Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said out of the 800 cleared for the pull out, 422 White Helmets volunteers and their families have been evacuated. The operation has received international praise.

People walk past Israeli soldiers as they board a bus during the Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, extraction from the Golan Heights, Israel in this still image taken from video, provided by the Israeli Army July 22, 2018.
People walk past Israeli soldiers as they board a bus during the Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, extraction from the Golan Heights, Israel in this still image taken from video, provided by the Israeli Army July 22, 2018. (Reuters)

At least 378 White Helmet rescue workers and their families remain stuck in Syria's Daraa and Quneitra provinces after Israel evacuated 422 to Jordan on Sunday for resettlement in Western countries.

Jordan's foreign ministry announced in a statement that the kingdom received 422 Syrian citizens, after earlier saying it had given permission for only a total of 800 to arrive.

This was the first such Israeli intervention in Syria's lengthy civil war, now in its eighth year. 

From the 800, 378 remain stuck and it's unclear how many other White Helmet volunteers are also trying to get across.

A Canadian government source told AFP that a second group of White Helmets and their relatives were also supposed to be evacuated but "could not reach the border because of the situation on the ground."

The group is still in Syria and it is not certain that a new effort to bring them out can be mounted due to the "precarious" situation there, according to the source. 

But a volunteer in Daraa city, who asked to remain anonymous, said he had decided to stay despite being given the choice to leave.

"It's our country and we have a right to live in it in safety," he told AFP, however adding he was among a minority who wished to remain.

"We are first and foremost a humanitarian organisation, not a military one, or a terrorist one as the regime alleges."

Mohammad Marandi is a political analyst and a professor at Tehran University. 

He believes in some areas of the Syrian conflict, the White Helmets have played a controversial role and that the evacuation operation may have been hampered by militants being in area.

Founded in 2013, the Syria Civil Defence, or White Helmets, is a network of first responders which rescues the wounded in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling or explosions in rebel-held territory. 

Israeli forces said it had transferred the rescue workers and their families to a neighbouring country, adding that the operation was "exceptional."

According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the humanitarian evacuation of White Helmet volunteers was requested by the US, Canada and other countries. 

"A few days ago President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and others approached me with the request to help extract from Syria hundreds of White Helmets," Netanyahu said in a statement.

"These are people who save lives and now find themselves in deadly danger, therefore I approved bringing them through Israel to another country as an important humanitarian step."

White Helmets head Raed Saleh said 422 evacuees had arrived in Jordan after being "surrounded in a dangerous region."

They had been encircled in the Syrian provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, which respectively border Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, he told AFP.

Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan from Syria in 1967, in a move never recognised internationally.

International acclamation 

The US praised Israel and Jordan for facilitating the evacuations and Britain, Canada and Germany for agreeing to give the evacuees new homes.

"We are glad that these ‎brave volunteers, who have saved thousands of lives, are now out of harm's way," the US State Department said of the White Helmets.

Britain's Foreign Office said it had helped facilitate the overnight evacuations.

"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," it said.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told Bild newspaper that Germany would take in eight White Helmets members and their families.

The move was "an expression of my stance of ensuring humanity and order in migration policy," he said.

Canada will take in up to 50 White Helmets volunteers and their families, totalling up to 250 people, officials said.

"A group of core countries have committed to resettle a number of White Helmets. Canada is resettling up to 50 members and their families, and is working with the international community to assess remaining needs," said Canada's foreign affairs spokeswoman Elizabeth Reid.

Ottawa confirmed that Trudeau spoke to Netanyahu on Saturday about "the regional security situation and the evacuation of White Helmets from Syria."

What's next? 

The White Helmets have rescued thousands of civilians trapped under the rubble or caught up in fighting in opposition-held zones along various fronts of Syria's seven-year conflict.

Since its formation, when Syria's conflict was nearing its third year, more than 250 of its volunteers have been killed.

Some members have received training abroad, including in Turkey, returning to instruct colleagues on search-and-rescue techniques.

The group receives funding from a number of governments, including Britain, Germany and the US, but also solicits individual donations to purchase equipment such as its signature hard hats.

The Syrian government and Russia, have called the White Helmets "terrorists," accused them of being "agents" for foreign powers, and of co-operating with radical insurgent groups. Both Moscow and Damascus have accused the White Helmets of staging rescue missions and chemical attacks to blame on the government.

Aron Lund, a Syria expert with the Century Foundation, said after the international community's funding and promoting the White Helmets for years, the evacuation should not be a surprise.

The evacuees are being assisted by the UN Refugee agency in Jordan pending international resettlement, the secretaries said.

The Jordanian Foreign Ministry's spokesman, Mohammed al Kayed, said the Syrians would remain in a closed area in Jordan for three months. 

Safadi, Jordan's foreign minister, said in a tweet that his government approved the evacuation after a pledge from Britain, Germany and Canada that the evacuees would be resettled in three months.

It is not clear if the White Helmets who have been previously evacuated to Idlib from other parts of Syria would receive similar treatment.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies