Syria Is Threatening to Break the Aid World

In a nighttime ride from the Syrian border, the president of the Red Cross describes tensions between his moral principles and the country's political realities.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, talks with aid workers after arriving in Eastern Ghouta on March 15, 2018. (Al-Ajweh/AFP/Getty Images)
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, talks with aid workers after arriving in Eastern Ghouta on March 15, 2018. (Al-Ajweh/AFP/Getty Images)

MASNAA, Lebanon — The 4×4 passed into Lebanon at night, navigating the concrete barriers and stray dogs that populate the Syrian border crossing. In the back seat sat Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who just hours before had become one of the few international observers to visit the bombed-out suburbs of Eastern Ghouta, currently the scene of the worst humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.

Maurer was once second in command at the Swiss foreign ministry and still speaks with the careful diction of a diplomat. He had just completed a 10-day trip to Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and I had the duration of our journey back to Beirut to quiz him on what he had seen during his travels.

“Today was certainly for me one of the top five difficult places I went over the last six years, since I’m president of the ICRC,” he says.

It’s a significant statement for a man who regularly visits the worst humanitarian crises on the planet, from northern Nigeria to Afghanistan. The Syrian government and its allies have drawn on the same playbook they used two years prior in eastern Aleppo, subjecting residents to a withering siege and constant air and artillery bombardments, this time allegedly including chlorine and napalm attacks. Over 10,000 people have been evacuated from the region over the past week , bringing the government to the verge of eliminating the last rebel threat to the capital.

The residents of Eastern Ghouta are living an “underground life,” Maurer says, forced into shelters to escape the bombing. People are pale and cannot even manage the ever-growing number of dead bodies. “You walk in and people ask you if you have a bottle of water,” he says. “That doesn’t happen in many places. People want food, people want a lot of things, but we are down to the very basics.”

Maurer is confronted daily with how fraught the task of providing humanitarian can be. His latest struggle is to get medical aid into Eastern Ghouta: The Syrian government periodically allows flour bags and food parcels but blocks trauma kits and basic medicine, such as insulin, from entering the area. At the same time, he must contend with hostility from critics in the Syrian opposition, who contend that aid organizations have abandoned their principles in dealing with the Syrian government and serve to strengthen Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power.

The ICRC has recently had to fend off criticism spurred by a video of Assad driving himself on the road to Eastern Ghouta, in which the Syrian president briefly drives behind an ICRC vehicle. Some anti-government commentators seized upon the video as evidence that the aid organization provided him with protection. The ICRC responded by noting that the video appeared to be filmed near one of Damascus’s busiest squares — the ICRC vehicle was not protecting Assad but just one of many on a crowded thoroughfare. Nor, it said, did the organization even conduct an aid operation into Eastern Ghouta on the day the video was filmed. These facts, however, seem to have done little to stop criticism of the ICRC from spreading within anti-Assad circles. “Wounded children did not exit from Ghouta,” one opposition banner featuring the image reads. “But the criminal Bashar al-Assad entered it.”

There’s a reason for the opposition’s enduring suspicion of aid organizations. For years, journalists have reported on how these organizations’ desire to stay in the good graces of the Syrian government has skewed aid delivery and caused them to whitewash Assad’s behavior: U.N. aid organizations dragged their feet on delivering life-saving assistance to hundreds of thousands of civilians in rebel-held areas, for instance, and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) once allowed the Assad government to scrub any mention of “sieged” or “besieged” areas from a U.N. report.

For Maurer, these tensions are baked into the very DNA of the international aid community. The ICRC’s fundamental principles dictate that aid should be delivered without discrimination based on political belief and that the organization should remain neutral in conflicts — but the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. resolutions creating the humanitarian system all begin by acknowledging the primacy of states. “So it’s no surprise that our first address is always governments and to try to seek to negotiate with them on what we are able to do,” he says.

Maurer acknowledges that this has “led to a certain imbalance” when it comes to aid delivery. However, he is quick to point out the lengths that the ICRC goes to push the Syrian government to expand the scope of aid delivery. The organization has provided 3 million people with food across Syria in the past year, and more than 1 million people have been able to access health care services because of it. In Eastern Ghouta alone, tens of thousands of people benefit from food, clean water, and hygiene kits provided by the ICRC — aid that would be impossible to deliver without working with the Syrian government. “We do recognize that the result is imperfect,” he says. “But we have also to respect the power realities on the ground.”

These power realities include the leadership of the ICRC’s local affiliate, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). While its volunteers do extraordinary work and possess a range of political views, its top officials are deeply tied to the government. Its longtime former president, Abdulrahman al-Attar, boasted strong links to Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and a businessman who has funded pro-government militias: U.S. diplomatic cables reported in 2008 that Attar, acting as a “possible cutout” for Makhlouf, attempted to lease airliners in contravention of U.S. sanctions.

When Attar died in February, Maurer hailed his “leadership and life-long service to the people of #Syria.” I wanted to understand where Maurer draws the line: Is working with figures tied to the government simply the cost of working in Syria, or could the ICRC reach a point where it would jeopardize its relationship with Damascus to protect its principles?

It is yet another source of tension, Maurer admits, that he has to navigate. On the one hand, the SARC is legally linked to the government; on the other, it is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and committed to its principles. But the ICRC does not appear close to reaching a breaking point with the SARC. “It was always my assessment that the chances of doing better assistance and protection to the Syrian people was outweighing the risk of having a leadership which was close to government,” Maurer says.

As if navigating war zones like Syria was not enough, Maurer also must manage relations with the ICRC’s donors — foremost among them the United States, which provides the largest percentage of its annual budget. Maurer says he has so far received no indications that ICRC funding is on President Donald Trump’s chopping block. The ICRC, he says, has “very positive interactions” with the United States as both a donor and a major power involved in conflicts across the globe.

I want to speak about an interaction that was not so positive. As we approach Maurer’s hotel in Beirut, I ask him about a report that the ICRC wrote in 2007 based on its visits to the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, where it found that several detainees had arrived at the prison by passing through CIA “black sites.” The CIA had used torture at those sites, the ICRC reported, including physical abuse, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding. Trump’s nominee for CIA director had previously been in charge of one of these CIA sites in Thailand.

Maurer demurs. The report had not been released by the ICRC but leaked to news outlets. “Our ability to operate in detention facilities is based on confidentiality,” he says. “So we will keep it that way.”

I try a different route: In the abstract, does the ICRC oppose giving leadership positions to officials implicated in torture?

“That’s not an issue that’s in our decision,” Maurer answers with a slight smile. “We certainly oppose torture as an institution.”

That’s as close as I will get Maurer to delve into U.S. politics. The countries change, but the strategy remains the same: Doing good, in Maurer’s world, means working with those who are complicit in the problems he’s trying to solve. It’s not only in Syria, after all, where he has to weigh his words carefully.

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