Hundreds of Syrian rescue workers from the United States-backed White Helmets group have been evacuated through Israel into Jordan, escaping an onslaught by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad on one of the last opposition strongholds in the country.
The Israeli military said it carried out the "humanitarian" evacuation – its first such intervention in Syria's eight-year war, after a request of the United States and European allies. Jordan's state news agency said the evacuees will remain in the country for approximately three months and then be resettled to Canada, Britain and Germany.
"It was a night of rescuing the rescuers. There's a real sense of tragedy that this had to happen at all. But also, a real joy that it took place," a source close to the evacuation told NPR. They asked not to be named because they did not have permission to speak publicly.
The White Helmets rescue group operates mainly in opposition-held parts of Syria and acts like an informal emergency services in areas devastated by war. After this evacuation, there remain more than 3,000 members in the country, many of whom are civilian volunteers, who travel to the scenes of airstrikes and other bombardments to rescue those trapped in the rubble.
The evacuations from Quneitra province happened amid an offensive by the Syrian regime and its allies to take back rebel-held parts of southwest Syria. The White Helmets volunteers had been stranded along the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Jordan, which has closed its borders to refugees, says it had permitted the United Nations bring in 800 rescue workers and their families into the country. Raed Saleh, the head of the Syrian Civil Defense, as the White Helmets are formally called, confirmed the evacuations took place but would not elaborate on the numbers of people who got out.
The informed source close to the operation told NPR that only 422 people actually made it out of the country, because of heavy fighting on the ground.
"Given the speed of the movements on the ground it really was a Hail Mary operation," he said. "We communicated to [White Helmets] teams across south Syria that there was this hope, this prayer, of a window to get them out."
The Syrian government, backed by its ally Russia, has seized back control of much of southwest Syria, the area where the insurgency against President Assad first began in 2011. They have reclaimed the Syrian side of the Jordanian border and taken back the frontier with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
The source said many of the rescuers and their families had made dangerous journeys across a war zone to reach the evacuation point. The evacuees included someone who broke a leg en route, and a mother who gave birth just moments before she was taken across the border.
The United States has contributed some $30 million in assistance to the group, which has also received funds from the U.K. and other countries. Both the U.S. and the U.K. helped the multicountry effort to coordinate their escape from Syria.
"The White Helmets have saved over 115,000 lives during the Syrian conflict, at great risk to their own," Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, and Penny Mordaunt, the U.K.'s international development secretary said in a joint statement.
"White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection. We therefore took steps with the aim of affording that protection to as many of the volunteers and their families as possible."
The United Nations says more than 300,000 Syrians have likely been displaced since the government offensive began in southern Syria in June. Many have amassed near sealed borders with Israel and Jordan, and are surviving high desert temperatures with little more than a tent or informal shelter for protection.
Last week, the Syrian regime reached a deal through which the rebel groups in the area, defeated and encircled, could surrender. Over the weekend, thousands of armed men and their families boarded on buses to northern Idlib province, where the opposition still holds territory.
The Syrian government and Russia have labelled the White Helmets as foreign "agents" and have accused them of staging scenes of alleged chemical weapons attacks. The source connected to the rescue operation of the White Helmets into Jordan via Israel told NPR the Syrian government did not offer this amnesty to the rescue workers.
The rescue workers and their families who evacuated to Jordan will now be resettled abroad. Many live and work in the northern rebel held province of Idlib, an area that continues to be heavily bombarded by the Syrian government and its allies.
Civil defense workers in that area turned down requests for an interview about the evacuations of their colleagues in the south calling the matter "too sensitive." For now, the source close to the evacuations told NPR, there are no plans to evacuate them too.
NOEL KING, HOST:
We have some news this morning from Syria. A group called the White Helmets has spent years rescuing civilians during Syria's civil war. They operate with the backing of the United States. But recently, the White Helmets got trapped as they tried to escape an offensive by the Syrian regime. They were stranded along the border of the Golan Heights, which is occupied by Israel, but they have been rescued. The Israeli military said it acted on a request from the U.S. and other countries to help evacuate them. The White Helmets and their families are now safely in Jordan, and we've heard they will be resettled in Canada, Germany and Britain. NPR's Ruth Sherlock has been following this story. She's just outside of Beirut this morning. Hi, Ruth.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hello.
KING: So this is a very dramatic story. What are the details of the rescue?
SHERLOCK: Well, there's an intensive government offensive going on in this area. And as the rebels there surrender, the countries that support the White Helmets decided to try to get them out. I reached one source close to the evacuation in the hours just after the rescue. He asks not to be named because he doesn't have permission to speak publicly. The line is a little unclear, but I ask him, how does he feel about it?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Both tragic that it had to happen at all and incredible joy that it took place. It was a night of rescuing the rescuers. It's payback for what they've all done for so many others for so long.
SHERLOCK: Yeah. So he tells me they put out a call to tell the rescuers, look, if you can get to this evacuation point, come. He says it was a Hail Mary operation. This is a war zone, and some people's journeys were very dangerous. You had someone broke their leg on the way. There was a pregnant woman who gave birth just as she were being evacuated. And they were moving around regime and ISIS front lines. About 800 rescuers and their families were meant to leave. But in the end, he says, about 422 people made it out.
KING: Ruth, the White Helmets are rescue workers. They are not combatants. And so why do they need to flee an area when it's taken back by the Syrian regime?
SHERLOCK: Well, the Syrian government and its allies see the White Helmets as foreign agents of the West. They've accused them of staging chemical attacks and blaming those attacks on the Syrian government. The United Kingdom, which supports the White Helmets, put out a statement saying they supported the evacuation because these people had become targets for attack. And in the past, White Helmets members have been captured, imprisoned and tortured by the regime. They are seen as this kind of enemy No. 1. And as the regime takes back Syria, it struck a deal with - sorry. As the regime takes back this part of southern Syria, it struck a deal with other rebel fighters, saying they could have passage to another rebel-held province in the north, but I'm told that deal didn't extend to the White Helmets.
KING: Where does this all stand now? Is the Syrian regime back in control of most of the country?
SHERLOCK: It's made huge gains, and it controls most of the central parts of the country. But there are still large parts of the north that are under rebel and other control. And so, you know, that's where the majority of White Helmets rescuers actually are. They are said to still be about 3,000 rescue workers operating in these rebel pockets. And, you know, the fate of both this area, what will happen to this, whether it will go back to the hands of the regime and of these people, still very much remains to be seen.
KING: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut, Lebanon. Thank you, Ruth.
SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.