U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration abandoned its decision this week to suspend funding for the Syria Civil Defense, a volunteer rescue force widely known as the White Helmets, releasing millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding for the group, according to the State Department.
In a statement issued Thursday, Heather Nauert, a spokeswoman for State, declared:
The President has authorized the United States Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State to release approximately $6.6 million for the continuation of the vital, life-saving operations of the Syrian Civil Defense, more commonly known as the White Helmets, and the UN’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM).
The United States Government strongly supports the White Helmets who have saved more than 100,000 lives since the conflict began, including victims of [Syrian dictator Bashar al] Assad’s chemical weapons attacks.
In March, President Trump reportedly decided to stop funding for the group as part of a decision to halt $200 million in overall aid to Syria.
The White Helmets welcomed the Trump administration’s change of heart, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported.
“On behalf of the White Helmets, I would like to thank the American people and the U.S. government for the continued support of our teams,” Majd Khalaf, a spokesman for the group, said.
Assad and his allies have long demonized the group, using as a scapegoat when accused of carrying out chemical attacks and linking them to the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
White Helmet forces have “been the subject of smear campaigns by supporters of Syria’s government and its ally Russia, who accuse the White Helmets of being a front group for Al-Qaeda or acting in Western interests,” the Agence France-Presse (AFP) agency reported in May.
The State Department acknowledged that the Assad regime and its allies, namely the Russians, continue to deliberately target White Helmets.
“Since 2013, more than 230 of these brave volunteers have been killed while working to save innocent Syrian civilians,” Nauert proclaimed.
State also praised the work of the United Nations’ IIM group in investigating and prosecuting of persons accused of the most serious crimes under international law committed in Syria since March 2011.
“Their mandate, collecting and analyzing evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses will help ensure those responsible for these crimes are ultimately held accountable,” Nauert said.
The Trump administration’s move to reverse its decision to suspend funding for the White Helmets came after the non-governmental organizations (NGO)’s chief told AFP that U.S. support for the group was under review.
“We were not formally told of any halt to funding, but what we were informed of was a freeze to some of the Middle Eastern projects by American organizations, in order to review their feasibility,” Raed Saleh said.
“Among them are projects linked to stabilization in Syria, which includes part of the White Helmets’ work,” he added, conceding, “This happens every year, but this year, no one can predict President Trump’s decisions.”
“Media reports said the White House had instructed the State Department to freeze over $200 million funds for ‘recovery efforts’ in Syria,” AFP reported in May.
Besides the United States, Britain and individual donors reportedly fund the White Helmets.