As it tries to improve its image and convince donors of its impartiality, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) is calling for more support in order to respond to growing humanitarian needs in Syria.
SARC needs more than US$10 million in order to maintain current levels of operations and expand mobile health clinics to all hot spots, its president, Abdul Rahman Attar, told IRIN on the sidelines of a meeting of Red Crescent and Red Cross societies from the Arab world in Dubai on 28-29 March, where he has been lobbying other Red Crescent societies for financial support.
“Until now, we don’t have enough support [from Arab donors]. Because they are mixing the politics with the humanitarian,” Attar said. “They say: ‘We are afraid to send you materials’.”
Pointing to the Saudi and Kuwaiti donors as examples, he said: “They are just following the political agenda, the government agenda. It’s not only a humanitarian problem. It’s political.”
In a region where Red Cross and Red Crescent societies “don’t enjoy the freedom their sister organizations in the West do,” as one Red Crescent volunteer from the region said, there is a perception among some Arab donors that SARC is too close to the Syrian government.
On the ground in Syria, some activists have voiced similar concerns and have at times resisted help from the Society. One member of the international Red Cross/Crescent movement told IRIN SARC still was not trusted - a major problem given SARC, with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is the only major relief organization with access on the ground. The government recently accepted a peace plan which includes unhindered humanitarian access, but observers are careful to be too optimistic.
Since March 2011, when anti-government protesters began taking to the streets, Syria has descended into near civil war with armed groups and defectors battling government troops, which have attacked certain areas with tanks and heavy artillery. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 7,500 people have died - mostly civilians. Attar told IRIN as many as 400,000 people are now displaced, though the number keeps fluctuating.
SARC provides advanced first aid to people affected by hostilities; distributes emergency relief items to those displaced; and runs healthcare clinics in areas where government clinics have not been operating because of the unrest. It also evacuates wounded people.
In one extreme case, after the Red Crescent risked its volunteers’ lives in reaching the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs - then under siege - to evacuate injured Western journalists, the latter refused to enter the ambulance - insisting on rescue by ICRC instead.
But SARC has been fighting hard to dispel this image - reminding people that its volunteers have died trying to provide aid to those affected, including SARC Secretary-General Abd-al-Razzaq Jbeiro, who was shot dead on 25 January in an attack on a vehicle clearly marked with the Red Crescent emblem.
“We can assure any organization or Syrian that we will not work with any part of the government because otherwise, we lose our independence,” Attar insisted to IRIN.
Attar, whose father established the Society in 1942, has been with the movement for 40 years.
“We have proven to the Syrian people that we are the only body that was able to be effective on the ground,” he told participants of the meeting of the General Assembly of the Arab Red Crescent and Red Cross Organization (ARCO) on 28 March. “I call for moving away from politics when providing humanitarian aid to others.”
According to Ibrahim Osman, director of the Middle East and North Africa region for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which coordinates and supports national societies, the perception of partiality has been “fading away… and people are starting to realize the Society is doing a great job on the ground.”
In recent weeks, Kuwait pledged $1 million and Qatar donated two ambulances to SARC directly.
|Until now, we don’t have enough support [from Arab donors]. Because they are mixing the politics with the humanitarian. They say: ‘We are afraid to send you materials’.|
“The ability of Arab Red Crescent and Red Cross Societies to help one another in spite of many and difficult adverse relations between their respective governments is a most valuable characteristic,” Mohammed Al-Hadid, member of the Standing Commission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the highest body governing the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, said during the meeting.
But the reality is that bilateral direct aid, while growing, has been limited. Nearly all of the $10.8 million SARC says it has spent since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in March 2011 has come from IFRC and ICRC.
And some donors are still skeptical.
The United Arab Emirates Red Crescent, for instance, which has spent over six million dirham ($1.63 million) in supporting Syrian refugees in Jordan, and is gearing up assistance for refugees in Lebanon, has held back from supporting SARC so far because “we don’t think it is the right time yet,” said its chairman, Ahmad Humaid Al Mazrouie.
