Photograph by Beha el Halebi–Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
TIME Syria

The White Helmets of Syria

Firefighters extinguish flames following an airstrike by forces loyal to the Syrian government in the rebel-held area of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, on Sept. 11, 2016.
Mohammed Badra—EPA Firefighters extinguish flames following an airstrike by forces loyal to the Syrian government in the rebel-held area of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, on Sept. 11, 2016.

As the war worsens, rescue workers risk their lives on the front lines

In Syria, it’s been all too easy to lose the plot. Things began simply enough, another promising bud in the Arab Spring–ordinary citizens marching peacefully against a Middle Eastern despot.

It was a heart-lifting display, maybe a bit tardy after the movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, but you certainly knew whom to cheer for. The good guys were in plain sight, chanting “Freedom” and “Peace” from orderly rows. Until the government forces opened fire.

But as the crowds scattered for cover and, before long, took up arms themselves, what steadily enveloped the conflict was not so much the fog of war as its miasma. Opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad shattered into more than 1,000 armed groups.

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This appears in the October 17, 2016 issue of TIME.

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