The president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Dr Abdul Rahman Attar, says adherence to the Fundamental Principles, along with training and experience in the field, helped prepare the National Society for providing impartial and neutral assistance in a violently divided country.
Red Cross Red Crescent magazine: What are the most significant changes the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has gone through in the last three years?
Dr. Attar: Prior to the crisis, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent worked to develop the capacity of volunteers, distribute aid received from abroad and provide health and socio-psychological services to our brothers from Iraq, as well as assistance to those affected by droughts in North-east Syria. The Society also provided assistance to 140,000 Iraqis in Syria. Now, we are helping more than 3.5 million people. This figure, however, is on the rise with every passing day (see sidebar box below for a list of key services the National Society is now providing).
What are the main factors that allowed the Red Crescent to play a decisive role when fighting broke out in Syria?
Respect for the Fundamental Principles in conducting the work of the organisation is the main reason behind the National Society playing such a decisive role. This approach has helped it re-emphasise its leading position in the humanitarian response to the situation in Syria.
And there are other important factors as well: a swift response to events, a sense of closeness and team spirit between management and the grassroots network of active young workers and volunteers who take pride in what they do, and a nation-wide presence through the branches, among other things. The ability to adapt quickly and the high level of confidence placed in the organisation by the public and the private bodies also played an important role.
What were the main preparedness and readiness activities undertaken by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent prior to the crisis that helped it respond to the conflict? One of the most important programmes we undertook prior to the crisis was a risk-reduction programme based on the role of the community and adapting to environmental change, as well as a disaster management programme in cooperation with the British Red Cross.
The organisation strengthened and supported disaster-response preparedness through a national intervention team. Several volunteers from various branches were trained and added to local disaster-response teams.
During that period, the organisation held workshops on food security, supplementary and palliative nutrition, and how to lay emergency plans for all branches. Another project on awareness of earthquakes was undertaken in cooperation with the Swiss Development Agency with a view to enhancing the capacity of local communities in dealing with associated risks and activating emergency and early warning plans. Another programme we were involved in was on landmine awareness in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
On the medical front, the organisation played a major role in the primary health care for Iraqis in addition to other activities such as raising awareness among volunteers on the risks of the influenza epidemic and protection from the disease. Other workshops focused on rapid assessment of health needs in emergencies and disasters. We were also involved in the drafting of the national plan for epidemic preparedness in cooperation with the United Nations.
How much has the SARC changed due to this crisis?
In terms of principles and objectives, the organisation remains the same. Serving humankind is its ultimate goal. But the size of the mission has changed radically and the volume of work has increased exponentially to meet the needs of those affected in several areas. For example, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of clinics, mobile clinics, mobile medical units, consultancy centres for psychological support and distribution points.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent had to adapt to this increase in workload. This could not have happened without the outstanding commitment shown by volunteers and staff. Moreover, the support we received from the IFRC, the ICRC and other national partners helped us raise the tempo of work to be able to respond to a bigger task and provision of assistance.
Of course, when the crisis is over, the organisation will have to build its capacity to meet the new situation, especially at a time when Syria will need to provide more assistance to a larger affected population. The end of the crisis will not mean the end of the response. There will be a lot more for us to do.
What have been the most important lessons learned by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent?
The lessons learned are numerous. The organisation set an example for other National Societies and has been a model to follow when it came to neutrality and impartiality in providing services. But we have learned that the organisation was in need of a work strategy, that there was a lack of understanding on the part of certain quarters of how the organisation conducted its work, and that some donors did not respect their commitments, nor their delivery deadlines.
We also found out that we are in need of new investment projects to be able to generate sufficient resources in line with the new role to be played. The organisation needs strategic planning, an expansion of the scope of partners and enabling workers to further build their capacity. Of equal importance also, is the need to expand the network of volunteers and the development of a database to track those who benefit from assistance and to determine their needs.
It is also important to educate the various parties on the Fundamental Principles of International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. There is a relatively low level of understanding about the nature of our work.
How could the International Movement provide better support to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, volunteers and staff?
The International Movement could provide further support to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the areas of capacity building and training. The level of support provided is good and we would like to thank all the partners. But the situation on the ground requires additional assistance. The International Movement has supported us in several areas but there is a lot more to be done.
Civil war is one of the most difficult challenges for any organisation operating inside the affected country. At different times, National Societies and their volunteers could be accused by one party to the conflict or another of aiding the enemy, “i.e. the other party”. How does a National Society best navigate this difficult terrain?
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has proven its neutrality with the invaluable work of the volunteers who give their lives for the Movement, who have abandoned their jobs and their studies to become volunteers at the service of humanity. After four years of conflict, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent continues to maintain it neutrality and impartiality in spite of all the difficulties encountered in the day-to-day work.
During the conflict in Syria, 36 Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers were killed and several others were arrested. How did these events affect the volunteer base and the work of the National Society as a whole?
Our volunteers lived the crisis day after day. Each one of them lived through their own suffering of losing loved ones, family members, studies or jobs. But this suffering gave them the impetus to give more and keep on doing what they had to do by providing help.
Volunteers may have lost loved ones and continue to suffer, but they are determined to preserve life and give that glimmer of hope to others through a culture of neutrality. Pain, though, remains their companion.
Their work has also increased with the increasing needs in Syria. Their task was not just to provide first aid or distribute food rations. Some of them braved the floods in Hassaka to deliver polio vaccines to remote areas. In Deir Ezzor they crossed the river in boats to deliver vaccines and food in hot spots. In Aleppo, they put their lives on the line daily, determined to get medicine and food to the Aleppo Central Prison. They entered dangerous areas in Qusair, Aleppo and Raqqa to repair water facilities and to deliver generators in order to enable the operation of sewage facilities and to provide drinking water to people.
In the fourth year of the crisis, the spirits of the volunteers are still high and we as a Red Crescent take pride in having such volunteers.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent still has difficulty accessing certain parts of the country. Would it be possible for those outside the country help improve access through political pressure, for example, or with increased financial support for your operations?
I think both options are a possibility. Our ultimate goal is to reach every person in need of assistance. The question is not that of access only, but also that of meeting the needs of a large population affected by the crisis. At present we can provide only 40 per cent of the required assistance. There remains a large gap between resources and actual needs. Additional support is required.
Is the International Movement doing enough to protect volunteers in the field and support them when they are injured (or support family members if staff or volunteers are killed)?
At international level, ICRC staff members enjoy immunities; endangering the life of an ICRC member is considered a war crime. By contrast, Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers are governed by Syrian rules. Regrettably, there are parties to the conflict that do not understand the neutrality of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. That is why we paid with the lives of 36 volunteers. Most recently, we set up a Martyrs Fund with the help of certain stakeholders. The fund will provide some assistance to the families of those who lost their lives.