The Nobel committee just joined the rest of the world in betraying the Syrian people – by failing to give the peace prize to the group that deserved it the most.
This was the moment to award the medal to the White Helmets, the 3,000 or so Syrian volunteers who rush in to rescue victims of government and Russian air strikes. While Western leaders wring their hands as waves of barrel bombs deliberately destroy Aleppo’s hospitals and aid convoys, the White Helmets pull survivors from the rubble. They’ve saved more than 60,000 civilians while losing hundreds of their own members.
At the very moment on Friday when the Nobel committee named the president of Colombia the winner, Syrian (or Russian) planes were bombing a White Helmet headquarters in Aleppo.
True, the medal winner, Juan Manuel Santos, did negotiate a peace deal with Farc guerrillas (although the deal was rejected in a popular referendum). But the work of the White Helmets has a greater global significance. Giving them the prize would have countered the damning narrative delivered daily by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s Vladimir Putin that the world has entered an era where regimes can commit heinous war crimes with impunity – crimes that are videoed for YouTube – because the rest of the world doesn’t care.
At the opposite end of the moral spectrum is the motto of the White Helmets: “Whosoever saves one life, saves all humanity.”
To understand the courage of the group’s members, take a look at the film The White Helmets on Netflix. It begins with a young, sweet-faced, former construction worker named Khalid Farah saying goodbye to his toddler daughter, Amal, as he grabs his helmet and rushes out to meet his fellow volunteers. As a Russian plane whooshes overhead, he runs toward the carnage. “Does anyone need rescuing?” Khalid shouts.
A moment of joy in the film comes when Khalid and his colleagues, who have worked for 16 hours straight, extract a one-month-old infant alive from the rubble of an apartment building.
Late last month, Raed Saleh, the founder of the White Helmets, told the Atlantic Council in Washington how the group formed in 2013 after Assad started using barrel bombs, which are designed to injure as many civilians as possible. He recalled speaking before the UN Security Council 18 months ago, when a resolution was passed condemning barrel bombs. Six months later, one of his colleagues spoke to the UN council about the regime’s continued use of chlorine bombs. “Is it really possible we will we be speaking again in six months about bunker bombs?” he asked, referring to weapons used against civilians seeking refuge in basements.
Today, he said, in eastern Aleppo, 275,000 civilians live under siege with no access to food, water, electricity, “basically awaiting their death”. In recent weeks, regime and Russian planes have pulverised most of the remaining hospitals in eastern Aleppo, and destroyed three-quarters of the White Helmets’ centres there.
Often, the bombers circle back to target first responders – a deadly move called the “double-tap”. According to Saleh, the fresh-faced young volunteer Khalid, who rescued the baby in the Netflix film, was recently killed.
“This is a (Syrian government) strategy,” Saleh said, with passion. “Aleppo’s destiny will be the displacement of all its people.”
It’s clear that neither Assad nor Putin was ever really interested in the ceasefire that US Secretary of State John Kerry worked so desperately to negotiate in September – with very little political or military leverage. The ceasefire ended after Russian planes bombed a UN aid convoy. Assad’s goal seems to be to retake all of Aleppo, even if that means crushing the ancient old city and murdering thousands of innocents.
“In a maximum of two months, the city of eastern Aleppo may be totally destroyed, (causing) the deaths of thousands of civilians,” said Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria. He could have added, but didn’t: “while the world stands by.”
At this late date, it’s hard to imagine a plausible political plan that would stop the Syrian slaughter in the near term. President Barack Obama is unlikely to shift course before he leaves office, leaving Washington with little leverage on Moscow. Hillary Clinton – who, as secretary of state, had tougher instincts than her boss on Syria – has said little on the subject. Meantime, Donald Trump praises and defends Putin (while his running mate contradicts him).
So what difference could the Nobel committee have made?
For one thing, it could have rewarded a valiant group that embodies the meaning of the peace prize. On one side of the prize’s gold medal is an inscription that reads: Pro pace et fraternitate gentium, which means, “For the peace and brotherhood of men”.
The concept was embodied by young Khalid, who said of the people he rescued, “young, old, I consider them all to be my family.”
For another, the award would have signalled that the world does not passively accept the ethos of the barrel bombers. It would have shamed Western politicians who have failed to put sufficient pressure on Moscow – and Tehran – to advance a political deal on Syria.
And it would have given the White Helmets reason to believe the world had not forgotten Syria’s civilians. “We need an end to the killing so we don’t have to continue our work, which is devastating and depressing,” said Saleh.
That end won’t come soon, but the Nobel committee missed the chance to provide a glimmer of hope.
To support the work of the White Helmets, visit https://herofund.whitehelmets.org/donate/crowdfund/
* Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, PO Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at [email protected]
Syrian civil defence volunteers, known as the White Helmets, working at the site of an air strike in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus.