Assad’s War on the Red Crescent
Aid workers are caught in the crossfire of Syria's bloody revolt.
On Nov. 8, Mohamed Raed al-Tawil was toiling away at the Damascus headquarters of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). He had been doing volunteer work for 18 years -- at 36 years old, half his life. Around noon, a man walked into the office and told him that he had left his car lights on; Tawil followed him outside to check. It was the last time his friends or family saw or heard from him.
On Nov. 8, Mohamed Raed al-Tawil was toiling away at the Damascus headquarters of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). He had been doing volunteer work for 18 years — at 36 years old, half his life. Around noon, a man walked into the office and told him that he had left his car lights on; Tawil followed him outside to check. It was the last time his friends or family saw or heard from him.
Tawil was eventually located in Damascus’s notorious al-Khatib prison where, according to inmates who were incarcerated with him, he was tortured. The Syrian government has not formally charged Tawil, but current and former Red Crescent volunteers believe that his only crime was doing his job — providing aid to the victims of Syria’s 21-month civil war without regard to their political views.
"Raed and other volunteers provided services to the opposition areas," said an activist based in Syria who has been involved in efforts to secure his release. "This angered the authorities. They were collecting info and [decided] now was the time for them to have open war on the organization," the activist said, referring to the SARC.
Others agree that the regime targeted Tawil, who ascended the aid agency’s ranks to become an elected board member, specifically to hobble the SARC. "He’s one of the people the regime will affect the entire organization by arresting," says Laila Alodaat, a former volunteer in the SARC’s international humanitarian law department.
Tawil’s plight reflects a stark new reality in Syria: Even purely humanitarian groups are being pressured to take sides. Aid has become one more weapon in the country’s destructive civil war — a disastrous development for Syrians in need. The SARC estimated that 2.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced by the conflict, and war-stricken cities like Aleppo and Homs have suffered from bread shortages.
The real obstacle to providing assistance inside Syria isn’t a lack of resources — it’s politics. "Logistical and security-related problems — this is the real bottleneck of our operation," said Robert Mardini, the head of Middle East operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC has no direct authority over the SARC, but works with its Syrian national affiliate to deliver aid across the country.
Red Cross officials undertake endless negotiations with the Assad regime and local rebel groups in an effort to provide assistance to stricken areas. Mardini says it took "weeks and weeks" of discussions to organize a one-time aid delivery to the war-wracked neighborhoods of Khaldiyeh and Hamidieh in the city of Homs in early November. At that time, the city had been besieged by government forces for nine months.
It often falls to the ICRC to assuage suspicions that its national affiliate favors one side over the other. "Even SARC volunteers are aware of the misperception, and they are asking us to be present with them in certain locations," says Mardini. "Khaldiyeh and Hamidieh were a typical place that the SARC volunteers were very happy that the ICRC delegates were also present."
It’s when communication between aid agencies and the regime breaks down that Syrian aid workers get harassed, arrested, or worse. According to figures provided by Syrian activists, 12 SARC volunteers have been killed since the conflict began and another seven are currently being held by the Syrian government. A slew of Facebook pages have emerged to mourn the dead, and express solidarity with those imprisoned. "Before they would detain volunteers in an ambulance for a few hours, but now we are facing systematic, targeted abuse," says Alodaat.
In a recent report, Amnesty International compiled examples of Syrian security forces questioning, detaining, or even shooting at SARC workers. In one case, an officer rejected an order from the governor of Homs that allowed safe passage to ambulances. "I don’t take orders from him," he reportedly said. "Soak it in some water and drink it." Another video showed the bloody aftermath of an attack by Syrian security forces on a SARC ambulance that left one aid worker dead another two injured.
It’s not only the Assad regime that views the SARC with suspicion — it’s elements within the opposition as well. The Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM), a coalition of aid organizations dedicated to providing relief to Syria, warned in November that 90 to 95 percent of the international aid sent to the SARC was "confiscated by the regime," and redirected to support Assad’s war effort. In a statement posted on its website, the SARC condemned these "wrongful, uncertified and politicized accusations."
But if the UOSSM’s claims are difficult to verify, there is no denying that the top ranks of the SARC are populated by figures close to the Assad regime. SARC President Abdul Rahman al-Attar, for example, is one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen — a figure emblematic of the now fraying alliance between the Alawite regime and the country’s Sunni elite.
Attar is the president of the Attar Group — a conglomerate with interests that stretch across the pharmaceutical, insurance, banking, tourism, and agriculture industries — as well as the president of Syria’s International Chamber of Commerce. "He’s a big personality, and one of the richest, most powerful men in Syria," said one aid worker in a 2010 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.
Attar enriched himself through connections to some of the most powerful figures within the Assad family. A 2008 State Department cable reported that Attar — acting as "a possible cut-out for Rami Makhlouf," Assad’s maternal cousin — could spearhead attempts to lease aircraft for the country’s national airline in order to circumvent U.S. sanctions. Makhlouf appears to have abandoned this idea in favor of setting up Syria’s first nominally private airline, which the U.S. Embassy in Damascus reported was yet another attempt to circumvent U.S. sanctions. Makhlouf then tapped Attar to act as the face of the new airline — even though, according to another leaked cable, he "has no aviation industry background."
How those ties affect the SARC’s work in the current crisis remains unclear. Many Syrian activists draw a distinction between the organization’s top ranks and the aid workers on the ground. "The volunteers are young people, they are enthusiastic, they are the ones who go to the street," says Alodaat, the former SARC volunteer. "The management of the organization, they have other concerns…they are the ones who need to communicate with the government." For other activists, however, suspicions still linger.
For Syrians caught in the middle of this war, of course, the political hurdles that keep aid from reaching their neighborhoods mean nothing. The same can be said for aid workers like Tawil, who have found themselves the unwitting victims of their country’s disintegrating social fabric.
"He is someone with a vision, a humanitarian vision," the Syrian activist said of Tawil. "He is in real danger. And we are running out of time."
David Kenner was Middle East editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2018.
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