CAIRO – In a town that lies less than eight miles from the center of Damascus, Syrians are starving to death. Some children in Muadamiyah have resorted to eating leaves to survive, while a group of Muslim clerics also issued a fatwa that the consumption of dogs and cats was permissible for the area’s residents. Meanwhile, videos showing emaciated children’s corpses continue to filter out — victims of a siege by the Syrian regime that prevents the entry of either food or medical care.
In an article for Foreign Policy on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the Syrian security forces’ denial of humanitarian aid to places like Muadamiyah, calling on the world to "act quickly and decisively" to pressure the Assad regime to allow assistance to reach civilians. For some of the aid workers on the conflict’s front lines, however, the United States and its allies have been all talk and no action.
"Secretary Kerry and others give support in a gray, non-focused way," said Khaled Erkoussi, the head of emergency operations at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). "It’s not enough now to say, ‘we support you, Syrian Red Crescent.’ What we want you to say is, ‘You must get your hands off the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, stop shooting at them, let them go to the areas [in need] with the support with the U.N.’"
Erkoussi wants the international community to single out the SARC as an organization whose operations must be protected inside Syria. He also wants a renewed focus on the humanitarian angle of the crisis, citing the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Damascus as an example of the world’s misplaced priorities.
"Our reaction as a humanitarian organization was to get the ambulances and the first aid workers ready to go there. Others’ reaction was to issue a statement from the Security Council demanding an investigation," he said. "Usually, if a murder happens, don’t you save the victims first before finding a killer? The whole priority of things nowadays, I think it’s sometimes screwed up a little bit."
The U.N. Security Council issued a non-binding statement this month calling for increased aid delivery in Syria — Western members opted for the statement over a resolution to avoid a veto by Assad’s allies on the council, Russia and China. Despite the diplomatic action, however, Erkoussi said that Syrian regime checkpoints were still denying SARC aid workers access to Muadamiyah, even after they received the proper approvals from the authorities. Meanwhile, a ceasefire in the town – designed to allow civilians to evacuate — collapsed earlier this month, as the Syrian military shelled the evacuation point. It is unclear who fired first.
But access to stricken areas isn’t the only aspect of the Syrian humanitarian crisis – there also simply aren’t enough resources to go around. The U.N. Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan estimates that there are 6.8 million Syrians in need within the country, and requested $1.4 billion to provide for their needs in 2013. However, states have provided a mere 56 percent, or less than $800 million, of that funding request. The United States has contributed by far the largest amount of any state to fulfilling the U.N. request.
However, the deficit means that aid organizations have been forced to make tough decisions about who they can help in Syria. While the United States estimates that there are 5 million internally displaced persons in Syria, Erkoussi says that food parcels to feed only 2.1 million people are getting into Syria each month. That has forced the Red Crescent to limit aid to needy families, reducing them to a single parcel every two months.
And then, Erkoussi says, some of the aid earmarked for Syria simply isn’t getting to the people in need.
"We are asking and demanding to donors to be tough, to monitor more," he said. "I hate it when I see people from international organizations staying in four-star hotels or wasting money on armored vehicles in situations where there is no need for it. People with some of the NGOs inside Damascus, they use armored vehicles — while the rest of us can walk."