Two days prior to devastating aerial attacks, Michael Ratney, the U.S. special envoy to Syria, was told the Assad regime was planning to hit the Aleppo facilities of the Syrian Civil Defense, a volunteer rescue group.
Raed al-Saleh, the head of the organization, which is widely known as the White Helmets, was in Manhattan last week, where he told not only Ratney, but envoys from the Netherlands, Britain, and Canada. He said intercepted communications from military officers in the Assad regime signaled imminent plans to bomb several rescue centers, according to two sources who were in the room when al-Saleh was transmitting this intelligence.
“We just received a message from the spotters, just an hour ago, they detected messages from the regime radio that they will attack [Syrian Civil Defense] centers in northern Aleppo,” one of those sources jotted down during the meeting, quoting al-Saleh. “First with surface to surface to missiles and, if they miss, they will use spies on the ground to adjust coordinates and come back.”
Within 48 hours, that forecast proved all too true, as three out of five of the White Helmet’s installations—one of them a makeshift firehouse, two others ambulance depots—were pulverized in Syria’s most populous city in acts that Western officials have called the deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians and humanitarian workers.
Ratney did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment about whether or not he was forewarned of this atrocity or if he or the U.S. government took any measures to try and prevent it from happening.
One of those at the meeting described the discussion as “very fucking bizarre. … They were all basically saying ‘yes, this is awful, but we’re not going to do anything about it.’”
The second source confirmed that al-Saleh’s message appeared to generate no substantive response from the officials present.
According to Abdul Rahman al-Hassani, the chief liaison officer for the White Helmets based in Aleppo, open-frequency regime chatter was picked up via a listening station used by the organization as an advance warning system for impending airstrikes or ground attacks: “They said, in Arabic, that they will be shelling civil defense centers. And if they are not hit the first time, then [the regime] will correct its targeting and do it again. And anyone who came to pull people from the rubble would be targeted, too.”
Nothing happened for two days. Then, on Friday, Sep. 23, at 7 o’clock in the morning, the White Helmets buildings came under attack, with three locations hit in quick succession, “two of them directly by aircraft,” al-Hassani said.
“We cannot tell if it was Syrian or Russian aircraft that struck us. Three vehicles—one firefighting vehicle was turned upside-down. Ambulances were destroyed.”
Al-Hassani described the munitions used as a “new type of rocket” which “caused huge damage.”
Another White Helmet installation, this one located underground, was also hit with what al-Hassani said was a bunker-busting bomb, the use of which has been increasingly documented in Aleppo recently.
This was but a mere taste of the carnage unleashed on the city at large.
As the White Helmets reported at the weekend, cluster and “vacuum” (fuel-air) bombs were dropped repeatedly on the population in over 140 sorties. More than 164 people were killed, and over 200 injured in what has come to resemble the Guernica of the Syrian war.
One Aleppo hospital took in 180 dead and injured on Sunday. A doctor, Abu Rajab, told the Guardian: “Imagine the dead lying in the corridors, corpses and wounded and blood flowing everywhere. We are standing before inhumanity, real massacres, extraordinary weapons whose blasts we never heard before, never heard before ever, they make the ground shake beneath our feet.”
Matthew Rycroft, the British ambassador to the United Nations, walked out of a Security Council session on Sunday, joined by his French and American counterparts, after accusing the Assad regime and Russia of perpetrating war crimes. ”After five years of conflict, you might think that the regime has had its fill of barbarity — that its sick bloodlust against its own people has finally run its course,” Rycroft said. “But this weekend, the regime and Russia have instead plunged to new depths and unleashed a new hell on Aleppo.”
The White Helmets were hit just days after Russia conducted surveillance and then repeatedly bombed a 32-vehicle United Nations aid convoy carrying medical supplies and food to rebel-held Aleppo. 20 people died, including Omar Barakat, the local director of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. And that incident shortly followed, and seemed to be retaliation for, a coalition airstrike that killed 60 Syrian soldiers (recent conscripts drawn from the ranks of Assad’s prison population) who were on the front line fighting he Islamic State in the province of Deir Ezzor.
The coalition said the attack was an accident and U.S. government reaffirmed its commitment to avoiding any confrontation with pro-regime forces in Syria. Moscow, however, has not taken responsibility for the U.N. convoy bombing and has instead variously blamed spontaneous combustion, “terrorists” and a coalition drone strike for immolating the trucks and personnel, even though the tail fragment of a OFAB 250-270 Russian-made bomb was recovered from the scene—by the White Helmets.
No one who joins this corps d’aide humanitaire is compensated; the entire NGO operates on foreign donations, some of them from Western governments but many also from well wishers. These have included British MP Jo Cox, whose widower started a memorial fund for the murdered Labour parliamentarian partly earmarked for helping the White Helmets continue their efforts. To to date they have, by their own estimation, saved 60,000 Syrian lives.
Nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the group has also been singled out by Right Livelihood Award Foundation and is the subject of a 40-minute documentary, which debuted on Netflix Sep. 16.
Tragically, the headquarters featured prominently in that film now lies ruins.