Press Briefing on the Humanitarian Effort in Syria and Neighboring Countries

Kelly Clements
Deputy Assistant Secretary
of State
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration

 and

Jack Meyer
Principal Regional Advisor
USAID, Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance

Press Conference
November 9, 2012

United Nations
Geneva Switzerland

 

DAS Clements:  Thank you very much.  It’s a pleasure for both of us to be with you today.

As we convened the Syria Humanitarian Forum today foremost in our minds was the sobering and dire humanitarian situation in Syria. Humanitarian needs and displacement has grown exponentially since we met in this forum two months ago.  More than 380,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries and thousands more have fled to Europe and to North Africa. Inside Syria significantly more than one million people have been displaced and the UN conservatively estimates that there are at least 2.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

The failure of the Eid ceasefire prevented humanitarian partners from reaching families in all areas.  Nonetheless, we commend UNHCR, WFP and other partners for making some progress in delivering family kits that included mattresses, quilts, winter clothes, kitchen sets and other essential items to Homs, South Hasakeh, El Raka, and Aleppo.  We welcomed ICRC’s announcement that they were able to deliver medical items, medicines, food, hygiene items, to beleaguered civilians inside the old city of Homs.

Access inside Syria is critical.  We are doing all we can to reach as many as we can, but humanitarian actors must have access in order to reach those people in need and even more people in need every day.

The United States urgently calls on all parties to allow aid to reach the communities most in need and to expand the number of humanitarian organizations authorized to deliver aid.

As we watched the escalating violence that has created this humanitarian emergency the United States remains committed to helping to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.

Today at the forum I announced that the United States is providing more than $34 million U.S. dollars in additional humanitarian assistance for the people of Syria.  This brings the total amount of U.S. humanitarian assistance in response to this crisis to more than $165 million U.S. dollars for populations within Syria, as well as those in neighboring countries.

This new funding from the United States will help keep families and children warm during the coming winter by providing blankets, heating stoles, heavy duty plastic sheeting to cover windows and other damaged areas of buildings housing those displaced inside Syria.  We are also providing funding for winterization efforts in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

A portion of these funds will be used for protection of children by providing psychosocial support and education as well as activities to prevent gender-based violence.  This additional funding will support an immunization program and campaign that will help protect up to one million children in Syria from measles and other communicable diseases.  We are also increasing support for the massive logistical operation that allows lifesaving aid to be delivered when and where possible in Syria.

Finally, this funding will also support the humanitarian transport of wounded Syrians from Lebanon’s Syria border to medical facilities in Lebanon so they can receive the medical attention that they need.

We recognized certainly in the forum this morning, and we have over the past 18, 19 months, the generosity of the governments and the people of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey who continue to keep their borders open to those fleeing the violence.  And we expressed appreciation to all countries including Iraq, as well as countries in North Africa and Europe, that are increasingly hosting and providing assistance to these vulnerable populations.  But they are not alone in responding to the humanitarian needs of those affected by this crisis.  The United States and the international community will continue to support the important work that our international and non-governmental organization partners carry out in the region to provide aid and services to victims of conflict in Syria.

With that, I’m happy to take your questions.  And Jack is as well, of course.

Media:  I think that we have some problems to understand the question of access, access to the big [cities].  And from the press conference we just had from the UN agencies we don’t have a real accurate picture or more or less, I understand the [inaudible] to have an accurate picture, but more or less to understand where the humanitarian agencies can go and where they are able to provide aid.  Because [inaudible] some neighborhoods in many places are closed for weeks or even months.

So are you able to give us this picture?

DAS Clements:  You had the experts before and I realize that you’ve just had several, maybe an hour or two hours talking through some of these issues at some length.  They’re obviously the ones on the ground in terms of the networks that they’ve supported.

It’s not a static situation.  Day by day, whether or not violence is in certain neighborhoods, not in others.  What we, the United States, have tried to support through international non-governmental partners is the preparations in terms of prepositioning inside the country, in the neighborhood.  That as access does open, as a neighborhood that may have been cut off before becomes available, that there is the possibility to be able to launch with increased assistance.

