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Q+A-InterAction on the challenges thwarting aid efforts in Syria

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 9 Feb 2012 18:37 GMT
Author: Rebekah Curtis
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LONDON (AlertNet) - The United States this week said it is considering how to provide humanitarian aid to Syrian civilians, but gave few details. Meanwhile, the Syrian government’s assault on a revolt against it gets bloodier by the day.

AlertNet spoke with Joel Charny at InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based international nongovernmental organisations, about the challenges the world faces in getting aid to Syrian civilians. Charny is vice president of humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction.

How would the United States be able to aid Syrian civilians?

This looks like a classic (case of) ‘we have nothing that we realistically can do that deals with the core problem so let’s throw some humanitarian aid at the problem.’

Obviously there is need in Syria, especially on the medical side. But… this is about basic protection for people right now. Humanitarian aid in a fundamental way can’t really achieve that. So that needs to be stated at the outset.

The whole world is struggling to find a way to be in solidarity (with) and assist the Syrian people, but again and again in crises over the last 10 or 15 years, it’s... ‘when in doubt send humanitarian aid’ rather than deal with the fundamental problems.

And I’m not saying there’s any easy way to deal with the fundamental problems, but let’s be realistic about what humanitarian aid can actually accomplish in such a situation.

Which aid agencies might be best placed to provide humanitarian aid there?

It’s in the midst of a civil war of violent conflict. It’s very difficult for regular aid agencies to operate...  It’s ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross) working with the Syrian Red Crescent that would appear to have the best comparative advantage in terms of being able to operate and being able to negotiate access.

Even the Red Crescent and the ICRC are going to have difficulties getting access, but if I’m a planner sitting in the U.S. government I would start there... In my view, this is why the Red Cross exists, to work in situations like this.

I’m not speaking for the Red Cross – they have to say if (a) they need any further assistance and (b) whether they think if they had more money they’d be able to use it. But I think this is a situation that’s made for the Red Cross, and it’s hard to see how anyone else can do anything meaningful other than the refugee assistance.

If Syrians are moving into neighbouring countries, that’s the easy part – that you do through UNHCR (the U.N. refugee agency) and their NGO partners, etcetera.

How does the security situation in Syria compare to insecurity during Libya’s conflict?

If we think back to Libya, it’s different... In Libya you had that comparatively stark ‘Gaddafi controls the west, the rebels control the east’, and my sense of Syria (is that) it’s just a shifting frontline with pockets of rebel strength that can protect people.

It’s the kind of situation where violence can erupt in almost any place in the country at any time, and that makes it extremely difficult to plan operations from a security standpoint. It sounds like a really horrific situation…. It’s worse than Libya – there’s no liberated zone, it’s a shifting front, it’s just very, very difficult.

What are other major hurdles for aid agencies wanting to help Syrians?

Our members had a meeting on this about week ago, and the basic point was no new actors are going to be able to get into Syria at this point. There’s just no way to get permission from the Syrian government.

The majority of InterAction members that are working in Syria – I don’t know if this applies globally, but certainly for our members – had been doing programmes directed towards Iraqi refugees.

So, while they might have a little bit of space to expand those programmes to work with the affected Syrian population, from the standpoint of the authorities they’re kind of in a box of ‘your permission to work in Syria is related to support to Iraqi refugees’. And if they try to expand that there’s the potential of running into legal difficulties and... being expelled from the country.

Is there a big outflow of refugees aid agencies can help?

Apparently there are Syrian refugees now in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is (reportedly) about 6,200 – that’s a week or 10 days ago. Again, you have organisations there that have been working with Iraqi refugees which – because you’re not dealing with problems with the Syrian authorities – those (operations) should be relatively easy to expand

But my sense is there’s not a huge outflow at this point and what the Syrian people fundamentally want is an end to the violence. Presumably many of them would like a change in the government, but they’re not ready to pack it in and move en masse across the borders as refugees.

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