The US government recently froze funding for the Syrian search and rescue group known as the White Helmets – a group celebrated internationally for their live-saving work but condemned by the Syrian government and its closest allies.
The move is part of an effort initiated by President Donald Trump earlier this spring to reassess broader US spending in the Syrian conflict, which effectively put a halt on $200 million in funding across the board.
“We are actively reviewing our current Syria assistance programs at the President’s request, including U.S. support for the White Helmets,” a State Department official told CNN Friday, noting that the United States has provided over $33 million to the group since 2013.
“The US jointly supports the White Helmets with other donors and we expect their operations to continue as a result of additional multilateral donations,” said the official. “The President has been clear that partners and allies should assume a larger role in stabilizing Syria.”
In an interview with CBS News, the chairman of the White Helmets, Raed Al-Saleh, said the freeze came as a shock.
“Ultimately, this will negatively impact the humanitarian workers ability to save lives,” he is quoted as saying.
But in a subsequent statement issued Friday, Saleh said the group does not receive direct funding from the United States, but rather, “from organizations and associations.”
“Our work hasn’t been disrupted and all the projects we are working on will not be halted,” he added, “and our volunteers are still operating on the ground.”
Earlier this year, Saleh visited Washington, DC, where he and his group were celebrated for their work in Syria.
Speaking to reporters during that trip, Saleh said he’d received promises from friendly governments – including the United States – to continue providing critical funding.
The US State Department hosted Saleh for meetings during his visit, and later conducted a screening of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Last Men in Aleppo,” which shows their search and rescue efforts in that city during the Syrian government’s siege.
The agency’s spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said at a subsequent press briefing in April that the administration was “very grateful for all the work that the White Helmets continues to do on behalf of the people of their country and on behalf of the U.S. Government and all the coalition forces.”
“They’re doing incredible work in rescuing in some cases, and in other cases it’s recovery efforts,” Nauert added. “They’re an incredible group of individuals.”
The White Helmets were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for their work in Syria.
But the Syrian government and its allies have long vilified the group. The Russian government, in particular, has called the White Helmets “terrorists,” and accused them of staging recent chemical attacks linked to the regime.
CNN’s Hamdi Alkhshali and Elise Labott contributed reporting.