What Syria looks like to Red Cross workers on the ground

September 16, 2013

A man walks in front of a burning building after a Syrian Air force air strike in Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus. (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files)

Most foreign embassies in Damascus have shut down and several non-governmental organizations operating in the country have either pulled out or downsized. The International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria, though, has expanded. ICRC staff are among the few in the country that manage to cross front lines with relative ease, giving them a unique vantage point of a conflict that has become increasingly dangerous for journalists and aid workers. Magne Barth, the head of mission of the ICRC in Syria, responded to questions by email.

Washington Post: How big is the International Committee of the Red Cross’ operation in Syria now?

Magne Barth: The ICRC operation in Syria is today our largest in the world. Our budget doubled in the spring, leaving us with roughly $100 million. The situation is dire, but this budget has given us the means to expand and attempt to address needs that are beyond what any one organization can address. The mission is headquartered in Damascus, the capital, and we have recently managed to establish permanent presence with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the contested city of Aleppo, in the north, and in Tartous, a port city in the Mediterranean. We have approximately 30 expatriates and some 130 Syrians on staff. The operation will continue to grow, as our presence in the field is essential. You cannot work only from Damascus. Only when we are on the ground with international and Syrian staff, can we assess needs, plan adequate responses and manage security concerns.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) is our main partner. Almost all of ICRC’s operations go hand-in-hand with the SARC. They have branches throughout the country, as well as staff and volunteers that can reach out directly to the people in need. SARC is designated by the authorities in Damascus as the coordinator of humanitarian aid in Syria, and it works with other aid agencies. Without SARC we would not be able to do much in Syria today. SARC carries a heavy burden, having had 22 volunteers killed during the conflict. These people deserve a lot of respect for what they do.

WP: How much access do you have to areas controlled by the Assad government and how much access do you have to areas controlled by the opposition?  

MB: As an institution with a mandate endorsed by all states and rooted in the Geneva Conventions -- which governs the rules of conduct in war -- ICRC must work transparently with all countries. There is continuous dialogue with the Syrian authorities, centrally and locally, on our mission to help to as many victims as possible. Our largest program is in the field of water and sanitation. We run a massive program together with the SARC and with central and local water authorities, in most governorates in Syria today. These include emergency repairs on infrastructure, in hundreds of collective shelters for the displaced, as well as helping secure clean drinking water for around 20 million people by supplying and distributing the chemicals needed for treatment. Water systems are integrated and serve both government and opposition held territories. Fortunately, the provision of safe drinking water has not been politicized so far.

Working in partnership with SARC, we are also able to deliver substantial amounts of food, roughly 90,000 food parcels for families per month, in nine governorates. Some of these are made in areas under control of the opposition.

It is important to note that we need authorizations both to move personnel and goods. We are able to move both in many parts of the country, but would very much want to reach further. The security situation sometimes makes movements impossible, but frequently, the reason we are unable to reach critical destinations is the lack of authorization. This is particularly true for medical supplies destined for opposition-held areas. In some besieged areas around Damascus and the city centre of Homs, no humanitarian access has been authorized even in situations in which -- based on the ICRC's own assessment -- it would have been safe to deliver.

This is not to say that we have no access to opposition-held areas. We cross into and through opposition-controlled territory relatively frequently, for instance every time we travel to Idlib and Aleppo from Damascus. Apart from authorizations, it is also important to develop contacts with government officials at various levels as well as armed groups. We need these contacts for our security and having personnel in the field is the only way of establishing these relationships. This takes time and continuous effort, because the key interlocutors constantly change.

We also place a high premium on building a network of contacts among the many stakeholders and participants in the conflict for in order to bring up concerns we have with regard to the respect -- and often disregard -- for international humanitarian law (the laws of war). Up to this point, there has been only very limited dialogue with the government and leaders in the opposition about what needs to be done to preserve the rights of civilians, the wounded and detainees.

WP: What are crucial areas you have been unable to reach and what is stopping you?

MB: Some of the 'hottest' areas, where fighting is or has been very intense, have been and often remain off limits for us. Around Damascus there are key areas where civilians and wounded people need aid, that we and SARC are not able to reach because we have not secured permission. The same is the case in central Homs. Certain opposition areas remain off limits to us due to insecurity and/or lack of contacts with armed groups on the ground. Sometimes there are legitimate security constraints that prevent us from assisting. But our desire is to expand our network of contacts so we can expand the reach of our assistance. Our message to the government and to the armed groups is: give us the space and permission to move in, to approach the population and plan the delivery of aid.

WP: Has ICRC managed to reach areas impacted by reported chemical attacks? If not, why?

MB: The Aug. 21 chemical attack that has drawn worldwide attention happened in eastern Ghouta, an area in Rural Damascus. ICRC has not been allowed by the authorities to access this area for months, well before that incident, despite repeated requests. We know there are needs in that area, because there has been extensive fighting there for several months. This is why we continue to appeal to the Syrian government that we should be allowed to enter the area and deliver medical and other humanitarian aid alongside Red Crescent personnel.

WP: What is ICRC's position regarding a possible U.S. military strike in Syria?

MB: ICRC is not part of  the political or a military conflict in Syria. That means we do not take a position on any military move or operation as such. We observe and analyze, particularly with a view to understanding the humanitarian consequences. We have expressed publicly our concern that a military strike of this nature could lead to an escalation of the conflict, trigger even more displacement and exacerbate the humanitarian situation. Right now, of course, we follow very closely the most recent diplomatic developments linked to monitoring and destruction of chemical weapons, recognizing that the conflict still rages on the ground.

