The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the humanitarian institution that provides relief and protection for victims of war and violence, is struggling to meet the needs of Syrian civilians as the country is further engulfed in crises, says ICRC president Peter Maurer.
Speaking to Syria Deeply, Maurer said many Syrians are facing “multiple displacements” as fighting continues unabated. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 3.9 million Syrians have registered as refugees and are scattered in countries across the Middle East, particularly Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.
As armed groups such as the Islamic State and the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) continue to gain ground in Syria, humanitarian organizations face new and increasingly difficult challenges while delivering aid to and providing protection for displaced Syrians and those living in besieged areas. The international community has failed to make good on the United Nations’ calls for cross-border assistance delivery. As recently as March, nearly 5 million Syrians were believed to be cut off from access to food or medical services in difficult-to-reach or besieged areas, according to a UN secretary-general press release.
Pointing to the “multiplicity of actors” controlling different parts of the country today, Maurer said that humanitarian organizations will continue failing to meet the security, economic and social needs of Syrians in the absence of a political solution. “There is no easy part of Syria where you can just load a truck with humanitarian aid in the morning and unload it in the afternoon without major difficulties,” he said.
Maurer spoke to Syria Deeply about the challenges humanitarian groups are facing and the urgent need for progress on the political front.
Syria Deeply: What are the most important developments regarding the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria?
Peter Maurer: It isn’t easily understandable if I just tell you the most pressing issue is water, displacement, food or medicine – what a humanitarian observer would normally tell you. What we have seen unfold over the last year is that the conflict has become increasingly regional, meaning that it affects not only Syria but the whole region.
Most of the key activities of humanitarian organizations like the ICRC are not responding to temporary disruption of services, like electricity, water, medicine, food or housing. These disruptions have become a continuous systemic feature [of life in Syria]. Imagine, in Aleppo there is a maximum of one hour of electricity a day. This is a systemic problem and we see it increasingly in many cities in Syria.
Another element is that people are experiencing multiple displacements in that region. It’s not like four years ago when they were displaced the first time and people had a little bit of [money] in their pockets to organize their life. Today the economy is gone and multiple displacements are a common feature. People’s lives are disrupted in a very long-term way. The regional dimension, the systemic dimension and the repeated displacement – in terms of the humanitarian crisis – are all much more prominent today.
Syria Deeply: What are some of the factors behind these new humanitarian developments? How have they impacted humanitarian groups’ ability to respond to Syrians in need?
Peter Maurer: This conflict started as a public uprising against a government. It has developed into an internal armed conflict, which has then developed into a regional conflict. I hesitate, but I think it is increasingly becoming a proxy war of regional powers. It is just another escalation that we are presently experiencing. All these factors that I mentioned lead to an enormous humanitarian need. Despite the fact that we try to and do respond continually and increasingly to those needs, the equation doesn’t look good for the Syrian people. We are continuously delivering much less than we should deliver because the needs are much bigger than our ability and the ability of the international community. This happens in a situation of increasing economic disruption affecting people. That’s the overall picture, which unfortunately looks rather bleak.
Syria Deeply: What complications do you face on the ground from the Assad regime and rebel groups while delivering aid?
Peter Maurer: You have a multiplicity of armed actors controlling swathes of territory in Syria, which makes it extremely difficult to know who is in charge of which part of Syrian territory and to have a continuous supply of humanitarian aid organized and negotiated along a multiplicity of groups and actors. It increases the complexity of negotiating conventional humanitarian assistance. I am not blaming one side or another side because there is no one side or another. There are multiple sides and it’s enormously complex to get to all of those sides, explain what we are doing and ensure safety for our colleagues.
There are parts of Syria we haven’t been to in weeks, months or a year. It’s important to recognize that while we do our best to negotiate a space for delivering humanitarian assistance, it is extremely difficult to reach besieged areas or opposition-controlled areas. There are probably four million people in besieged areas that are hard to reach. Neither we nor anyone else are really able to have a sustained humanitarian activity [in such areas].
With that said, to be very frank, difficulties are not limited to besieged areas or opposition-controlled areas. It is sometimes difficult because of the general situation to have meaningful humanitarian assistance in many parts of the country. The frontlines and battlefields are still active – this is an open conflict with warfare taking place. All of this adds to the complexity of responding to the crises in Syria at the present moment.
Syria Deeply: There have been some reports of armed groups in Syria confiscating humanitarian aid or levying taxes as a precondition for allowing humanitarian aid to pass. Has the ICRC encountered this and how does this affect humanitarian groups’ ability to reach the civilian population?
Peter Maurer: This is a continued worry, but I want to be very clear on our policy: we either negotiate access or operations according to our principles – which are need based – or we do not operate at all. The ICRC does not pay levies or taxes. There may be – and there have been – times when trucks are abducted by armed factions from time to time. We follow up accordingly and engage [with the relevant parties] in those situations.
Of course, there is no question that we, as an organization, do not condone those tactics and we engage with all relevant actors to make them understand our approach.
Syria Deeply: What are the biggest challenges in providing aid to Syrian refugees in neighboring countries?
Peter Maurer: First and foremost, while access is a huge challenge in Syria and parts of Iraq, access is not a challenge in either Jordan or Lebanon. There are different approaches for how the host countries wish to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees. Some have decided that camp solutions are preferable to other types of solutions. The ICRC views this as a political issue that is left to the host countries. What is important to the ICRC in those contexts is that we design projects in a way that doesn’t foster conflict between host communities and refugee communities. This is our biggest worry, for instance, in Lebanon. There is a temptation to only look at the situation through the lens of Syrian refugees’ needs. Host communities pay an enormous price in terms of costs and humanitarian impact on them and their social services. In the neighboring countries, the situation looks very different [than in Syria]. We have access to the Syrians, but designing projects and programs in a way to address both the needs of host and refugee communities is a big challenge.
Syria Deeply: What needs to happen in order for humanitarian groups reaching out to civilians in need to be more effective as the challenges continue to mount in Syria?
Peter Maurer: At the end of the day, it is very clear that this conflict needs a political solution in order to address the root of the humanitarian problems. These problems have taken a dimension that isn’t fixable by humanitarian [groups]. It needs a political framework that brings stability to the country and the region in order to reestablish services for people in need in a much more sustainable way. Only if there is meaningful progress on the political level will it also be possible to address the problems we are confronting at the present moment. Unfortunately we don’t see any major political progress in Syria or any other of the regional conflicts right now.