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Syria: No consensus reached on aid efforts

05-02-2014 Interview

What is the humanitarian situation in Syria now that the Geneva II conference has ended? Robert Mardini, the ICRC's head of operations for the Near and Middle East, provides some answers.

Homs, January 2014
© Reuters / Thaer Al Khalidiya

You recently accompanied the ICRC’s president to Syria to negotiate access. The Geneva II conference, where many declarations were made about evacuating civilians from the old city of Homs and delivering aid, ended a few days ago. What concrete changes have taken place on the ground?

Unfortunately, none so far. The ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent still do not have access to the old city of Homs or to any other besieged areas in Syria. We of course welcomed the declarations and promises that were made here in Geneva, just as we welcomed those made during our recent visit to Damascus. But what is needed now is for the talk to be backed up with action. The guarantees given in Geneva are not enough – we need guarantees from the parties on the ground, in the old city of Homs and elsewhere. For meaningful humanitarian work to take place, it has to be non-fragmented, and it has to enjoy the strong support not only of the politicians who were in Geneva but also of leaders on the ground in Syria. It must have the solid backing of all parties involved.

So what is the humanitarian situation in the old city of Homs today? Would proposals made in Geneva, if carried through, be enough to save the people there?

The last time we were in the old city of Homs was in November 2012. Even then, the situation was catastrophic, so you can imagine how it must be now after more than a year under siege. Since then, despite all the efforts we have made together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, we have never managed to obtain the authorizations and guarantees we need from all parties involved to return to Homs and bring in urgently needed assistance. Reports have been reaching us of acute shortages of food and also, indeed mainly, of medicines and surgical supplies needed to treat critically wounded patients. But we cannot confirm the reports as we cannot go there and check on the situation ourselves.

Homs is one of many areas besieged by government forces or by armed opposition groups where needs are severe. So what is required for civilians, in the old city of Homs as elsewhere in the country, is more than quick fixes and a one-off aid distribution. We should be under no illusion that there will be any quick and easy solutions to the problem. We have to find a much more sustainable way of helping all Syrians, and of bridging the gap between the huge needs and the current humanitarian effort under way to meet them. We are asking for access to all besieged areas in Syria and to all detention places, and to be allowed to distribute aid on an impartial basis.

Is it true that your convoys were not allowed to enter the old city of Homs last week? Are you still able to do your work in Syria despite all the restrictions?

Neither the ICRC nor the Syrian Arab Red Crescent had convoys waiting in front of the old city of Homs last week. We have 200 people permanently based in Syria and we can easily bring the needed assistance into the old city from our facilities in Damascus or Tartous, or from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent warehouse in Homs, once the conditions are right and all the guarantees we need for our work are provided. The aid stocks are available and ready.

Despite all the challenges, our staff are still working hard to help civilians in Syria. ICRC water engineers spent last week in Homs governorate following up on projects we have there. Some of our engineers were also in Al Rastan to install a water pump. Others are hard at work in Aleppo, where many public sanitation and water projects are under way, alongside the distribution of meals and winter assistance that Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers are carrying out for people detained in that city's central prison. Overall, these efforts are making good progress providing water across front lines to millions of people. In terms of food and other assistance, we want to do more but everything depends on having greater access to the field. Our response to medical needs remains weak because of the challenge of persuading everyone concerned that medical supplies and services must be provided on an impartial basis. Finally, we are still seeking access to all places of detention to monitor the treatment and living conditions of detainees. All these issues were re-discussed with the Syrian authorities during our recent visit, and our staff on the ground are handling the necessary follow-up. We hope the efforts will bear fruit soon.

Should an evacuation of civilians from the old city of Homs materialize, are you going to take part in it? What does international humanitarian law say about it? If civilians stay inside, does that mean that they are being or will be used as human shields?

If an evacuation of civilians were to go ahead, we cannot say at this stage whether we would take part. Our participation would depend on the conditions in which the operation took place. Of course, we stand ready not only to provide aid for any civilians who manage to leave, but also and more importantly to bring assistance into the old city. Under international humanitarian law, parties to the conflict must allow civilians in areas besieged by fighting to leave for safer areas should they wish to do so. The parties must also ensure that all necessary measures and precautions are taken to protect civilians; those civilians who choose to stay behind remain protected against attacks under international humanitarian law. In addition, the parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians. All those who are sick or wounded have the right to be treated and cared for without discrimination. The use of human shields is prohibited under international humanitarian law.