Syria: a human tragedy of catastrophic proportions

“The ICRC is extremely concerned about the humanitarian situation in Syria, which is deteriorating by the day,” says the organization’s director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl. “I have seen some terrible situations in my life but the on-going human tragedy in and around Syria is one of the most alarming I have witnessed… It’s nothing short of catastrophic,” he told Intercross on Tuesday.

His comments came following a meeting with US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and high-level representatives of UN agencies in Washington DC to discuss the growing humanitarian consequences in Syria and surrounding countries.

During the visit to the US capital, he also took part in a meeting with Raj Shah, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“The discussions offered the opportunity to share our reading of the humanitarian situation on the ground and highlight the importance of ensuring long term financial support to address the major needs,” said Mr. Krähenbühl.

“One of the particular concerns that I raised was over the number of attacks being committed against health workers, vehicles and medical facilities.”

According to the ICRC, which works together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARC) to deliver water, food, medical, and other types of assistance across the country, too many doctors, nurses, and ambulance drivers are being killed, injured, or threatened in the line of duty. This hampers the ability to meet both acute, life-saving medical needs and the chronic needs of people suffering from disease.

“Since the start of the conflict, 20 SARC volunteers have died while trying to help others,” said Mr. Krähenbühl. “They put their lives on the line each time they go to work. There is no normal anymore… no task that doesn't involve some level of risk. They, like civilians, are prey to sniper bullets, crossfire, mortar attacks, and other dangers. It has to stop.”

During the discussions at the State Department, Mr. Krähenbühl underscored the need for international humanitarian law (or the law of armed conflict as it’s known in the US) to be respected by everyone taking part in the fighting.

“Civilians are being killed or forced to flee their homes every day. People face a daily struggle just to survive, sometimes trapped in the fighting, while millions are displaced inside Syria or have sought safety across the border in neighboring countries. This is unacceptable,” he told Intercross after the meeting.

Refugee camps and host communities are struggling to cope, while widespread economic deterioration, soaring prices, and the loss of work opportunities have resulted in an increased number of needy families on the other side of Syria’s borders.

The challenges of getting aid where it's needed most are manifold. In particular, widespread insecurity, the intensity of the fighting, countless checkpoints, and the multiplicity of armed groups are making the ICRC's work more and more complex. The challenge of getting the necessary consent for access can also severely complicate our access to vulnerable communities.

“Every day, our teams on the ground are working to gain unimpeded access, while trying to ensure better protection for civilians and respect for the rules of war," Mr. Krähenbühl said.

Despite the numerous hurdles, the ICRC, working with the SARC, has managed to deliver food to more than one million people inside Syria, plus household items, such as blankets, cooking pots, and soap, to around 400,000 in the last six months alone. The ICRC also guaranteed access to drinking water for several million people and delivered medical and surgical supplies to health facilities on both sides of the frontline.

Over the past two weeks, the ICRC was also able to help broker an agreement that allowed 25,000 cooked meals to be delivered to Aleppo's central prison.

“It’s hard to imagine how tough it is to accomplish these things – not to mention the security risks involved,” Mr. Krähenbühl said. “It’s no small feat to enter some areas and make it past dozens of check points, so these are important successes that show what can happen when the rules of war are respected.”

“But make no mistake about it… the scale of this crisis – and its potentially destabilizing effects on the entire region – are deeply, deeply troubling, and much more needs to be done.”

Additional material:

Find out what the ICRC is doing to help refugees in places like Lebanon

Our latest position on the use of chemical weapons

Why civilians must be spared

Why violence against medical workers must end