ICRC will continue to address the needs, and we will try our best to respond to them, whichever way the conflict goes. It should be understood, however, that humanitarian aid can only alleviate some of the suffering caused by the conflict. A conflict like the one we have in Syria today needs a political solution. And it is the role of political leaders and political institutions to find those solutions. As we are still far from an end to this conflict, ICRC with SARC will continue to strive to support the victims on an impartial basis, to the best of our ability.

WP: Your staff is able able to cross front lines in Syria. How do you negotiate that kind of access?

MB: When we cross frontlines in the field, from government-held areas to areas controlled by various different groups, this normally happens through contacts that SARC and the ICRC have in a particular region. It is then a question of permission to move, of security, of what we bring with us in terms of support for the population and what the purpose of the mission is. It’s worth noting that our teams often encounter needy populations in transit to the main location aid is to be delivered. We try to take the needs of those people into account in our planning, recognizing it contributes to our safe passage.

WP: What are the risks of doing so? Have there been close calls?

MB: The ICRC and SARC teams face an array of risks. There are mortars or rocket fire, which is usually the result of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than being directly targeted. This is a risk that is difficult to eliminate completely. Sniper fire is another threat we encounter and try to avoid. Roadside bombs are also of concern. SARC volunteers have been killed in shootings. ICRC personnel have been shot at various times and one team was close to an improvised explosive device. These risks can be reduced to some degree through networking and monitoring the developments on the military front. A residual risk remains, however, and we recognize that it is part of the job. Finally, kidnapping can not be totally excluded and it is a growing concern, particularly for our local colleagues and their families.

WP: Does ICRC have contacts with al-Nusra, the Islamist rebel groups, and others like it?

MB: ICRC personnel encounter various islamist groups in the field, and when we do, we talk to them. We have a somewhat more structured dialogue with some of them, centered around access, needs and also conduct of hostilities, as well as tentative talks on access to detainees.

WP: With most embassies and foreign NGOs evacuated, you and your colleagues must be among the few expats with relative freedom of movement around the country. What is it like? How do people treat you?

MB: We have teams moving in the country, for operational reasons, to Homs and Hama, where we currently have a huge water project to restore water supply to more than 1.5 million people. Or they move to Tartous and Lattakia to work with SARC to support displaced Syrians, or to support health structures. We recently flew to Hassakeh in the North East to work on water. We live and work permanently in Aleppo. We try to have people in the field as much as we can, to constantly improve our understanding of the needs, build networks and to improve our response. A limited  number of international staff work out of the main office in Damascus. We move freely in the central parts of the city. There is a strong sense of normality on the surface, but the city is affected. Shelling is commonplace around the city. Mortars and other explosives regularly go off, also  in the capital. Of course, under these conditions, we must be very cautious and maintain a high state of awareness. We are in the middle of an armed conflict, and we need to adapt to that. But to work and live in such an environment, one also has to balance security precautions against the stress that these same measures create on the teams. It is always a balance of protection and safety on one hand, and maintaining an efficient operation on the other hand, while also giving team members the chance to preserve as much 'normality' in their daily life as possible.

There are many displaced Syrians who have moved away from the war, into Damascus. I have many colleagues in that situation, people who are struggling to make ends meet. Many have had relatives killed or wounded. They all 'feel' the war and hope for a better tomorrow. As colleagues, we try -- as best as we can -- to support them morally in this difficult situation.

I lived in Syria for a period before the conflict, and I always found Syrians to be very friendly and welcoming. As foreigners, we are treated very well in this city and in the country. People suffer, they are worried, but they appreciate support, help and solidarity. I always felt very welcome here.

WP: You led the ICRC's Iraq mission during trying times. Which mission has been tougher and why?

MB: Every mission is different, with distinct challenges and bright spots. I lived in Baghdad from 2009 to 2011, a period marked by political transition, the U.S. military withdrawal and a wave of bombings in Baghdad and other cities. There was a lot of unpredictability and insecurity for our mission, which was in the process of establishing a permanent presence in Baghdad after years of overseeing our efforts in Iraq from neighboring Jordan.

We were forced to operate that way after our office in Baghdad took a direct hit in October 2003, which killed many people. When I moved back into Baghdad in Nov. 2009, we had many concerns about our ability to set up a “normal” presence that would be safe and accepted by all stakeholders, including armed groups. Time showed it was possible to 'cross the river' so to speak, and return to Iraq.

 Syria is in a very different situation in the current period. The most brutal period of the Iraq war had ended by the time I arrived. Here, the war is still raging, with no end in sight. The number of people killed, wounded, maimed in Syria is staggering. UN figures suggest that more than 100,000 have been killed during the conflict in Syria. That figure is comparable to credible estimates of how many Iraqis died between 2003 and 2013. So the suffering here is enormous, and the conflict remains very violent.

As ICRC we are gradually expanding our operation in Syria, but this needs to be done incrementally. The needs are much larger than our capacity to meet them, and it is deeply frustrating -- personally and professionally -- not to be able to do even more. The security challenges are different here and very complex. We are in a war situation, with very intense fighting between parties. As long as we can work meaningfully together with SARC, striving to reach the victims, whoever and wherever they are, ICRC will do what is possible -- and hopefully even a little more.

WP: The threat of chemical weapons looms large in Syria. Are the ICRC  and other aid organizations equipped to help Syrians prepare for the possibility of future chemical attacks?

MB: We have very limited capacity to provide aid specifically suited for victims of chemical weapons. The attack in Eastern Ghoutta was terrible in terms of the number of victims. But if we regard the conflict as a whole, the overwhelming number of people have been killed and wounded in conventional attacks with artillery, aerial bombardments, bombings and shootings. This is true even in Eastern Ghouta, which saw plenty of 'conventional' fighting for months before chemical weapons were employed. We would like to expand our aid for the entire health sector in Syria, to reach wounded and sick on all sides. Providing the means to treat victims of chemical exposure is only a small part of that broader effort.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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