"The situation in Syria is nothing short of catastrophic," announced ICRC director of operations Pierre Krähenbühl after a four-day visit to the country. Civilians are being killed and injured. Millions have been displaced and thousands have gone missing or been arrested.
Mr Krähenbühl was speaking at a press conference during which he and Walter Cotte (Under Secretary General for Programme Services at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) reported on their recent visit to the country.
This is a summary of the information that Mr Krähenbühl and Mr Cotte provided at that event
After two years, and with no end to the military confrontations in sight, the situation for the population is catastrophic. Civilians are being killed and injured. Millions have been displaced and thousands have gone missing or been arrested.
In areas of rural Damascus, property and infrastructure have been destroyed, adding to the misery of the Syrian people. ICRC teams carrying out fieldwork around the country speak of the despair of civilians who have had to flee time and time again as the frontlines shift.
Women and children have taken shelter in mosques, schools, sports centres and other public buildings. Many more struggle in parks and makeshift shelters. They survive for weeks on minimal support, often without electricity or running water.
Medical facilities and personnel continue to suffer acts of violence. There are widespread reports of patients arrested inside hospitals, of reprisals against doctors and nurses, of attacks on ambulances and of misuse of these vehicles. While it is difficult to verify every such act of violence, the pattern is widespread and is of grave concern.
Humanitarian operations in Syria are highly complex. There are numerous constraints, the most daunting being the extreme lack of security, the fluidity of the frontlines and the multiplicity of armed actors, including government security forces and various groups of the armed opposition.
What the ICRC and the SARC are doing
The ICRC has been able to carry out a significant number of field activities with its partner the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and has also been able to carry out such work in areas under the control of the opposition.
In 2012, the ICRC and the SARC made over 100 trips to different parts of the country. We distributed food and hygiene parcels to 1.5 million people, many of them displaced, who had not had access to basic commodities or services since fleeing their homes.
Our water projects helped millions of people, in all provinces, regardless of where they were living. These projects included pipeline repairs carried out with local contractors in Aleppo, the installation of a generator in Homs, providing water for 800,000 people, and deliveries of water by road to IDP centres. Throughout the country, water chlorination has ensured that the water remained safe to drink.
In addition, we have been improving living conditions and water supplies at 99 centres, where 35,000 IDPs have taken refuge, in towns such as Aleppo, Homs, Sweida and Deir Ezzor.
We have also been distributing medical supplies at many locations around the country.
For the SARC, the change of pace has been dramatic. In Damascus, for instance the SARC coordination centre used to handle about 25 ambulance operations a day. That number has doubled to 50, which brings with it the need for increased resources. In addition to working with the ICRC, the National Society is providing psycho-social support, especially to children. The SARC has 11,000 highly committed, dedicated volunteers working on the ground, close to the community. Eight of them have paid for their dedication with their lives while on duty.
Cross-border versus cross-line operations
There has been much debate in recent months about the impartiality of aid delivery and about other ways of reaching people in areas under opposition control. Cross-border operations have been suggested. The ICRC sees it as legitimate to look at different ways of ensuring that aid reaches those in need, but we have opted for cross-line operations. That does not mean that the ICRC excludes the possibility of cross-border operations, but we would only carry out such action with the agreement of all concerned – the Syrian government, the opposition and the governments of the neighbouring countries concerned. Our recent visit to Al-Houleh has shown that we are able to cross frontlines to bring aid.
Mounting cross-line operations is challenging, not least because – as in every conflict – neither side is keen to see us crossing into the area held by their enemy. But this is our way of providing humanitarian aid, building acceptance and trying to reach the regions most affected. In my meetings with the Syrian Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs (Hossam Eddine Alaa), I emphasized how important it was for the ICRC and SARC to have better access to all regions with urgent needs, including those under opposition control.
Need to expand operations
After a difficult period between July and October 2012, where field movements were extremely limited, the number of ICRC/SARC teams accessing delicate regions has been on the rise again over the past four months. At the end of January, we were able to deliver aid to Al-Houleh, a locality under control of the opposition, and that is a sign of improvement. I have come back from Syria convinced that we can and must expand our operations in the coming weeks and months and that we can and must build on our increasing presence in the most delicate regions, including those under opposition control.
Detention visits have not progressed as we would have wished over the last six months.
The ICRC has carried out two visits since 2011, to the central prisons in Aleppo and Damascus. That was good, but it is not enough. Of course, some places of detention are in areas too dangerous for us to enter. But this limited access means that there is no monitoring of the situation of detainees. That would be very worrying in any armed conflict and it is certainly a serious concern in Syria.
During his meeting at the Foreign Ministry, Mr Krähenbühl requested concrete action from the authorities on a plan of visits to several prisons over the coming weeks, based on the commitment they had made and reconfirmed at that meeting. It is vital that the ICRC be able to resume prison visits quickly, in order to ensure effective monitoring of conditions and treatment in accordance with the standard procedures that the ICRC applies worldwide. The ICRC will continue to press the Syrian authorities on this issue in the coming days.
Finally, there is the devastating impact of attacks on medical facilities, health personnel, etc. We have recently heard about an incident in the north of Syria, in which wounded people were arrested inside a hospital and medical staff were later killed because they were suspected of having supplied the information that led to the arrests. Incidents like this are turning what used to be an efficient health system into a wasteland in parts of the country. Some hospitals have been taken over by armed groups and many dedicated doctors and nurses have fled the most dangerous areas.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, many have asked whether working inside Syria is not a case of “mission impossible,” fraught with constraints and risks of being instrumentalized. There is a need to step up the collective humanitarian response significantly, and the ICRC and the SARC are working on that. There have been comments to the effect that the ICRC is naïve to believe it can mount a truly impartial operation from inside Syria with outreach to civilians on all sides. The ICRC accepts that this debate keeps us on our toes and that there are many dilemmas. But we have always preferred the dilemmas associated with being present, with trying to reach as many people as possible. And the ICRC is doing exactly that.