There are no 'good' or 'bad' civilians in Syria – we must help all who need aid
05-03-2013 by Pierre Krähenbühl, ICRC director of operations
The Red Cross is working across frontlines inside Syria; not everyone who needs assistance is near a border or can get out.
Article published by the Guardian on 3 March 2013 and reproduced here with the newspaper's kind permission.
In recent weeks there has been much debate about the supposed failure of international aid organisations to reach people in need in opposition-held areas of Syria. It is healthy and justified to critically review the humanitarian response in any armed conflict, to analyse whether or not it is carried out in a principled manner.
But criticism from some aid organisations and advocacy groups has gone further, arguing that the humanitarian effort has been seriously unbalanced. Some governments have suggested the only way to reach millions in opposition-held areas is to transport aid across borders, even without approval from the Syrian authorities.
A number of misconceptions need to be highlighted here. First is the notion that no aid is reaching opposition-held areas. Some have calculated the percentage of aid they believe is reaching these areas as somewhere between 1% and 15% of total deliveries. As always with figures in wars, those who formulate them have no means of backing them up. But they stick in people's mind and in public debates.
Second, where most observers want to see neat dividing lines between government-held areas and those controlled by the opposition, the reality in Syria is far more fluid and complex: street-to-street fighting, areas taken over by one side and then by the other, frontlines dividing up urban areas or snaking around them to isolate besieged populations.
We agree fully that more assistance is needed to address the immense suffering in general and certainly for civilians in opposition-held areas. We in the International Committee of the Red Cross are pushing for that every day, with success and setbacks. The constraints are many. Excessive controls on aid agencies working in the country, the fragmentation of the armed opposition and the intensity of military confrontations have made the operating environment extremely volatile and insecure.
But we do not believe that cross-border operations are the only answer to the needs of the population. Many of those suffering don't live in border areas; they are located deep inside Syria, in urban environments that are very difficult to reach from opposition-held areas supplied across borders. This explains why we chose to build an operation from inside Syria. Relief operations that go across frontlines, rather than across borders, are the crucial lifeline for populations most in need.
Together with volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent we have been able to deliver much-needed food and essential household items to a number of opposition-held areas, most recently Al-Houleh, in Homs province, by negotiating to cross frontlines. Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers have also managed to reach people in need in Mambej, Azaz and Atmeh. Assistance reaches far more people, on both sides of the conflict, than can be directly identified – a backup generator installed at the Homs city pumping station has ensured a reliable water supply for more than 800,000 people, even in opposition-held areas. And in Aleppo, although our teams cannot be present because of continuous fighting, we work through private contractors to rehabilitate water pumps and install generators, as well as improving sanitary and kitchen facilities in centres housing the displaced.
However, this does not convince those who insist on seeing "good civilians" or "bad civilians" depending on where they are located. When a town of 10,000 is attacked and women and children have a few minutes to grab some possessions and flee, they go wherever the safest route will take them, no matter who is in control. It is most often not a political choice, but a question of sheer survival. Wherever they arrive, they are entitled to assistance.
It is a tempting substitute, when a political response to a crisis is inadequate, to support interventionist humanitarian action. In Syria, the narrative has shifted to one where the distribution of aid is judged impartial if it reaches the side that one supports.
We have been described as naive to believe that a truly impartial humanitarian response is possible from within Syria. We are aware of the challenges but have always preferred the dilemmas associated with being present and working extremely hard to reach people in need on all sides.
Fundamentally, the reality of the Syrian conflict is that only political action will help resolve it and spare the lives of further hundreds of thousands at risk. Politicising aid is not the answer and will make no difference to millions of men, women and children whose lives are being torn apart before the world.