The leader of the Syrian Civil Defense (“White Helmets”), Ra’ed Al-Saleh, was banned from entering the United States (U.S.) after he traveled to the country last week to receive a humanitarian award from InterAction.
State Department Spokesperson, Mark Toner, confirmed that the Syrian Civil Defense leader was banned from entry, despite the fact the U.S. just gave his group $23 million.
Full transcript below:
QUESTION: On the last one —
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: — you commend this group, you’re going to continue to support them, and yet you revoked the visa of their leader. I don’t – that makes zero sense to me.
MR TONER: Well —
QUESTION: What – what’s exactly going on?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, this group, and I would precisely make that —
QUESTION: Yeah, but this is the guy who is the leader of this group who the head of USAID lionized in a – and her – that she lauded him —
MR TONER: Sure. Sure.
QUESTION: — in a speech at the event that he was supposed to be accepting —
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: — an award that he couldn’t get here for because the State Department canceled his visa while he was in the middle – while he was in midair, presumably, over the Atlantic so that when he arrived at Dulles, he was promptly thrown on the next plane back to Turkey. And now here you are talking about how wonderful his group is. I just don’t understand how it works.
MR TONER: So a couple responses. One is, unfortunately, we can’t speak to individual visa cases. I think broadly speaking, though, on any visa case we are constantly looking at new information, so-called continually vetting travel or records. And if we do have new information that we believe this – an individual —
QUESTION: But —
MR TONER: — let me finish – would pose a security risk, we’ll certainly act on that. I can’t speak again specifically to this case, but what I can talk about is this group. And this group, as I said, has saved some 40,000 lives, that are first responders, they operate in a combat zone, and the fact that they’re being singled out and hit by the Syrian regime is, frankly, cause for a concern. And we do support this group. We do support their efforts to save lives in what is admittedly a very complex and convoluted battlefield scene.
And to speak to your broader – to say that this group’s – which I think is the implication of your question, that they somehow have ties to —
QUESTION: No, I’m not suggesting that at all.
MR TONER: Then – okay.
QUESTION: I’m saying that it just strikes me as a bit odd that you’re saying that this group is wonderful and does such a great job and you’re commending them for their heroism, and yet, this – you’re doing this just 10 days after the leader of this group, who was supposed to be – who got his visa revoked and wasn’t allowed to travel here. I understand there was an attack that killed some of its members, and I know that that’s the immediate cause of it —
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: — but it just strikes me as being a bit inconsistent if you say that this group is wonderful, and yet, you also ban its leader from coming to the States to collect an award for which – and you say you’re going to continue to support the group. I mean, if you have reason to revoke his visa, that he could be a security threat or something like that, why would you continue to support —
MR TONER: But again – but again, I’m trying to separate this individual from the group, which we believe is —
QUESTION: All right. So the guy is – you’re saying that basically he is suspect but his group is not?
MR TONER: Well, again, I can’t speak to the specific allegations against him, Matt.
QUESTION: Well, not if I —
MR TONER: No, I’m sorry, I – my hands are tied too but —
QUESTION: All right. The other thing —
MR TONER: — but yes, we’re not condemning the group in any way whatsoever.
QUESTION: Off —
MR TONER: We believe it’s doing good work.
QUESTION: Could I —
QUESTION: If he is the leader of the group, how do you support this group and he is not allowed to get into the States? This is the question.
MR TONER: I understand that and all I can say is that —
QUESTION: How can you separate the leader of the group from the group?
MR TONER: Well, he’s one individual in the group.
QUESTION: But the leader of the group.
MR TONER: And any individual – again, I’m broadening my language here for specific reasons, but any individual in any group suspected of ties or relations with extremist groups or that we had believed to be a security threat to the United States, we would act accordingly. But that does not, by extension, mean we condemn or would cut off ties to the group for which that individual works for.
QUESTION: Okay. It just seems a little odd.
QUESTION: Could I just follow up on the group? Which group is —
MR TONER: Sophisticated. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I mean, they are a civil defense group, right? They are —
QUESTION: The White Helmets?
QUESTION: Who are —
MR TONER: The White Helmets. So this is a group —
QUESTION: White Helmets. Okay, I understand.
MR TONER: So, yeah, this is the Syrian Civil Defense Group. Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you know – I understand about the White Helmets. Do you know who finances them, how they operate, who are they supported by, what kind of organization they have? How do you get your information from them and so on?
MR TONER: Well – well, I can say we provide them with —
QUESTION: We – you do know a little bit.
MR TONER: Well, I can tell you that we provide, through USAID, about $23 million in assistance to them.
MR TONER: I can say that they’ve saved over 40,000 lives, as I just mentioned at the – in the topper by acting as first responders. They go into combat zones, they save people after attacks. We’ve seen no action on the part of this group writ large that indicates in any way that they’re nothing but an impartial group that – like any humanitarian organization – works across lines of control and is in contact with a range of groups to facilitate their life-saving efforts. And that’s – again, we’ve talked about this the last couple days. Aleppo is —
QUESTION: I understand that.
MR TONER: — a very complex situation. We understand that. And for these groups to operate, they have to be able to operate within the milieu on which they’re working.
QUESTION: Mark, but can you ask for some – I mean, this just seems bizarre to me. You’re giving this guy and his group $23 million. Yes, they do good work, they save lives, but you’ve revoked his visa for some reason and you won’t say why and it just doesn’t make any sense. Why is the U.S. taxpayer supporting a group whose leader you have banned from coming to the States?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, look, I’m always willing to try to get more information.
MR TONER: In this case, I’m a bit restricted by the fact that this is —
QUESTION: Just – well, I know, but it just —
MR TONER: I can’t talk about a specific visa.