As the Syrian government recaptures increasing amounts of territory in the southwest and other regions of the country, Western allies have grown increasingly concerned about the safety of a group of unarmed volunteer rescue workers known as the White Helmets.
The fate of some 1,000 volunteers and their family members, and the need to plan a possible evacuation for them, has become a focus of discussions of several countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, France and Canada, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the subject and two administration officials.
In the plans under discussion, the volunteer rescue workers, who are officially named the Syrian Civil Defense, would be resettled in several countries; two diplomatic sources mentioned the possibility of resettling some of the group in Canada and the United Kingdom, while another two sources said Germany is expected to take some rescuers.
President Donald Trump discussed the possible need to evacuate members of the group during his meetings at the NATO summit last week, a source confirmed. There were several conversations between the U.S. and U.K. about the issue during the summit, the source said, adding that Western delegations have convinced the U.S. to help lobby both Israel and Jordan to find escape routes for besieged rescuers.
CBS News first reported the discussions about the possible evacuation plans.
The group declined to comment to CNN on Sunday.
Both the Syrian and the Russian governments have labeled the group terrorists, a designation that the international community and the rescuers themselves have rejected.
The safety of the White Helmets could be one of the topics Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discuss in their summit on Monday, the source confirmed, although there is some concern about whether Moscow can be trusted on the issue.
One administration official said asking Russia for help is a nonstarter because the Russians in the past month have been fueling the narrative that the White Helmets are terrorists and going after residents.
Western countries hope to find a way to help the group leave Syria without Russia’s aid, the diplomatic source said. They are looking at various possibilities for ground evacuation, but all of them are difficult and negotiations are at a sensitive stage, the source said.
Syria has recently mounted a military offensive in the country’s southwest, which is a major complicating factor.