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U.S. Humanitarian Assistance to Syria – A “LiveAtState” Web Chat
August 22, 2012

“LiveAtState” web chat with

David M. Robinson
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Mark Bartolini,

Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance at USAID

Washington, DC
August 21, 2012


A group of people
Click on the image to watch the “LiveatState” web chat video

MS. JENSEN: Hi. Welcome to LiveAtState, an interactive web chat platform for engaging international media. I would like to welcome all of you joining us from around the world today. I’m your host, Holly Jensen.

Today, I’m joined in the studio by David Robinson, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration. And we’re also joined in the studio by Mark Bartolini, the Director of the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance for USAID. Today, they will be taking your questions on humanitarian assistance for those affected by the violence in Syria.

Before I turn it over to them, I would like to give you a few housekeeping notes. You can start to submit your questions now in the lower left-hand portion of your screen titled “Questions for State Department Officials.” And if at any time you experience problems during today’s program, you can email your questions directly to us at live@state.gov and we will add them to the queue. We will answer as many of your questions as we can in the 30 minutes we have. If you’d like to get more information today, you can follow us on Twitter by using the handle @StateDept. That’s @StateDept or @StatePRM and @TheOFDA, that’s TheOFDA.

And with that, I would like to turn it over to you, David. Thank you for joining us.

MR. ROBINSON: Well, good morning. Thank you very much for having us here today. At the outset, I’d like to note that we celebrated or commemorated World Humanitarian Day on August 19th, last Sunday. There are thousands of very brave and dedicated people around the world working to provide relief and help to other people desperately in need, and nowhere is this more true than inside Syria today and also in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, where refugees have fled the violence in Syria and are receiving assistance.

The United States is deeply engaged in this activity. To date, we have contributed more than $82 million to the effort, and our help is reaching tens and hundreds of thousands of people desperately in need. So I appreciate this opportunity to elaborate on what we’re doing, and I look forward to your questions. Thank you.

MS. JENSEN: Go ahead, Mark.

MR. BARTOLINI: Thanks for having us, Holly. I look forward to discussing this issue. The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance is authorized by Congress to provide needs-based assistance to people who have suffered from either a natural disaster or in conflict. And the situation currently in Syria represents one of the most complex environments we’ve ever had to work. Nonetheless, we have been able to reach over 780,000 people to date inside. The conditions, as I said, are very difficult, and certainly we’re not reaching everyone. But I think it is a bit of an untold story what we are able to do inside Syria today.

MS. JENSEN: Great. Our first question is: Some say that the U.S. isn’t doing enough to help those suffering from the conflict in Syria. Is the U.S. engaged? I’ll turn it over to you, Mark, and you can answer first.

MR. BARTOLINI: Sure. Well, first of all, again, the situation inside many areas of Syria today – it’s incredibly violent; people are suffering horribly. And we’re certainly not reaching everyone that’s in need. There’s no question about that. We need better access. But what we are doing – again, I mention it’s a very complex environment, so we’re not able to brand what we’re providing or even talk much about the mechanics of how we’re doing this, but aid is getting in. It’s unmarked. It’s primarily medical supplies, food aid getting to populations in need.

I’m sure that, again, there is a perception among some that more needs to be done, and that’s understandable, but a lot is being done right now. And we’re constantly trying to ramp up our current operations.

MR. ROBINSON: I’d just build on Mark’s comment to note that the United States is the single largest contributor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and for other international organizations that are very active inside Syria today. They’re also active inside Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, helping people who have managed to escape. So the United States is perusing a very active and, I think, aggressive effort to provide humanitarian assistance.

MS. JENSEN: Can you briefly describe what challenges are impacting the humanitarian aid? And how are you working to overcome these challenges?

MR. BARTOLINI: Well, sure. Inside Syria, the main issue, of course, is violence and a lack of access. The government has not provided full access to aid workers to operate inside Syria, and obviously with the violent levels in certain of the cities that we’re trying to operate in, it makes it very complicated for aid workers to get in. But there are people who are very brave, who are taking incredible risks to get aid into these areas, and we’re using the full range of potential partners to make sure that we’re able to access as many people as possible.

We do need better access, and obviously, we ultimately need a political solution here to stem the violence. But even given the situation, as difficult as it is, we are getting aid through.

MR. ROBINSON: Again, I think that that’s absolutely correct. The United States is being successful in getting some aid in, a significant amount of aid in. But access is the most significant problem. And I would comment, again, that humanitarian problems, particularly of this scope, don’t have humanitarian solutions, they have political solutions. And so we seek a political settlement to this problem, and we hope to reach the people most in need and to be able to provide them the assistance they need.

MS. JENSEN: The next question is basically a follow-up to that, and it comes from Valery Marinov from the Bulgarian National TV. Usually the pattern that follows is humanitarian crisis, humanitarian aid, full-blown conflict, international settlement. How are you going to break this circle and prevent full-scale military confrontation and provide effective humanitarian aid?

