POLITICS
07/22/2018 14:25 EDT | Updated 07/25/2018 12:31 EDT

Canada To Accept Up To 250 Syrians Who Are White Helmets And Their Families

Israel says Justin Trudeau personally asked for them to be evacuated.

REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir
Members of the Civil Defence, also known as the 'White Helmets', are seen inspecting the damage at a Roman ruin site in Daraa, Syria December 23, 2017.

The Israeli military has evacuated 800 members of the White Helmets and their families from a Syrian border area to Jordan.

The civil defence volunteers had been stranded in the border area with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights following the latest Syrian government offensive in southwestern Syria.

Jordan confirmed that 800 Syrian citizens have entered its territory and would remain before moving on to Western countries including Canada.

Canada has offered to host up to 50 White Helmets and their families, a senior official confirmed to The Canadian Press on condition of anonymity. With the addition of family members, that could bring the total to around 250 Syrians, although the official said the actual number could be lower.

Canada helped get the evacuated citizens from Syria to Jordan, CBC News reported.

RONEN ZVULUN via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on July 15, 2018.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Justin Trudeau was among those who personally asked that Israel evacuate hundreds of White Helmets from Syria amid fears they would be attacked by government troops.

Netanyahu revealed the conversations with Canada's prime minister, U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders shortly after the dramatic overnight rescue.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has pledged to support the humanitarian workers and first-responders.

The Israeli military said its actions did not reflect a change to Israel's non-intervention policy in Syria's war, now in its eighth year, where all the warring parties are considered hostile.

The Syrians would remain in Jordan for three months before moving on to the UK, Germany and Canada, the Jordanian Foreign Ministry's spokesman Mohammed al-Kayed said.

"The request was approved based on pure humanitarian reasons," he added.

Raed Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defence as the White Helmets are also known, said a number of volunteers and their families were evacuated from a dangerous, besieged area and had reached Jordan. He did not elaborate on the numbers of those evacuated.

The Associated Press first reported on Friday that US officials were finalising plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defence workers and their families from south-west Syria as Russian-backed government forces closed in on the Quneitra province, along the Golan Heights frontier.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Civil defence team members stage rescue operation after war planes belonging to the Assad regime targeted a cave where people had been sheltering to protect themselves from the attacks at the Maar Zita village in Idlib, Syria on May 9, 2018.

The officials said the White Helmets, who have enjoyed backing from the United States and other Western nations for years, were likely to be targeted by Syrian forces as they retook control of the south-west. Evacuation plans were accelerated after last week's Nato summit in Brussels.

Since the Syrian government offensive began in June, the area along the frontier in the Golan Heights has been the safest in the south-western region, attracting hundreds of displaced because of its location along the disengagement line with Israel, demarcated in 1974 after a war. Thousands of civilians had taken shelter near the frontier to escape the government offensive.

The Syrian government is unlikely to fire there or carry out air strikes for fear of an Israeli response.

The White Helmets have typically operated in opposition-held areas across Syria, places where government services are almost non-existent, voluntarily risking their lives to save hundreds of civilian lives during government air strikes and bombardments.

ZEIN AL RIFAI via Getty Images
Syrian Civil Defence carry an injured man as Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families arrive from the former rebel bastion's main town of Douma at the Abu al-Zindeen checkpoint controlled by Turkish-backed rebel fighters near the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, on April 4, 2018.

They have been one of the few glimmers of light during the bloody and savage war that has ravaged Syria since 2011, leaving 350,000 people dead and millions more displaced, and were once thought to be contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize.

There were fears the volunteers would be killed if Assad's forces regained control of the region, according to CBC News. Their families were also extracted with them due to fears they'd be killed if they remained.

The Syrian government and Russia view the White Helmets as "agents" of foreign powers and have regularly accused them of staging rescue missions or chemical attacks.

Over the last month, Syrian government forces aided by Russian air power have swept through south-western Syria to consolidate government control over this strategic corner of the country that straddles the border with Jordan and the frontier with Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

NurPhoto via Getty Images
Messages written on while helmets by the audience during a moderated discussion and audience Q&A with The White Helmets in Toronto on April 3, 2018.

With its new advances, government forces are, for the first time since the civil war began in 2011, retaking this territory from the rebels and restoring their positions along the disengagement line in the Golan Heights.

Canada previously resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees between September 2015 and February 2016.

With files from the Canadian Press and HuffPost Canada