Syria update by head of operations for Near and Middle East

Nineteen months of relentless fighting have resulted in massive destruction, thousands of casualties and refugees, and ever-increasing numbers of civilians being deprived of basic necessities like food, water and medical care. Robert Mardini, the ICRC's head of operations for the Near and Middle East, explains.

"The situation in Syria is steadily deteriorating, and the humanitarian needs never stop growing. Most urban centres and large portions of rural areas are directly affected by intense conflict. As the violence intensifies, particularly in urban settings, we are becoming increasingly concerned about the capacity of all parties to the conflict to adhere to basic principles of international humanitarian law, such as the distinction between civilians and civilian objects on the one hand and military objectives on the other, as well as the precautions taken in terms of means and methods of warfare..

Protracted armed violence in Syria has led growing numbers of people to flee their homes to other locations in Syria and to neighbouring countries, which gives a regional dimension to the humanitarian consequences of this conflict. In such an environment, our biggest challenge is to reach the areas where needs are most acute. These areas are where the most intense fighting is taking place.

It is very difficult to obtain credible figures about the scale of the needs in Syria or even the numbers of displaced people, for example. However, it is clear that large numbers of victims are getting little help because the deteriorating security situation makes it very difficult to reach them. Having already helped more than a million people this year, we expect that by the end of the year this figure will reach at least one and a half million.

Together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, we are doing our best to reach those in need. On 3 November, for instance, the two organizations entered the besieged area of the Old City of Homs, and delivered much-needed assistance to hundreds of civilians who have been stranded there for the last four months. This mission was the result of the ICRC's continuous efforts to talk to all parties involved in the conflict and its insistence on the neutral, impartial and independent nature of our activities. Getting into the Old City of Homs was complex, and we were negotiating on the front lines until the very last minute.

We continue to talk with all those involved in the fighting to try to secure support for our neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian activities. The security of our staff and their ability to reach the areas hardest hit by violence are paramount. Armed confrontations have had a particularly severe effect on the populations of Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Deir Ez-Zor, Damascus and Rural Damascus. We are focusing on enhancing our field presence together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Recent missions to the governorate of Homs enabled us to reach hundreds of civilians as well as hospitals and other health-care facilities. While this is certainly a positive development, much more needs to be done. We have to return to the Old City of Homs to provide continuous support to the civilians there. Across Syria, and particularly in the north of the country, there are many places where civilians live in precarious conditions, without access to medical help, food and other basic necessities.

We must continue to assess very carefully the safety of our staff and the impact of our humanitarian operations. Dialogue with all parties is essential to ensure that our staff remain secure and able to carry out neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian activities. At a time when humanitarian needs are ever more pressing, we continue to appeal to all parties to respect the staff of humanitarian organizations, and the red cross and red crescent emblems.

The courage of Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers and their invaluable work on the ground, under very difficult conditions, is impressive. Our partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has enabled us to bring a lot to people in need, but often at great risk. Six Syrian Arab Red Crescent members have died while on humanitarian duty. Given the current complex situation in Syria and deteriorating security conditions, it is a permanent challenge to strike a balance between the need to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers and the need to bring aid without any discrimination to all people who require it".