MR. ROBINSON: Again, the United States is working with our partners – international organizations as well as governments in the region – to provide assistance to Syrians who desperately need the help. We would really call on all of the countries in the region and others to add to this effort to provide help to these people. And I think that at some point we will be able to hasten the transition once the violence stops, once the Assad regime is finished. Being able to provide help today will help us to have a smoother transition in the future.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question is a follow-up from Valery Marinov. Are you optimistic that the UN, and the UN Security Council in particular, will be able to come up with one united position on Syria? And how can this be achieved?

MR. ROBINSON: I think the united position on Syria, from our perspective at this moment, is first that people who desperately need help have to get the help they need, and the Syrian regime should allow humanitarian workers to provide that assistance inside Syria, and the governments in the region should continue as they are, keeping the borders open to allow people that need to flee to get across the borders safely. The bottom line is that civilians and other innocents need to be protected. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.

MS. JENSEN: Our next question comes from Alloui Soumia from Algerian TV: What is the value of the aid sent to Syria?

MR. BARTOLINI: Well, currently, the U.S. Government has nearly $82 million that’s been in the region spent on aid. It’s a variety of types of aid from food aid to medical assistance to non-food items, hygiene kits and the like, and primarily it’s going to women and children who are civilians caught in these conflict areas.

MS. JENSEN: This is a follow-up from Alloui. How do you intend to deliver this aid?

MR. BARTOLINI: The mechanics of how we’re doing it we’re not discussing, because again, the situation is so violent. We have numerous stories of aid workers who have been attacked, clinics that have been established that have been attacked. So we feel it’s not fair to those who are risking their lives to get into the mechanics of how it’s done. But it’s through a variety of networks – traditional networks and nontraditional networks – that we’re able to do this.

MR. ROBINSON: And I think it’s important that as we try to provide the aid to the people that need it that contributions are made to the UNHCR and to other organizations that are actively engaged in Syria and in neighboring countries.

MS. JENSEN: Is the State Department actively encouraging neighboring countries to consider accepting refugees? And how does the State Department believe the international community can get involved to alleviate the situations for the countries involved, specifically Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon?

MR. ROBINSON: Well, I would note that Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon are three countries that have left their borders open to allow people to cross and to find help and assistance inside their countries, and we encourage those countries to keep their borders open. We are partnering with them to alleviate some of the difficulty that those refugees may pose. And so I think the biggest thing that we can ask for today is that the neighboring countries continue to leave the borders open, allow people to get across the borders, and that the international community – UNHCR and others – will provide assistance partnering with the host governments to make sure that people are cared for.

MS. JENSEN: Are you working through the UN or local organizations?

MR. ROBINSON: We do. As a matter of fact, the United States is the single largest contributor to UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, and many other organizations. We have, for more than 30 years I think, shown terrific leadership in helping to build the humanitarian response architecture that was in place inside Syria before the violence began and has mitigated some of the worst consequences. So we continue to work through our international partners, and we ask others to do the same.

MS. JENSEN: And are you guys providing assistance to the families in Aleppo?

MR. BARTOLINI: Yes, there is aid that’s currently getting into Aleppo. There’s no conflict area in Syria that we haven’t been able to reach with aid. Having said that, there certainly needs to be more. And again, I just want to reiterate the importance of the government and all parties of the conflict providing for safe access for humanitarian aid workers.

MS. JENSEN: Great. At this time, I’d like to remind you that can you ask your questions in the lower left-hand portion of your screen titled “Questions for State Department Officials.” And if you would like more information, you can follow us on Twitter by using the Twitter handle @StateDept or @StatePRM.

At this time, the next question comes from Rory Mulholland: Who is carrying out the attacks you mentioned on aid workers in clinics? And is it the Syrian regime forces or opposition fighters or both?

MR. BARTOLINI: From what we’ve been hearing, I would hate to designate who’s carrying out the attacks. But these clinics are clinics that are primarily operating in opposition areas. They’re serving people in opposition areas, so I think you can draw your own conclusions as to who’s carrying them out. But they’ve been widespread. It’s nothing – like nothing I’ve ever seen in any conflict I’ve been involved in, the level of attacks against people simply trying to provide humanitarian assistance.

MS. JENSEN: You can also follow us on Twitter at @TheOFDA. That’s @TheOFDA, or you can follow us on Facebook.com/USAID.news. Next question is: How does this compare to the other crises around the world?

MR. ROBINSON: In terms of raw numbers, this is a significant, obviously, crisis, but every crisis that involves – or every attack against a civilian is horrific, and so we view this – the events in Syria obviously as terrible, and we are providing a level of assistance that we normally provide elsewhere as well. We’re very active in many places – in Africa, in other continents around the world – but this crisis certainly is very, very significant.

