The United Nations says an international donor conference has raised about $500 million for humanitarian relief efforts inside war-ravaged Syria.
Most of those funds are likely to go to aid agencies operating out of Damascus under official Syrian government supervision. But some relief workers say unofficial methods are better for reaching many Syrians in need of help.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one of the agencies using Damascus as a base to organize aid convoys to parts of Syria where the government allows it to function.
Reporter Michael Lipin spoke to Damascus-based ICRC spokeswoman Rima Kamal to find out how the organization operates in Syria and how it could improve already ongoing efforts.
Lipin: Could you walk us through the process of the delivery, storage and distribution of all these aid supplies?
Kamal: We do get assistance in terms of food, different items such as blankets, mattresses, household items and so forth, either shipped into the country or sometimes purchased locally, through local manufacturers.
So, ICRC has warehouses in Syria. Many items are stored in our warehouses and then distributed in accordance with the needs across the country and in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Lipin: When you say shipped into Syria, are we talking about deliveries by road vehicles, or by plane into Damascus airport?
Kamal: Right now, we use land borders to ship things into Syria, transport things into Syria, for the most part through the Jordanian borders.
Lipin: How many warehouses are there, and where are they located?
Kamal: We have had two big warehouses, one of which has been under heavy fighting in the area of Akraba in Damascus, and we have not been able to access that warehouse for a while. The other warehouse we have is in the industrial area of Adra, tens of kilometers outside of Damascus. We are also currently looking into the possibility of having a third warehouse some time, somewhere farther up into the country, somewhere closer to the north.
“What matters to us is that everyone respects the humanitarian organization that we are, and try to facilitate for us as much as possible.” – Rima Kamal, ICRC, Damascus
Lipin: Could you also describe for us how a typical aid convoy of the ICRC works? How many vehicles would go out from Damascus, what kind of personnel are in the convoys and what kinds of checkpoints do you have to deal with?
Kamal: Let’s first distinguish the regular relief convoys that we send out on a daily and on a weekly basis to different places across Syria. That is often done without the presence of international staff members on board these convoys. So, these convoys I’m talking about are going out on a daily basis to different areas across the country, be it Aleppo or Deir el-Zour, al-Hasakeh, Daraa and Suwayda. And these are loaded with assistance items that very much depend on the needs assessed in the place concerned.
Let’s say that our last shipment to Aleppo was all about mattresses and blankets, and now we know that the IDPs (internally displaced persons) in Aleppo are not in need of mattresses and blankets. So we would maybe only send, this time, food parcels. These are the daily and weekly relief convoys that we send out to the different governorates across Syria.
And then we do have as well the staff of the ICRC, who go out to the field as well, as often as possible, to assess the needs with their own eyes, to see the situation on the ground, to speak to the people, to understand what they’ve been through. And these are things that we also try to undertake as often as possible. Of course these types of field trips are very much dependent on the security situation.
[Recently] we had a team head to Homs. Currently, we have four international staff members, together with a number of national staff members, assessing the situation in different parts of Homs and trying to gather a clear picture of what type of assistance needs to be channeled to Homs in the coming weeks.
I am also on my way to Latakia where we will be meeting with displaced people, visiting communities and talking to the people.
So, these are all the types of trips that we undertake and that are often followed by specific relief items that are often spoken about with the people in terms of what they need and what is mostly in demand.
Lipin: What is the relationship between the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent?
Kamal: The Syrian Arab Red Crescent is our partner in the sense that we rely very much on the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to distribute aid across different parts of the country and to help us also coordinate and channel our assistance to the country. Right now, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is the main partner for all international agencies present in Syria and is actually doing a great job helping [them] out in getting to very difficult areas and in responding to needs in areas also often very much cut off (by fighting).
Lipin: I want to ask for your reaction to a press release that came out [this week] from Doctors Without Borders. Medecins Sans Frontiers issued a statement saying that it’s concerned that the way your aid system is set up – with aid efforts concentrated in Damascus and convoys going out from there to various parts of the country under cooperation and supervision of the government – they are concerned that that system is preventing a lot of aid from reaching areas where rebels are in charge, and that many Syrians are missing out on the aid. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?
Kamal: We do acknowledge that there are big difficulties in accessing certain areas across Syria such as Aleppo, Deir el-Zour and al-Hasakeh and Idlib, which are areas in the northern part of the country that have also been heavily affected by the fighting. I think part of the reason why it is also difficult to get to these areas is that the risks involved are very high. Right now, as you correctly said, we are based in Damascus. So any field trips we have to undertake have to also go from Damascus. That’s a lot of risk to take under (this) way.
Sometimes we do as well negotiate access to these places and try to channel assistance to these places. And we have succeeded, but we do acknowledge it’s not enough and more needs to be done.
When it comes to cross-border operations, I think that ICRC is ready to explore the possibility of carrying out cross-border operations in order to reach people in need. But I think these cross-border operations will not solve the problem of aid reaching certain areas because you have a lot of victims that are concentrated in and around urban centers that are very difficult to reach from the border areas. So, I think there has to be a number of mechanisms put into place. And I would say the foremost would be the respect of the belligerent parties (for) aid convoys and allowing them to carry out their work and to reach people in need.
Lipin: How important is it that every operation that you do is coordinated through the Syrian government or has their blessing? If you think about cross-border operations, the Syrian government is not in control of some of the border areas, and presumably doesn’t like some of the activity that’s going on there. So is it essential in your opinion that everything you do – even if you take on cross-border operations in the future – that all of that has the blessing of the Syrian government?
Kamal: The ICRC always operates in accordance with full transparency. So we would always be clear in terms of what we intend to do and inform all parties involved. And that would include the Syrian government.
Lipin: One more question. I’m curious to know if it has been a problem that aid you are distributing in Syria is kind of misappropriated or diverted by rebels or pro-government fighters. Has that been a problem for you in the past?
Kamal: We do face different challenges related to how aid reaches people in need. There have been several incidents of aid convoys being confiscated, some of the assistance taken off board, and so forth. These are daily challenges that many humanitarian organizations deal with, unfortunately, (and) on a weekly basis in Syria. It’s not clear to us at all times who is responsible. What matters to us is that everyone respects the humanitarian organization that we are, and try to facilitate for us as much as possible. And remember that what we often bring into these areas is going to be channeled to people very much in need.
Listen to Michael Lipin’s interview with Rima Kamal (9:27)
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Michael Lipin covers international news for Voice of America on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. He joined VOA in its Hong Kong bureau before relocating to Washington. Michael developed his journalism career in Hong Kong, his hometown, gaining experience at CNN International, Asia Television and the Hong Kong Standard newspaper as a writer, editor, reporter, producer and occasional anchor. He is also a contributor to MEV. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin or on Google Plus.