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State Department Briefing on Aid to Those Affected by Syria Conflict
July 20, 2012

Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights
Kelly Clements, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Mark Bartolini, Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance

July 19, 2012
Washington, D.C.

A boy in a bombed-out building
Syrian boy sits in rubble of house destroyed during an April 2012 military operation by the Syrian army in Taftanaz, Syria (AP images)
MR. VENTRELL: Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining us. Today we have an on-the-record call, and we’re joined by Maria Otero, the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights; Kelly Clements, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration; and Mark Bartolini, the Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. Our discussion today will focus on U.S. humanitarian assistance to those affected by the conflict in Syria.

I’m going to start by – all three of our speakers will make opening remarks, and then we’ll turn it over for some questions. So without further ado, Under Secretary Otero, I will turn it over to you.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Thank you, thank you very much. Good afternoon, everyone. I want to welcome you to this call, which is focused on the U.S. – the United States efforts to provide humanitarian relief to those that are affected by the violence in Syria. Also have here with me my colleagues, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, Kelly Clements, and the USAID Director for Foreign Disaster Assistance Mark Bartolini.

I have just returned from visits to both Turkey and Jordan where I met with government officials, I met with representatives from nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, with human rights activists, with youth groups, with a wide range of different people to discuss a wide range of issues that are concerning a variety of different topics, including human rights and trafficking in persons. But primarily, the enormous humanitarian concerns that are being faced by people who are being displaced both on the Jordanian border and on the Turkish border. Kelly Clements was with me in Turkey and we can speak directly with – we were able to speak directly with some of the Syrians that have been displaced.

What would be good to do today would be to share with you some of our impressions of the discussions that we had with these individuals that we met in the border areas, provide some information of what the U.S. Government efforts are to help those who are displaced by the violence, and to those that are, of course, moving to neighboring countries.

I do want to start by stressing that just the alarming events in Turkey, and we are seeing them continuing to evolve even at a faster speed, raising huge and deep concerns for all the countries in the regions. Obviously, for the international community, but these countries that border with Syria are themselves very clearly affected.

The violence is increasing; we are hearing it on an ongoing basis, even since I returned. The violence is more prevalent in Damascus, and this increase in violence is, of course, leading to more people, and a larger number of people, that are inside Syria and that are along Syria’s borders needing more humanitarian assistance. We witnessed the generosity of the governments in Jordan and Turkey, and of course the same can be said for Lebanon and Iraq; they are hosting and providing assistance to all those who are fleeing violence in Syria. They’re trying to make sure that their urgent, basic needs are met and preparing for what they accept will be an even greater increase of people fleeing the border.

The United States is providing assistance and, as most of you know, we provided through the humanitarian agencies that we support, and Kelly and Mark are working on this directly so that they can provide some more detail on our specific efforts. You know that Secretary Clinton has said many times that the United States is prepared to do everything possible to engender the desire of both the government and the opposition to cease the violence and to work towards a transition that leads to a democratic future in Syria and for the Syrian people. Of course, my work is committed to supporting that effort, and in this case, to think particularly of the people that are most vulnerable from Syria that are fleeing this increasing violence.

So let me just leave my remarks to that for right now. Let me ask Kelly to speak more specifically about our bureau’s efforts and then give Mark an opportunity to talk a little bit about AID’s work in disaster assistance.


MS. CLEMENTS: Thank you, Maria. As you may know, more than a 117- to 125,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries. Everyday more are crossing borders seeking safety. And in the course of just one night, nearly 1,300 Syrians arrived at Turkish camps, and there are now reports of upwards of 8,500 Syrians who crossed the border into Lebanon in the last 24 hours.

For this reason, our support is crucial to ensuring that basic needs are being met. The governments of Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, as Maria said, have borne a significant financial burden, and we commend them for their generosity, but they are not alone. We were pleased to announce during the Syria Humanitarian Forum in Geneva earlier this week that the United States is providing an additional $6 million to bolster the humanitarian response for this crisis. This brings the total amount of U.S. assistance in 2012 to nearly $64 million and more is coming.

Our approach is to work through international organizations. This strengthens our ability to deliver humanitarian assistance because these organizations had staff and infrastructure in Syria and neighboring countries prior to the start of the conflict, which can be well-utilized in current efforts with the civilians in need. Humanitarian assistance is provided on the basis of need, not political affiliation, and is being distributed to the most vulnerable through UN agencies and other international and local nongovernmental organizations.

Working together, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and ICRC, as well as UNICEF, World Food Program, UNHCR, and UNRRA, and other international and local NGOs. Inside Syria, lack of access due to violence by all parties remains the number one limiting factor for humanitarian assistance. International humanitarian agencies simply are unable to reach those most in need. We urge all parties to facilitate unimpeded access to affected areas and populations for humanitarian agencies, including the SARC, to enable humanitarian assistance to reach individuals in need.

As a prerequisite for humanitarian assistance, it is essential that all parties respect the impartiality and neutrality of humanitarian workers who daily risk their lives to save others. And we condemn the recent killing of a fifth Syrian Arab Red Crescent member, a volunteer who lost his life assisting others while wearing a uniform clearly marked with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent emblem. We will continue our support for those affected by the violence in Syria, even as we look forward to the day when all Syrians can live in a free, democratic country.

And I’ll now turn it over to my USAID colleague, Mark Bartolini, for some comments, and then we’ll take your questions.

MR. BARTOLINI: Thanks, Kelly. Just a few comments to start today, and good afternoon, everyone. Currently, it’s projected there are about 1.5 million Syrians in need inside the country. Somewhere along the lines of 300,000 to 500,000 have been displaced from their homes. And the situation with providing them aid, as Kelly was saying, is incredibly difficult. We have numerous stories of aid workers being harassed, killed, and taken capture. So I have to caveat my comments today by saying that we’re somewhat constrained because of the difficulties of delivering aid in what we can tell you today.

