This week, the ICRC's head of operations in Syria, Magne Barth, gave a wide-ranging and candid interview to the Washington Post in which he offers a stark perspective on the humanitarian situation there.
"The number of people killed, wounded, maimed in Syria is staggering. UN figures suggest that more than 100,000 have been killed... That figure is comparable to credible estimates of how many Iraqis died between 2003 and 2013. So the suffering here is enormous, and the conflict remains very violent," he told the news outlet.
After reading the article, I called my counterpart in Damascus, Rima Kamal, and asked her what life is like for ordinary families caught up in the fighting. Rima is our spokesperson there and one of around 160 ICRC staff working in Syria at the moment.
"It's as if there are two parallel worlds in this country," Rima told me. "In areas that are relatively secure, there's an appearance of normalcy on the surface with the exception of check points and car bombs or mortars that claim the lives of innocent civilians on a monthly basis. But if you live in an area where fighting is raging, the reality is very different… In addition to the daily clashes, you also face a breakdown of essential municipal services, destruction of infrastructure, and a shortage of medical supplies and other essential goods. Then, of course, there is the reality of those who are internally displaced and moving around or who have fled the country as refugees. Regardless of which world you live in, there is civilian suffering on all sides."
She went on to paint a picture of a daily struggle that desperately deserves the international community's attention – not just when the threat of US military action looms large – but every day, as we go about our lives and our business.
"The majority of the people who have been killed or wounded in Syria, have been casualties of conventional – not chemical – weapons," she reminded me. "We certainly welcome all efforts to find political solutions to the various aspects of this crisis, but we'd like to see more energy and political clout put into creating circumstances where we and our partners at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARC) can access more areas and safely help those in need."
She added that 22 SARC volunteers have been killed since the start of the conflict – some of whom were directly targeted.
For humanitarians, few things are more frustrating than knowing people need your help and not being able to do more – not because you lack the will or capacity – but because you're prevented from doing so. That's the case in Syria right now, where one of our biggest concerns and challenges is that we simply can't reach hundreds of thousands of people across the country. This is how Magne described the problem to the Washington Post:
"Some of the 'hottest' areas, where fighting is or has been very intense, have been and often remain off limits for us. Around Damascus there are key areas where civilians and wounded people need aid, that we and SARC are not able to reach because we have not secured permission. The same is the case in central Homs. Certain opposition areas remain off limits to us due to insecurity and/or lack of contacts with armed groups on the ground. Sometimes there are legitimate security constraints that prevent us from assisting. But our desire is to expand our network of contacts so we can expand the reach of our assistance. Our message to the government and to the armed groups is: give us the space and permission to move in, to approach the population and plan the delivery of aid."
Sustained commitment (and some good news)
Talking to Rima and reading Magne's statements, I was relieved to hear it's not all bad news and that the ICRC remains deeply committed to helping those affected by the conflict.
So far this year, together with the SARC, we've delivered food to nearly two million people. That's roughly 90,000 food parcels per month in nine governorates – some of which are in opposition-held areas.
We've also delivered household items, like mattresses, blankets, cooking pots and candles, to about half a million.
In addition, we support local water boards by providing water treatment supplies, spare parts, pumps and generators, ensuring that more than 20 million people had access to drinking water.
But, as Rima told me, "the needs are enormous and both the ICRC and SARC would be doing much more if we were granted better access and given the opportunity to work safely."
Her comments echoed those of Magne in the Post:
"ICRC will continue to address the needs, and we will try our best to respond to them, whichever way the conflict goes. It should be understood, however, that humanitarian aid can only alleviate some of the suffering caused by the conflict. A conflict like the one we have in Syria today needs a political solution. And it is the role of political leaders and political institutions to find those solutions. As we are still far from an end to this conflict, ICRC with SARC will continue to strive to support the victims on an impartial basis, to the best of our ability."
By Anna Nelson, ICRC Spokesperson and Intercross Editor in Washington DC
Find out more:
Here are some links to additional resources and reporting on Syria:
A Thomson Reuters multimedia featuring work by photojournalist, Sebastiano Tomada, who was awarded the ICRC's Visa d'Or prize for his work in Aleppo clinics, where he says "you walk on blood."
">An audio recording of the head of the ICRC's regional delegation for North America, François Stamm, speaking at a panel hosted by the Brookings Foreign Policy Program on 18 September