GENEVA — Syria’s rebels are fragmented into hundreds of armed groups that control swathes of the north, while government forces appear to have consolidated their hold on the capital, a senior Red Cross official said Monday.
Marianne Gasser, who left Syria 10 days ago after completing a term as head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team there, said there had been signs of “more assertiveness” by the government around Damascus since April.
Attempts to deliver aid to both rebel- and government-held parts of the country also were being held up by roadblocks set up by an array of armed groups, she told reporters in Geneva.
Independent accounts of the balance of power in Syria’s two-year-old conflict have been difficult to come by, because of restrictions on the movements of aid workers and journalists.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the ICRC’s partner in Syria, has been the main agency distributing U.N. aid during the fighting, which one opposition group estimates has killed at least 82,000 people.
“We did feel they [the government] had more grip on Damascus and rural Damascus, because it was a little bit more difficult for us to get authorization [and there were] more checkpoints,” Gasser said.
She said that it used to take about four hours to reach the northern city of Aleppo from Damascus but that it now takes nearly two days because many roads are blocked.
Gasser said she encountered about 30 armed groups, half of them previously unknown to ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff, during one March trip from the city of Hama to Aleppo, which is split between the government and rebels.
It was difficult to estimate the number of armed groups overall, she said, “but I would say a few hundred.”
Some of the bigger opposition groups, such as the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, are coalitions that include smaller brigades. The Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra, distinguished by its black flag, also is “very, very fragmented,” Gasser said.
The number and variety of opposition groups made it hard to negotiate access across the conflict lines, she said.
“Sometimes it can take more than two weeks of negotiations with both sides. With armed groups, maybe half of them will accept and with half we still have to negotiate,” she said. “Even if you get the green lights from both sides, you would have some groups or snipers who would not really follow instructions and would shoot at anyone who is trying to cross.”
Some Islamist groups also have objected to the ICRC’s main symbol, the cross — even though it is based on the Swiss flag, not the Christian crucifix.