MR. BARTOLINI: Sure. I would just add that the situation today in the Horn of Africa, in Somalia, in the Sahel area in Yemen – these are all major crises, which we’re also very actively responding to. And in terms of, frankly, numbers dead, the situation right now in Syria is not as high as those crises, but the numbers affected are close. There’s 2.5 million people in need of aid right now inside Syria, and 1.2 million have been displaced from the home. So on that scale, it’s right up there with the worst crises in the world today.

MS. JENSEN: What more can be done to help the people of Syria?

MR. ROBINSON: Again, I think that the international community is responding to the humanitarian vein quite well, but we would ask for other donors to step forward and to contribute to the international organizations and the NGOs and others who are helping the innocent Syrians. And we again wish to extend our appreciation to the governments of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and others, and Syria, who are taking in refugees that are fleeing.

MR. BARTOLINI: And I would just add what Dave said earlier about, of course, we need a political solution to this crisis to end the violence. But before that happens, there needs to be better access, and as I said, this is the worst crisis I’ve ever been involved with in terms of access. And governments need to put more pressure on the Syrian Government to open up the situation so that aid can get in.

MS. JENSEN: At this time, I’d like to ask you, if you have any questions for either one of these gentlemen, you can start to ask your questions right now in the lower left-hand portion of your screen.

With that, the next question is: What is the next step in terms of finding a sustainable solution to accommodating Syrian refugees in neighboring countries?

MR. ROBINSON: Again, the efforts that the governments in the region are making and that the international organizations are making are heroic, and continuing those efforts is the most important thing. The most important thing that can happen, obviously, is a political solution to this crisis so refugees can go home. That’s what they want to do. And in the meantime, it’s important that aid organizations and governments continue to provide them with life-sustaining support until they can do that.

MS. JENSEN: Is the U.S. providing aid to the rebels?

MR. BARTOLINI: We’re providing assistance inside to conflict areas. The primary recipients of our aid, as it is in virtually every conflict, are women and children. And we’re not specifically providing aid to any one group; we’re providing aid solely based on need. But certainly, the areas that are most in need right now are those areas that are in conflict. That’s by far and away the worst areas, and medical assistance is really the number-one issue right now for people who have been injured or who are simply lacking basic vaccines and the like.

MS. JENSEN: All right. Great. So we have time for one more question: Can you tell me how many people are being helped by the United States Government assistance, and where is that aid going?

MR. ROBINSON: Well, in neighboring countries, there are about 150,000 people that have fled and are receiving assistance through host governments and also international organizations. Inside Syria, the number is larger, and I’ll turn that over to Mark.

MR. BARTOLINI: The number inside Syria is about 780,000 people that have received assistance that’s been funded by the United States Government. And as I’ve said, most of that’s going into conflict areas. But as we see this crisis drag on, we’re seeing more and more areas of Syria affected. Aleppo, which has been under siege of late, is one of the primary areas that produces drugs for Syria. So you’re seeing very common drugs like pain killers, antibiotics, vaccines coming in short supply. So as the needs grow, to the extent that we can, we’re going to try to be able to spread out and meet all those needs with – inside Syria.

MS. JENSEN: I have one last late-breaking question that comes from Brooks Tigner from Jane’s Defense Weekly. Are there any U.S. Government or government-supported agencies providing aid directly inside the country using their own personnel? And if so, how to ensure that? If not, any plans to engage directly in distribution of the aid inside Syria?

MR. BARTOLINI: Currently, there are no U.S. Government employees working inside Syria. And I think for that to happen, there’s clearly going to have to be a change in the political situation, and they’ll have to be invited in. But to date, there are none that I’m aware of.

MS. JENSEN: I’ll leave it to you guys. Any final thoughts? I’ll turn it over to you, [Dave].

MR. ROBINSON: Just again that I think it’s – on the first hand, it’s important to recognize the efforts of the governments of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq that are welcoming Syrian refugees inside their borders. It’s important that we support those governments. It’s important that we support the international organizations that are helping the Syrian civilians.

MR. BARTOLINI: And I’ll just say that, again, I do think there is a misperception out there that nothing is simply being done for the Syrian people, and that’s not true. As I’ve stated, millions of dollars is going in and providing assistance. It’s not enough. What they’re undergoing right now is terrible, and certainly our hearts go out to them and our sympathies. But we are doing quite a bit to try to assist them, and I think it’s incumbent upon everyone involved in this crisis in the region to try to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance.

MS. JENSEN: Great. Well, that’s all the time we have for today. I would like to thank all of you for joining us, and I would like to thank you both for joining us in the studio today. There will be a full audio and video copy of today’s program available for you shortly after the conclusion of today’s program.

And if you’d like to get the latest information from the State Department, you can follow us on Twitter by using the Twitter handle @StateDept or if you would like the latest information from PRM, you can do so by following @StatePRM. Or the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, you can follow them on Twitter using the handle @TheOFDA.

Thank you for joining us, and we look forward to doing this again with you soon.