We saw, for example, in the Eid ceasefire the partners — WFP, UNICEF, UNHCR, ICRC – all ready with trucks and equipment and there was a 17-truck convoy that tried to make it from the UN to old Homs before the ICRC was able to get in a day or two later.  That’s the sort of very changed situation day by day.

So some areas are very much more difficult to access as we understand.  Other areas and parts of the country are largely available.  That’s why you see some of the numbers that you see now in terms of what the United Nations and the Red Cross and others are able to do in terms of what they’ve done through family kits and blankets and shelter and so on.

I’ll stop and see whether or not Jack has something to add on this.

Mr. Meyers:  No, I think you’ve covered it pretty well.

What we’re trying to do is work with any and all organizations that have any kind of access inside the country to get them the support they need.  As Kelly said, it’s a very dynamic situation.  What may be possible this week may not be possible next week.

One area that we’re particularly, I don’t know what the word is, hopeful, at least on the humanitarian side, optimistic, is if there are areas that have been calm for some time, whether controlled by whatever, whoever, that that will then allow the emergence of some kind of humanitarian interlocutors that we can work with that can help us understand the situation better in those places as well as steer humanitarian aid.  But this is a very dynamic situation.  It’s very difficult.  We’re not able to get in there ourselves as you know.  And so we’re always hoping for more and more on that front, but it’s a challenge.

Media:  Do you have any idea how many places are still closed now?  I mean, dynamic, yes, but now, today, what is happening in Syria?  How many people we cannot reach?

Mr. Meyers:  The consensus figure of people affected is 2.5 million.  The consensus figure for displaced is 1.2.  That’s internally displaced.

DAS Clements:  And you heard from the United Nations this morning that those are conservative figures.  That they think the needs are quite a bit higher than that.  And one of the things we heard this morning was that there are a number of assessments that are planned even in the next weeks in terms of trying to hit various parts of Syria, not just centralized but I think we heard there were plans to go to four different, five different areas

Mr. Meyers:  They’ve already done El Raka, they’ve done Hasakeh, they’ve done other places.  The way they described it, as I’m sure they described it to you, really the major constraint on them at this point seems to be literally the security.  And not just the threat of insecurity, actual insecurity.  We’re used to not going to a neighborhood because it’s dangerous.  We might have something happen to us.  They know if they go to some of these places they’re going to get shot at.  So it’s a real challenge.  But they’re trying to be as aggressive as they can in terms of getting into these places safely.  Even the ICRC I think has said there are places they can’t get into.

Media:  All the aid going into Syria you’re talking about seems to be [inaudible] coordinated in Damascus.  Are you providing assistance, or are you able to provide assistance that goes across borders through [inaudible]?

DAS Clements:  Our assistance is a combination of, I would say, traditional and non-traditional actors.  Obviously a wide variety of international organizations, some of which I think you’ve seen today.  The World Food Program, ICRC, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNRUH.  I’m throwing lots of acronyms at you, but I’m assuming you’ve been well briefed, through the traditional which I’m assuming is your question in terms of being organized out of Damascus.

There are other ways, though, and we are certainly trying to reach people in need.  And that is through non-traditional mechanisms as well, through a variety of ways.  These resources have tended to be devoted to addressing one, winterization issues; serious health and medical needs that we’ve seen in the country certainly; and other ways to try to spread the assistance even further.

This is not assistance that is branded for obvious reasons.  It is assistance that is strongly supported by the United States.  But because of the security of partners and because of the difficulty of working in Syria, we have been very quiet about exactly how that assistance is provided and we prefer to keep it that way at this point.

Mr. Meyers:  We’re going to keep doing that.  As your colleagues have told all of us out there in Syria, the various parties, certainly in government, have been known to target hospitals, literally target them, arrest doctors.  We know that from your own colleagues who have given us reports on that.  So the last thing we want to do is, you can imagine, putting a box of medicine somewhere that has U.S. government branding all over it.  What’s going to happen to those people inside Syria if they get caught with that?

They’re already arresting doctors that are just caught with medicine.  What if it had U.S. government written on it?  It would probably be worse for them.

So we’re doing everything we can to really try and avoid publicizing where this stuff comes from not just for the doctors and the beneficiaries but also those who are delivering the aid.  It’s a very challenging situation.

