BEIRUT — An international operation to rescue more than a hundred Syrian rescue workers and their families took place early Sunday, carrying hundreds of civilians through Israel and Jordan under cover of darkness as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces prepared to take control of the area.
The Israeli Defense Forces said in a statement that the operation had been carried out due to an “immediate threat” to the rescue workers’ lives. Jordan later confirmed that 422 Syrian citizens had crossed its border, and that they would now be resettled as refugees in several Western countries.
The rescue workers — most of them women — had been among tens of thousands of civilians packed into a final pocket of opposition-held territory along Syria’s border with Israel as rebel forces there struck a surrender deal with the government.
Under the terms of the agreement, militants who do not wish to reconcile with the state are being bused to northern Syria where they will join more than 2 million people, around half of them displaced from other areas, in the final zone of opposition control.
The operation, the first of its kind, was carried out at the request of the United States and several European countries, all of which provide funding to the White Helmets rescue group.
Still formally at war with Syria, Israel has periodically waded into the conflict to curtail Iran’s growing influence in the region or deal with spillover from battles along its border. Despite international pleas, Israel has consistently pushed back against international pressure to take in refugees, even as neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have altogether accepted millions of Syrian civilians.
The Syrian and Russian air forces have repeatedly targeted rescue workers, sometimes launching follow-up strikes as a team sifts the wreckage for civilians.
“White Helmets have been the target of attacks and, due to their high profile, we judged that, in these particular circumstances, the volunteers required immediate protection,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt in a joint statement Sunday.
“They are now being assisted by the UNHCR in Jordan pending international resettlement.”
— The Washington Post’s Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report