“As soon as we can liaise things with the right international organizations, we will do that,” he told IRIN at the sidelines of the conference. “We have to do it carefully.”
Abdullah Al Hazaa, secretary-general of ARCO, which represents all national societies in the Arab world, said some aid had been given to SARC directly, but most national societies were waiting until it was safe for their own teams to enter Syria. He said he had had discussions with SARC’s president and was awaiting directives on how best to help. He did, however, voice concerns about SARC’s ability to deliver, citing a shipment of medicines that he says was stuck at the Syrian border for six weeks because SARC had to wait for government permission to bring it into the country.
“Unfortunately, even SARC, they cannot take action because it’s out of their hands.”
One Arab donor told IRIN supporting SARC is “too political” and a lose-lose situation: The opposition could see support for SARC as tacit support for the government, while the government could accuse the donor of feeding and supplying the rebels.
Others see SARC as a pioneer - moving beyond the “social activities” that societies in the region were accustomed to. “SARC is a new model for national societies in the Arab world,” said Yaseen Ahmed Abbas, president of the Iraqi Red Crescent.
But according to one well-placed source within the international Red Cross/Crescent Movement, it was less a matter of pioneering and more a matter of SARC’s “survival”.
In the early days of the unrest, he told IRIN, SARC did not get very involved. But its volunteers - members of the communities in which they lived, went ahead and helped people anyway, without instructions or guidance. Their leadership faced a choice, the source said: “become irrelevant” or follow the volunteers’ lead. It chose the latter. And while there were initial concerns about the close relationship between SARC’s leadership and the government, the source said, Attar was eventually able to use his connection with President Bashar al-Assad to ensure humanitarian access for his organization, “strike a balance” and, ultimately, best serve those in need.
He said there was no evidence of any partiality in the delivery of aid, and that the quality and professionalism of the Red Crescent was “above standard” - a view echoed by Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, head of ICRC operations for the Near and Middle East.
“Many of the misperceptions and accusations against SARC that have been voiced on twitter, facebook and other media are unfair and unjustified,” she told IRIN on the sidelines of the summit, saying SARC volunteers had made “miracles”.
But despite changing perceptions, there are still roadblocks.
Khaled Erksoussi, head of operations at SARC, acknowledged “we are stretched to the maximum.”
Because no international agencies have been allowed to enter Syria since the unrest began, all those who want to help have had to do so through ICRC and SARC. (There were already international NGOs present in Syria, but their projects focus on Iraqi and Palestinian refugees - though they are open to Syrians as well). SARC is distributing World Food Programme food, for instance.
Erksoussi said the Society had up to 15,000 volunteers, with 14 branches and 80 sub-branches across the country, but was still hamstrung.
“We are replacing government services [like health clinics] in areas affected, but we cannot replace those services for long. We don’t have enough support to carry on a long operation like this. So we move from one place to another to cover the emergency needs.”
Asked what was preventing ICRC from strengthening its capacity on the ground, Megevand-Roggo said it was not a question of funding.
“The most important thing is to get the trust of all parties that we are really working on humanitarian grounds. The situation in Syria is very complex, very difficult, extremely sensitive, extremely politicized.”
ICRC is also trying to move SARC away from an over-reliance on volunteers by paying salaries for more staff; while IFRC has helped train volunteers and provide insurance.
Erksoussi said SARC needs ambulances and equipment for mobile clinics, as well as medicine for chronic illnesses. Displaced and affected people need food, hygiene kits, mattresses, blankets and clothes.
But one of the biggest constraints, he told IRIN, is a lack of logistical and operational support, especially as it becomes harder to find drivers willing to take supplies to hot spots.
“When you want to support, you must support everything from A-Z,” Erksoussi said. “You can’t give me 100 tons of aid which I cannot distribute because I do not have enough fuel…
“It’s good that support is being offered to refugees for instance, in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, but the main bulk of the need is still in Syria, and the agency in the driver’s seat is SARC,” he added. “If you want the aid to reach the people, you will have to contact the movement and discuss the needs. If you just want to donate and say you donated… it can be done through a lot of channels, but I assure you it will not reach anybody.”