Political discourse is important in media and politics, especially the definitions of the words that we use in discourse.
In Nicaragua v. United States (1984), the International Court of Justice established many principles of international law that apply to the current situation in Syria and I suspect that if this case were tried today with the same judges, it would probably have the same ruling. One aspect aside from the military situation that is quite nuanced is the issue of humanitarian aid.
At issue in Nicaragua was whether humanitarian aid sent to the region during the war was in fact humanitarian aid or soft military aid. What they established was key– they stated that humanitarian aid is defined as aid that follows the general mission of the Red Cross and that is also indiscriminately distributed to civilians in all sides of a conflict. This has remained customary international law and is reflected within the text of the Syrian cessation of hostilities agreement from 2016 which states:
“…humanitarian access should not benefit any particular group over any other, but shall be granted by all sides to all people in need, in full compliance with UNSCR 2254 and international humanitarian law.”
In Nicaragua, the ICJ found that the United States had provided aid to Contra terrorists in soft military aid through USAID, which the Congress deemed to be a neutral agent of humanitarian aid (as per the congressional bill that approved the aid). The problem is that USAID is a subsidiary of the State Department– the Court took this into account in their ruling.
Today, the Syrian White Helmets provide aid within rebel-held areas of Syria. While they may be called independent in a legal sense, they were established under the supervision of a British military contractor and receive funding from various western government agencies including USAID. Sound familiar? While a hypothetical Court may not be able to sufficiently draw the quid pro quo connections to deem the White Helmets an organ of the United States, et al., it is quite evident to anyone who can see what’s going on. If we get past this there is the issue of whether the aid is discriminatory or not. Even within the mainstream it is widely acknowledged that the White Helmets are only operating in rebel-occupied areas of Syria.
Not only are many White Helmet volunteers former (or current) militants, they are hand in hand with militants in an organizational structure and thus could be sufficiently established as an organ of the opposition. Aid distribution from the White Helmets reflects this in every case; if they were a neutral organization, why did they not help the situation in Damascus when millions were facing water insecurity at the hands of rebel groups? Why do they shy away from government-held areas? Because they are not neutral.
If we juxtapose the White Helmets with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent that has been in operation since 1942, that has more than 3 times as many volunteers as the White Helmets, operates all over Syria, is part of the International Federation, and has been accredited by the International Committee of the Red Cross since 1946, then we see that this is an organization that fits the Court’s definition of humanitarian aid. The Red Crescent has even been involved in helping militants relocate, for example in Darayya when militants surrendered to government forces. However, the use of the name “The Syrian Civil Defence” by the White Helmets misleads many in the public arena into believing that they are the only public aid program in Syria and the legitimate one when in fact they are not.
Their goal is to discredit the legitimate government of Syria by framing the government as savage murderers of their own people, and to frame the opposition, with themselves firmly planted in this umbrella, as the saviors of Syria. At this point over 200,000 people have pulled together around 12 million pounds for the Syrian White Helmets which demonstrates the sheer effectiveness of the media discourse surrounding not only this particular organization but of the war in general. However, according to the principles of international law this is not humanitarian aid and violates many of the established agreements to come out of the peace process in Syria.
You can read an extensive two-part analysis on the White Helmets by Max Blumenthal of Alternet here.