US President Donald Trump has authorized the release of $6.6 million in previously frozen funding for a volunteer organization that has been blamed for staging suspected chemical attacks in Syria.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that Washington “strongly supports” the White Helmets.
“These heroic first responders have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and continue to be deliberately targeted by the Syrian regime and Russian airstrikes,” the statement read, without referring to the remaining $193.4 million that remains frozen.
Back in March, Trump ordered the State Department to suspend $200 million in recovery funds for Syria, including aid to the White Helmets, amid a review of the future of the US role in the war-torn country.
Both Damascus and Moscow have accused the volunteer group of having staged the suspected gas attack in the town of Douma in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region on April 7.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has described the White Helmets as “a branch of al-Qaeda and al-Nusra” militant groups and a “PR stunt” by the US, the UK and France.
One week after the Douma incident, the trio launched a coordinated missile attack against sites and research facilities near Damascus and Homs with the purported goal of paralyzing the Syrian government’s capability to produce chemicals.
“They (the British) spent a lot of money, and we consider the White Helmets to be a PR stunt by the UK. So yes, definitely, it (Douma attack) was staged by these three countries together, and the UK is involved,” Assad said.
Anti-war activist Mike Raddie told Russia’s RT television network that the White Helmets has been instrumental in justifying the trilateral strikes on Syria and that the US relies on the group for another missile attack on the Arab country.
“The Pentagon planners have probably finally realized just how important the White Helmets are to the regime change operation,” he said. “The fact that they have been so successful in proving fake imagery and fake evidence… just means that they can be relied upon whenever there is a need for a pretext for another missile attack or even a full-scale invasion.”
US threatens ‘firm’ measures against Syria
On Friday, the State Department threatened the Syrian government with “firm and appropriate measures” in response to alleged violations in a de-escalation zone in the country’s southwest.
It also noted that “the ceasefire must continue to be enforced and respected” in the Syrian areas bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The US threat came at a time that the Syrian army is conducting a counter-terrorism operation to retake the southwestern Dara’a Province after liberating militant-held areas near the capital, Damascus.
Dara’a’s return to the Syrian government control would cut the much-reported collaboration between Israel and anti-Damascus militants and deal a blow to Tel Aviv’s plans to annex the Golan Heights.
Putin, Netanyahu discuss Syria crisis
On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a phone conversation over the Syria crisis.
The Kremlin said in a statement that the two sides had discussed “the situation in Syria in the context of joint efforts to ensure security around” the border with the occupied lands.
“Both sides expressed readiness to boost coordination on Syria, including on countering international terrorism,” the statement added.
Over the past few years, Israel has frequently attacked military targets inside Syria in an attempt to prop up terrorist groups that have been suffering defeats against Syrian government forces.
Israel has also been providing weapons to anti-Damascus militants as well as medical treatment to the Takfiri elements wounded in Syria.