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Red Cross Seeks Cease-Fire to Deliver Medical Supplies in Syria

February 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As Syrian government forces continued to fight anti-government forces in Homs, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it is seeking a two-hour cease-fire to deliver medical supplies and aid to civilians. Margaret Warner discusses the difficulties of delivering humanitarian aid with InterAction's Joel Charny.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the challenges of providing assistance in this type of conflict, we turn to Joel Charny, vice president for humanitarian policy at InterAction. That’s an umbrella organization of humanitarian and development nongovernmental organizations.

And, Mr. Charny, welcome.

JOEL CHARNY, Vice President for Humanitarian Policy, InterAction: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: What can you tell us, what do we know about the humanitarian situation on the ground in Syria, particularly when it comes to medical aid?

JOEL CHARNY: We’ve had reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross that there are really two key issues right now.

One is just maintaining normal emergency services. For example, if you have appendicitis or, you know, a problem with childbirth or whatever, it’s very difficult for people to get access to hospitals and get that kind of routine emergency care.

But then there’s just the whole question of the number of wounded, civilian casualties. And there’s severe difficulty in getting the wounded the medical care that they need as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the ICRC suggests it is in there in some fashion. What do we know about that?

JOEL CHARNY: They’re there officially. And they’ve been there for decades.

They’re talking to the government. They’re trying, as you reported, to negotiate a temporary halt in hostilities to deliver basic assistance. They’re operating openly with their partners, the Syrian Red Crescent. And in a situation like this, ICRC, being the organization mandated by the Geneva Conventions to operate in the midst of conflict, they really are in the best position to respond.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, other NGOs like Doctors Without Borders say they just can’t operate there at all. Is it the case that really there are no other international NGOs there, and why is that?

JOEL CHARNY: There are very few organizations that are based inside, basically because Syria is — historically within the last 10 years or so has been a middle-income country, not a place of humanitarian crisis.

And to the extent that there are NGOs present, they were there to — they got permission to be there to work with Iraqi refugees.

MARGARET WARNER: Right, who were pouring across the border.

JOEL CHARNY: Who were pouring across the border in 2005, 2006, 2007.

So, there’s a small NGO community there, but how they’re able to operate under current circumstances is a real question.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what does an NGO — what do NGOs do in a situation like that — I mean, like this?

If we look at Facebook or Twitter or whatever, these people are crying out for aid, but what can an NGO do?

JOEL CHARNY: Well, in a setting like this, the first thing is to examine where it’s possible to reach people. And I would emphasize that there are refugees who are crossing borders into Turkey, into Lebanon, into Jordan.

MARGARET WARNER: These are Syrians who manage to get out.

JOEL CHARNY: That’s right.

So part of it is, you know, just being — finding ways to work where it’s safe and where there’s access. If you’re sitting in Damascus right now, pretty much the only thing you can do is try to maintain your existing programs and, if possible, talk to the Syrian authorities to see if you might be able to reach people in need.

But, you know, it’s — because there’s no front line, because there’s no safe zone, because there’s no liberated zone, it’s a shifting conflict that makes it virtually impossible for a group that isn’t there now to intervene.

MARGARET WARNER: So, compare it, for instance, to Libya, where at least — I mean, there were areas that didn’t get any assistance. But there were areas that did.

JOEL CHARNY: Well, Libya, there was a clear demarcation between areas controlled by the rebels in the east and areas that continued to be controlled by the Gadhafi government until its fall.

The difficulty was in, of course, the conflict areas, that there was a sense in Libya that there was a liberated zone which nongovernmental organizations were able to access with medical assistance and other supplies. That does not exist in Syria.

And that makes it virtually impossible for organizations to try and enter and get something done.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Doctors Without Borders has also put out statements saying that they have reports that medical personnel and medical facilities are actually being targeted by security forces. Have you been able to confirm any of that? What’s that about?

JOEL CHARNY: I have not been able to confirm that.

Some of that is coming from exile groups that are in touch with individuals inside the country. To get independent confirmation of something like that is very difficult. But I think it’s plausible. The regime, the Assad government, they see this as an existential struggle for their survival.

And, unfortunately, they’re going to do almost anything to assure that survival. And if that means preventing medical supplies from going to rebel areas or people that are associated with the resistance, they’re probably going to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: People who thought — are thought to have been even wounded resisting?

JOEL CHARNY: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: And we certainly — we saw that in Bahrain.

Finally, the French — or the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, has suggested establishing some sort of humanitarian corridor. And the Turks occasionally have indicated interest. What is he talking about? And how does the NGO community in general feel about something like that?

JOEL CHARNY: We’re not enthusiasts for humanitarian corridors.

Who is going to enforce it? I mean, let’s take the path of the Red Cross and see if a cease-fire can be negotiated. A humanitarian corridor is something that’s forced through a military presence, which means some foreign military on the ground in Syria.

And are the French willing to do that, to take that risk? And even if they do, would they be able to guarantee the safety of people within the corridor and the humanitarian organizations that would be trying to reach them? It doesn’t sound feasible to me, given the current situation in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: Certainly, what you’re saying has been reflected by other NGOs.

Well, thank you, Joel Charny, very much from InterAction.

JOEL CHARNY: You’re very welcome. Thanks.