As the reputation of the controversial militant-linked White Helmets continues to crumble, even the US State Department seems to be having second thoughts about supporting the group, reportedly placing a freeze on its funding.
The State Department’s support for the White Helmets is “under active review,” according to a CBS News report. The group reportedly hasn’t received funding in weeks, but neither has it received formal confirmation that Washington’s financial assistance has come to a complete halt. This would mean a significant blow for the group, as the money accounts for about one-third of the White Helmets’ overall funding.
An internal State Department document cited by CBS said that its Near East Bureau needed confirmation from President Donald Trump’s administration by April 15 in order to approve funding for the White Helmets. If that wasn’t received, the department would initiate “shut-down procedures on a rolling basis.”
Online reaction to the report has been mixed, with some continuing to hail the work of the White Helmets. Among them was Samantha Power, the former US ambassador to the UN.
The former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, also took to Twitter to say that he has donated to the White Helmets in the past and “will do so again.”
Meanwhile, Middle East political writer and commentator Marwa Osman took an entirely different approach towards the group which many hail as heroes. She referred to the White Helmets as “Al-Qaeda terrorists.”
The report comes amid major controversy surrounding the White Helmets, after residents of Douma, Syria, testified in The Hague at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The hearing centered on the alleged chemical attack that was used as a justification for the April 14 strikes by the US, Britain, and France.
In a press conference following the hearing, hospital staff and 11-year-old Hassan Diab – who is seen in troubling White Helmets footage following the alleged attack – said there was no sign of a chemical incident at the time and that the White Helmets’ video with children was apparently staged.
The footage, which showed Diab and other children being hosed down with water, was the only publicly available “evidence” that the attack ever took place. Still, Trump and his British and French counterparts deemed it sufficient proof to launch over 100 missiles on Syria on April 14, accusing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad of being behind the alleged attack. The three allies were so keen to bomb Syria that they refused to wait for the results of an OPCW investigation before doing so.
If the report from CBS News is true, it could represent a significant U-turn for Washington. Just last month, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the group “an incredible group of individuals.” At that time, she also stated that as far as she was aware, the White Helmets were still being paid by Washington, despite a $200-million freeze in US funding for recovery efforts in Syria in late March.
Although the White Helmets says it acts solely as a makeshift emergency response team in a time of crisis, claiming to have heroically saved more than 70,000 lives in war-torn Syria, others disagree with its motives. Footage from Syria repeatedly showed members of the White Helmets assisting jihadist groups, while multiple accounts from civilians suggested they only helped “their own” and used civilians caught in the battle only for publicity. Russia has stated that the Douma “chemical attack” was staged by the White Helmets, with the UK pressuring the group to “speed up the provocation.”
The group has enjoyed celebrity status in the West, with a documentary praising it even winning an Oscar. However, some artists have refused to give in to peer pressure and publicly spoke out against endorsing the shady group. Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters recently lambasted White Helmets at a concert in Barcelona, calling the group a “fake organization that exists only to create propaganda for jihadists and terrorists.” His remark came after emails emerged showing that the White Helmets tried to lobby Waters with Saudi money.