We do want the Syrian public to know that the American public is supporting them on humanitarian terms but we can’t do it to that kind of branding.

DAS Clements:  So the answer to your question is yes, both directions.

Media:  Can you quantify that at all?  Does it all go through traditional channels?

DAS Clements:  That’s a very good question.  Not necessarily.  I would say of the overall $165 million that we’re providing now in humanitarian assistance, the bulk of that has been for inside Syria operations, but obviously that is spread between traditional and non-traditional donors.  The non-traditional networks I think in some localities, for example in the medical sector, 90 percent in some places — that’s not across the country — would be through these non-traditional channels of support.

Mr. Meyers:  That’s a huge chunk for the refugees, the externally displaced Syrians.

DAS Clements:  Yes, but I was assuming you were focusing on —

Mr. Meyers:  But of our $165, some of that is for that.

DAS Clements:  Yes.  Absolutely.

Media:  So in some areas 90 percent of that goes through non-traditional networks.

DAS Clements:  Yes.

Media:  Can you elaborate, the non-traditional channels, what does that mean given we were just told a few minutes ago that in the city of Homs, 50 percent of the doctors have fled, [inaudible] medical personnel have been killed, and both the government and the rebels have been destroying medical facilities right across the country.

DAS Clements:  This is not an easy situation by any means.

Media:  So these non-traditional channels, are they medical NGOs in the field like the ones [inaudible] like IMC for instance?

DAS Clements:  This is a wide variety of networks and again —

Media:  — network.  Can you give us an explanation?

DAS Clements:  For the security partners, if we go through now and talk about how this works it puts those individuals and facilities and ways of operating at greater risk.

Media:  So you’re talking about the underground medical facilities.

DAS Clements:  No, not necessarily.  There’s a whole wide variety of —

Mr. Meyers:  All of the above.

DAS Clements:  — trying to support.

Mr. Meyers:  Some of them are the basement facilities that again —

Media:  Are you putting humanitarians at risk?  We had [inaudible] here yesterday saying how the humanitarian thing is creating problems for the ICRC.

DAS Clements:  Now we’re bringing up a point here that I think is very important.  The individuals represented here from the U.S. government, we’re talking about providing resources according to need.  According to humanitarian need on basis of impartiality, neutrality, and so on.  There are not distinctions made by political affiliation, military affiliation, et cetera.  This is on the basis of humanitarian need.

So in terms of keeping, and there has been a very strong separation between the political assistance that our government has supported, non-lethal support to the non-violent opposition, with the humanitarian assistance which goes through partners like the UN, ICRC, non-governmental organizations.  But the basis for which that need is responded to, the principles do not change.

Does that help?

Media:  Yeah, sure.  But it’s humanitarian groups, non-traditional, but it’s —

DAS Clements:  Yes.  Its humanitarian groups.  Thank you for clarifying that.  If anybody else in the room took away a different message, let’s clarify it.

Media:  We heard that the Syrian Ambassador [inaudible] was at the meeting this morning.

DAS Clements:  Yes, he was.

Media:  Did he say something?  What was his attitude?  Did you have a chance to talk to him?

DAS Clements:  This is a very big group, and it’s a formal meeting.  So in terms of all of us sitting, it is an unusual forum in the sense that you have all of the members of the United Nations, all of the operational agencies, the OIC, the League of Arab States, and others sitting together to try to deal with very urgent humanitarian issues.  So we had an opportunity actually to hear from the United Nations in particular about the situation on the ground, what the priorities were, how we as members of the UN and donors and so on could help and be supportive.  And then we had an opportunity to make statements.  So it’s not necessarily an interaction.  We did hear from the Syrian Ambassador.  The United States obviously made a statement as well.  He talked about the priorities in his country, the concerns he has for the people of Syria, his hope that the violence would end and so on.  But this is, again, that’s the kind of tenor of the discussion.

Media:  — that he said that [inaudible]?

DAS Clements:  The fact that he was there was important for us.

Mr. Meyers:  Yes.

DAS Clements:  We need to continue to engage.

Media: Mr. Meyers, please remind me your position.

Mr. Meyers:  I am the Principal Regional Advisor for USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.  I’ve left a copy of my card here.  If anybody is curious, they can read it there.  I cover a big region for my humanitarian job and Syria falls into it.

