the destruction in Aleppo, Syria in 2016, near where Russia had allegedly bombed schools and hospitals. AFP

It is a strategy to which Syrians are well accustomed. Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war began in September 2015 and is widely regarded as a decisive turning point in the conflict.

Heavy aerial bombardment, even of hospitals, made way for the recapture of Syria’s second largest city Aleppo by pro-government forces. Russia has also been widely accused of using chemical weapons in Syria.

Mr Al Saleh was in London this week to hold meetings with MPs and peers, to discuss ways in which the international community can hold Russia to account for its bombardment of Syria and the “war crimes” it committed.

“Ukrainians are being treated badly by Russia just as the Syrians were. We must push for accountability and punishment of the same perpetrator – Putin,” he said.

A German court in January sentenced a Syrian colonel to life in prison for crimes against humanity. The trial of Anwar Raslan in Koblenz was the world's first criminal case brought over state-led torture in Syria.

Lawyers in Germany are preparing cases against a number of other suspects but both they and many Syrians would like to see those at the top of the chain of command brought to justice.

“We need more political will and social support for greater accountability and that is what we are working towards. The German courts are very important but we are looking to work with lawyers to bring more people to justice. We want to try to go after Putin,” Mr Al Saleh told The National.

As well as campaigning for justice, Mr Al Saleh said the White Helmets group, which operates in opposition-controlled areas of Syria, was providing an array of services, including ambulance services, urban search and rescue, fire extinguishing services, health care and utility maintenance.

The organisation, which now has 3,200 volunteers, claims to have saved the lives of 125,000 people since the Syrian civil war began.

The White Helmets group was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 and awarded the Right Livelihood Award in the same year.

Updated: March 31, 2022, 3:04 PM