Janine di Giovanni is the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. She will be teaching a course on war reporting and human rights at Columbia this spring. (February 2018)
Lebanon is struggling to accommodate a large refugee population—500,000 Palestinians, many descended from those who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and nearly 1.5 million Syrians, a majority of them Sunni Muslims. Most of the Syrian refugees I met in Lebanon do not want to be there—or in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt. They are fleeing intense fighting, ethnic cleansing, starvation, chemical attacks, and Russian air strikes that devastated Aleppo and other rebel-held areas. It is clear that they are not welcome in Lebanon, where they are increasingly seen as disrupting the country’s delicate sectarian balance among Shia Muslims, Druze, and Christians and as vulnerable to Islamist radicalization.
The White Helmets’ financial backing is not the real reason why the pro-Assad camp is so bent on defaming them. Since 2015, the year the Russians began fighting in Syria, the White Helmets have been filming attacks on opposition-held areas with GoPro cameras affixed to their helmets. Syria and Russia have claimed they were attacking only terrorists, yet the White Helmets have captured footage of dead and injured women and children under the rubble. Putin’s bombers have targeted civilians, schools, hospitals, and medical facilities in opposition-held areas, a clear violation of international law. “This, above all, is what the Russians hated,” Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, told me. “That the White Helmets are filming war crimes.”