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Aid workers caught between fronts in Syria

The humanitarian situation in Syria is catastrophic. The work of aid organizations is being impeded by the warring parties, and aid workers are risking their lives. The UN Security Council is set to address the issue.

Syrian Red Crescent staff unload sacs of food at a distribution centre for internal displaced people on July 23, 2012 in Damascus. As tens of thousands of Syrians flee escalating war and chaos, the EU looked at ways of boosting humanitarian relief and beefed up sanctions and an arms embargo against the regime Monday. AFP PHOTO/ STR (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/GettyImages)

Syrien Roter Halbmond

The clearly visible crescent on his red uniform did not protect Bashar al-Youssef. The 23-year-old worked for the Red Crescent aid organization and was shot and killed in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. Five Red Crescent workers have been killed in Syria since violence broke out there over a year ago. It is not clear in any of the cases if the aid workers were killed by Syrian government troops or rebel fighters.

Despite the danger, the Syrian branch of the International Red Cross remains active in conflict zones, including Aleppo, where thousands of refugees are living in schools. But some aid work remains impossible.

"The Syrian Arab Red Crescent had to suspend first aid for more than two or three weeks in Aleppo, for example," said Hicham Hassan, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. "Security constraints for the volunteers themselves have become an issue."

Syrian children play in front of their tent at Zaatari Syrian refugee camp, in Mafraq, Jordan, EPA/JAMAL NASRALLAH +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

More and more Syrians are fleeing to refugee camps

Statistics from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) showed just how difficult the situation is for aid workers in Syria. Food was supposed to be distributed to some 850,000 people in July, but continuing violence meant only 541,000 people could be reached.

"The situation changes from day to day and from week to week," said WFP spokesperson Abeer Etefa. "These days we, unfortunately, have a hard time reaching the areas where we need to send food and other humanitarian assistance on behalf of other agencies - simply because it's very difficult to convince truck drivers to go to the area."

But the aid is urgently needed in those regions. Refugees continue to flee to neighboring countries, and there are currently over 200,000 people seeking refuge outside of Syria. But many internally displaced people are only moving from one neighborhood or city to another, and only leave the country as a last resort, aid workers have reported. About 1.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes, according to UN estimates.

While the WFP distributed 50,000 food rations in Syria last October, it expects as many as 1.5 million will be needed this September. The Syrian pharmaceutical industry, which produced 90 percent of medicines available in the country before the civil war, has largely become dysfunctional. The war has also had an adverse effect on farming, with drastic knock-on effects on the population's food supply.

Access to humanitarian aid

"Syria will need all the international aid it can get," said Omar Hallaj, managing director of the Syria Trust for Development. The organization works to provide shelter and supplies to refugees and is chaired by Asma Assad, wife of Syrian President Bashar Assad. "However, most agencies are having a hard time being effective in Syria due to insufficient information about the security situation on the ground."

Rebel fighters fire against pro- Syrian government forces at the al-Mashad neighbourhood in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on August 25, 2012. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GettyImages)

Both sides are hindering the work of aid organizations

Hallaj added that mutual distrust between the aid organizations and the Syrian government was also complicating and politicizing the situation.

"In some cases commanders are considerate of the humanitarian situation, but in other cases they are not, and in still other cases some factions have used civilian populations as propaganda tools," Hallaj said. "This is not unique to one side or the other. There are people who abuse the humanitarian situation in all camps."

On Thursday (30.08.2012), the United Nations Security Council plans to address the situation in Syria. Germany, as a non-permanent Council member, will take part in the discussions.

"Since the beginning of fighting we have called on the Assad regime and the opposition to provide complete access to humanitarian aid," said a spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry. "This could take the form of having the conflicting parties agree to a daily ceasefire for a certain amount of time."

Asma Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar Assad. (Foto:Vadim Ghirda, File/AP/dapd)

Asma Assad chairs the Syria Trust for Development

Germany hopes the Security Council will send a clear signal about the need to protect civilians, but no one expects the Council to issue a formal resolution concerning Syria. China and Russia, two veto-wielding powers on the Council, have so far blocked any resolution that could increase pressure on the Assad regime.

Aid organizations, for their part, have already appealed to both government and opposition forces - with moderate success.

"What we had asked for and what we had agreed upon several times is not a humanitarian corridor but a cessation of fighting when and where it is needed for humanitarian workers to go in and help," Hassan said, adding that the agreement worked in Duma for two consecutive days.

But such agreements remain the exception, he said, "That was the only time it worked, because we asked for it two other times and two other times it did not work."

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