Media:  My question will be about, are you having collaboration with the Syrian military to deliver aid now that they are [inaudible] area?

Mr. Meyers:  No.  We don’t deal with military or political entities.  We deal with relief entities only.  We’re not going to get involved with them.

DAS Clements:  The United States’ approach on humanitarian assistance is to both work through the civilian leadership obviously in the country in terms of setting the priorities and so on, and as well to deal with the civilian agencies that are delivering on the ground.

Media:  Coming back to the scenarios that were raised this morning.  John Ging [inaudible] 700,000 refugees in [inaudible], and up to four million people in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country.  Do you have any U.S. assessment?  Are these figures conservative?  And is there a U.S. assessment in [inaudible] extension of the military strike in a neighboring country?

DAS Clements:  Well, in terms of the prognosis from the UN, first off, we rely very heavily given, as Jack said, we’re actually not in the country ourselves, we rely on the partners that we support for their kind of first-hand knowledge of what’s happening on the ground.  So that’s very important to us.  The figures you quote from Mr. Ging.  Certainly the regional response plan anticipates or plans for 700,000.  We’re already just shy of 400,000 now.  Twenty thousand I think in just the first few days of this month.  So in terms of the refugee flows, we’re not far off the mark.  We may not get quite there by the end of the year, but we’ll probably be somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 certainly.  We’re already nearly at 400,000 now.

There’s a whole range of planning that’s done based on all kinds of scenarios, both from kind of the status quo to what we would call a worst case scenario.  That’s obviously done very much by the operational partners in terms of prepositioning and stockpiling and so on.  It has a range of factors related to it and its very dynamic based on the situation.

There are all kinds of pieces to this that are really unknowns and we try to anticipate —

Media:  The four million —

DAS Clements:  It varies.  It varies.  For example, the figure you’re taking about in terms of the 700,000.  That’s actually part of the current plan.  That’s not a worst case scenario.

Media:  And the worst case scenario figures, I know you’re shy of going public with this, but we had a similar situation in the run-up to the war in Iraq.  What are the worst case scenarios if the conflict expands into other countries or there are increased or new hostilities, strikes in [inaudible]?  Are we looking at this number perhaps even doubling?

DAS Clements:  It could be much higher.  We’re working both, the United States is working very hard with those agencies to ensure preparedness.  There are key factors here.  Inside the country the factors are access, largely restricted by violence.  A second factor, obviously you probably heard from the agencies this morning as well, is funding.  And the United States made this major new announcement today.  I expect we’ll continue with that very strong support with additional contributions in the weeks and months to follow.

We’re at $165 million now, but that’s where we can’t stand alone.  There have been other donors that have been very strong supporters as well, but we need more around the table to enable those agencies both to respond to the very critical needs related to the encroaching winter, actually it’s already upon us in some parts of the region, but as well to prepare for various contingencies.  That means, for example, being able to support stockpiles.  It means, for example, to make sure that you’ve got enough staff on the ground in the neighboring countries as well as inside Syria.  So it’s a variety of measures and our number one priority is trying to make sure that those partners are well supported.

Media:  You made it clear [inaudible] not present inside Syria, non-traditional channels.  How are you, can you be confident that [inaudible] quite a lot of money now is getting to where you want to get?  It’s a very very complicated situation.

DAS Clements:  It is an incredibly complicated situation and a dire one.  In terms of the monitoring that goes along with this, obviously there are non-traditional ways of monitoring situations like this.  This is not unique.  This is not the only place in the world where we as a government are not present.  We rely very much on the networks of partners that we’ve supported over decades to provide humanitarian assistance both in terms of the assessment of the requirement, but also in terms of the delivery of the assistance that we are helping to support.

There’s a range of reports and checks and balances, and even though you’re not eyes-on, there are other ways to be able to verify that people have been served who were the beneficiaries of the assistance.

Mr. Meyers:  I would just add that some of the organizations are using some of the latest social media and other electronic techniques, Skype and things like that to at least attempt to verify, digital photographs uploaded, bar codes that can be GPS coordinated, and all that.  So there’s that aspect as well.  But there’s a degree of trust to all this and that’s why we’re trying to work with folks we know.

 

# # # #