But I can tell you that there are really heroic efforts going on right now inside of Syria to help people that are most in need. And we are having an impact. We’re not reaching everyone, but we’re doing the best we can, and we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to get further access as the situation moves forward. Thank you.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Thank you. Let me just clarify that when I spoke and I said that there are alarming events going on, I meant Syria. I said Turkey, but I clearly meant Syria. So let’s just open it up now for any questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll now begin the question-and-answer session. If you would like to ask a question, please press * then 1. You will be announced by name and affiliation. Please limit your question to one at this time. Again, * then 1 for queue. One moment, please.

One moment, please. Our first request now is from Jill Dougherty, CNN. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you very much. Just a couple of questions. I know you said there are 1.5 million people within the country in need, but do you have any overall figures of how many have fled the country? And also, could you tell us what their greatest needs are, very specifically? Food, medicine? Are they injured? Any details that you could give of the actual plight of these people would be helpful.

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: Yeah. Let me just start with that, and then Kelly can continue. The estimate is that there’s a 140,000 that have fled, that are – but I think Kelly can update that figure. And the areas that we witnessed, we were in camps in Turkey and in Jordan, and we spoke with some of the refugees. And clearly, the medical need, of course, is predominant. We saw people who had been seriously wounded, people with missing limbs who had been sewn up hurriedly. I saw and met with a woman who had a bullet gone through her eye and out her cheek and who was there having suffered that wound, again, fleeing. So the issue of medical care for the wounded and for those that are having that kind of a situation is greatly, greatly needed and, of course, some of the other needs that are essential when you’re trying to just survive in a camp.

Kelly, do you want to add numbers – both give numbers and just add some of these other areas?

MS. CLEMENTS: Sure. Maybe I can just add some more specificity to the opening. I had mentioned earlier 117- to 125,000. These are people largely who have been registered with UNHCR in the case of Lebanon and Jordan and Iraq. In the case of Turkey – estimates are coming from the Government of Turkey – in Turkey, there are about 42,600 or so individuals that are currently in the camps along the border. In Jordan, there are 37,000, of which about 35,000 have been registered with UNHCR. There are obviously many more Syrians that have crossed that border but have not availed themselves of the need for international assistance. In Lebanon, there are 32,500, and as I mentioned earlier, those numbers are rising very, very rapidly – in Iraq about 8,000.

MR. BARTOLINI: And maybe I can give a little more detail on the type of assistance that’s required inside Syria. Right now there are approximately 500,000 people that are in need of food aid that the World Food Program is reaching, and that number is expected to go up. But they are getting some access right now. They are getting food aid out. And there certainly is a huge need for health assistance, in particular medical assistance for those who have been injured in the conflict. But also as the conflict wears on, you’re seeing issues like children who aren’t getting vaccinations who are in difficult-to-reach areas and all of the other ancillary health concerns that you’d have in any population. There’s also a concern – I mentioned that there’s 3- to 500,000 people who have been (inaudible) displaced. And we know in any conflict when that happens, there’s issues with disease, with clean water – so we’re doing quite a bit of water and sanitation programming, basic hygiene kits for people. And then just given the level of violence, what we’re seeing particularly among children – and psychosocial needs – is very significant. So we’re seeing a whole array of needs that we’re trying to fill.

MS. CLEMENTS: Maybe just to add one point to this, just after the humanitarian forum on Monday, the Department and AID issued a fact sheet, which goes into great detail about both humanitarian assistance requirements inside the country, what’s happening in the neighboring countries, and through which partners we are largely operating. Thanks.


OPERATOR: If you do have a request, please press * then 1. My next now is from Oren Dorell, USA Today.

Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this and for taking this question. You mentioned these aid workers who have been harassed, killed, taken captive. I was wondering if you have – if you can say by whom that’s happening, and if you could provide any more details.

MR. BARTOLINI: We really can’t. We know it’s been widespread, and we know from organizations that we’re working with that medical clinics, health professionals have been targeted. We also know people simply trying to get aid in to help people have been targeted. And I don’t have names, but I think this is good information, one given the veracity of the folks that we work with quite frequently throughout the world, these are our partners there, but also the frequency of the reporting we’re hearing. It’s not at all a unique situation, unfortunately.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our last request now from Kenneth Schwartz, Voice of America.

Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. We have news reports here that the Syrian rebels are now controlling all the Iraqi border points and border crossings. Do you anticipate – if this development is true, do you anticipate this helping your work, and have you been in touch with any rebel representatives who could possibly help you in helping out these people who need some aid?

UNDER SECRETARY OTERO: We can’t confirm that information. We certainly have not heard this in any case. However, regardless of who is controlling the border, we are seeing the Syrians fleeing, even when they are being shot at from behind, which is some of what we heard in Jordan as people were trying to cross the border. So we anticipate that this will continue, and we are seeing the governments – and certainly I can speak from the perspective of having been in Jordan and Turkey – that those governments are responding with enormous generosity. They are providing all the assistance that they possibly can. In the case of Jordan, sharing their water, which is so scarce, with the refugees, and in the case of Turkey, putting up a camp and being able to provide as much assistance as possible. So I think it is important to note that these governments are really taking a proactive approach in this work, and they are already looking at ways to expand what they’re doing. Because as we see the violence growing, we are expecting more and more numbers to flee Syria into these bordering countries. And regardless of who controls the border, this will continue to happen.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: And I now would like to turn it back to Mr. Ventrell for any closing remarks.

MR. VENTRELL: Thank you all for joining the call, and have a good afternoon.