The New York Times reports: The leader of a Western-backed rescue organization that searches for survivors of bombings in Syria was denied entry into the United States this week, where he was to receive an award recognizing his contributions to humanitarian relief.
Raed Saleh, the head of the Syria Civil Defense, was to accept the award from InterAction, an alliance of aid agencies, at its gala dinner Tuesday night in Washington. The dinner’s keynote speaker was Gayle Smith, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development.
But when Mr. Saleh, who works in Syria and Turkey, arrived Monday at Washington’s Dulles International Airport on a flight from Istanbul, the authorities said he could not enter the United States. He was told his visa had been canceled.
It was unclear whether Mr. Saleh’s name might have shown up on a database, fed by a variety of intelligence and security agencies and intended to guard against the prospect of terrorism suspects slipping into the country.
The State Department declined to give specifics, but a spokesman, John Kirby, said that “the U.S. government’s system of continual vetting means that traveler records are screened against available information in real time.”
“While we can’t confirm any possible specific actions in this case, we do have the ability to immediately coordinate with our interagency partners when new information becomes available,” he added.
Mr. Saleh was put on the next flight back to Istanbul. In a telephone interview from Istanbul on Wednesday, Mr. Saleh sought to turn the focus to the experience of millions of Syrians who find the world’s borders closed to them.
“In any airport, the treatment we get as Syrians is different,” he said. “The way they look at us, we are suspected.” In his case, he pointed out, he had no intention of staying longer than 16 hours.
His group is widely known as the White Helmets for the headgear its members wear as they rush to bomb sites to rescue survivors and dig out the dead from the rubble. Government supporters have criticized the group for working in some areas held by the Nusra Front, a terrorist organization linked to Al Qaeda. But like many internal aid groups, it says it is neutral and seeks to help civilians no matter whose territory they live in.
Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, called the denial of entry “a scandal.”
“The White Helmets are one of the few organizations in Syria that have been above reproach,” he said. “They have tried to observe strict neutrality in order to facilitate their humanitarian work and save lives. To do this they have worked along side all sorts of militias in order to get to victims of the fighting.”
At the dinner on Tuesday night, InterAction staff members wore white helmets in solidarity — and posted a photo on Twitter.
“I really was moved by this moment,” Mr. Saleh said. “It was a stance of the unity of humanity — and I don’t mean the international community, I mean humanity.” [Continue reading…]
In February, Saleh spoke at the Conference Supporting Syria and the Region, co-hosted in London by the UN and the Governments of the United Kingdom, Kuwait, Germany and Norway.