Local people help Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers unload food parcels in Homs, Syria Local people help Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers unload food parcels in Homs, Syria Photo credit: Syrian Arab Red Crescent/MALLA, Ibrahim
The challenge of access in Syria
by Brian Tisdall November 2013

All sides acknowledge that not enough aid is reaching Syrian civilians in desperate straits. Security challenges, bureaucratic impediments and a pervasive mistrust of the motivations of humanitarian organisations have severely limited who can operate within Syria, and where they can operate. Faced with distribution difficulties, aid organisations have disagreed openly as to the best way of accessing those in need. Some have argued that impediments to aid distribution have unbalanced the whole humanitarian effort, with certain groups receiving relief and others not.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) agrees wholeheartedly that more needs to be done to address suffering, including help for civilians in opposition-held areas. Indeed, we push for this on a daily basis and with all sides of the conflict. There are cumbersome rules for aid agencies working in the country, security challenges caused by the fragmentation of the armed opposition and risks associated with the intensity of military confrontations. We have decided that the best way to access suffering groups, often located deep in urban Syria, has been to build an operation from inside the country. We do not exclude working across borders to access opposition-held areas, provided that this is accepted by all parties to the conflict. However, given the reluctance of the Syrian government to approve relief operations that go across borders, the ICRC has focused on negotiating access across frontlines to provide a lifeline for those in need. Other organisations travel across borders without the formal approval of the Syrian government to deliver vital assistance, mainly to the opposition-held areas of northern Syria. They also face many challenges, particularly in ensuring it is safe for their staff to work.

Together with volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), the ICRC has been able to work across frontlines to deliver food and essential household items to a number of hard-to-access areas, including Deir Ezzor, Hama, Qusair, eastern Aleppo and parts of Rural Damascus. Some of the support the ICRC is able to give reaches far more people, on both sides of the conflict, than can be directly identified. Engineers work to restore pumps, provide generators and supply chemicals for purification to ensure drinkable water regardless of whether the water flows to opposition- or governmentcontrolled areas. The engineers provide technical and material support for local water boards in the hardest-hit areas and in camps accommodating displaced people.

Syria is the ICRC’s largest operation globally. In 2012, the ICRC and SARC distributed food to 1.5 million people, water to 14m people and other essential items (hygiene items, kitchen sets, blankets and mattresses) to another half a million people, in addition to providing medical supplies for the treatment of thousands of sick or wounded people inside Syria. The goal in 2013 is to provide monthly food parcels for 450,000 people, most of them displaced, and household essentials for up to 112,500 people. In addition, we will make sure that potable water continues to be provided for more than 12.5m people across the country.

Fundamentally, the reality of the Syrian conflict is that only political action will resolve it. Politicising aid is not the answer and will only hinder access for organisations like the ICRC.

Brian Tisdall is Head of Policy Division, ICRC.

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