On Monday, all but three of the kidnapped personnel were released. It was the latest high-profile kidnapping to come as foreigners traveling through the area increasingly become targets of extremist rebel groups.
It also represents an escalation in attacks on foreign-funded medical and rescue personnel, who are generally able to operate in the country without major incident.
The ICRC continues to operate its Damascus office. We asked Samar el-Kadi, the group’s spokesman in Lebanon, to discuss the dangers facing staff, and why the ICRC will continue its work in Syria.
Syria Deeply: Is this the first incident of ICRC staff being kidnapped in Syria?
Samar el-Kadi: This is the first such incident and it’s serious. The Red Cross emblem was quite evident on our cars, they knew who we were. We’ve never had such problems because we try to help everyone, all those people who need us regardless of whether they are in one area or another. We have never been targeted as such in Syria.
SD: What does this say to you about the point that the Syrian crisis has gotten to now?
SK: Things are very difficult in Syria. In the field, the fighting is continuing, access is becoming even more risky and [there are] more actors in the field, which makes our work even more challenging. It’s always a calculated risk with ICRC because the security of our staff is preeminent. If we don’t have secure access, we cannot help people. It’s as simple as that.
SD: Do you think this this incident could change how the ICRC operates inside Syria?
SK: Well, such incidents will definitely undermine our ability to move around to places where we have to assist. It will restrain our movements, but the ICRC wants to continue providing assistance. In Syria people are in dire need of our assistance.
SD: The U.N. recently passed a resolution calling on all sides of the Syrian conflict to grant greater humanitarian access. Has the ICRC seen the effects of this on the ground in Syria?
SK: The ICRC, even before the U.N., has been calling for [more] and safe access. The U.N. just came out calling for that just now. There are still risks in the field as we’ve seen, but we work to [stay in] contact with everyone to ensure access.
SD: Some humanitarian organizations say that the lack of a centralized authority within the Syrian opposition makes it very difficult to deliver aid because they need to communicate with so many different groups to negotiate access. Do you also see this problem on the ground?
SK: The plurality, multiplicity of actors in the field makes it even more difficult [to establish] contacts and [negotiate] access. Sometimes for the ICRC, to get from point A to point B requires making contact with several different actors. [We need] to inform all actors who might hinder or obstruct our operations to make sure we can get aid to the people who need it.
SD: Why has the Syrian conflict been so dangerous to humanitarian workers and doctors?
SK: Not just in the Syrian context … In Libya and other parts of Africa, in many places, the aid workers, medical teams and medical facilities are being targeted. This is an issue and a problem that the ICRC is aware of and has been talking about for years. It’s not only now.
This is why there needs to be a [U.N.] resolution [on Syria] to ensure protection of humanitarian and medical staff. In cases of armed conflict, this is where they are needed and where they must be protected the most.
SD: What is it that the ICRC needs to ensure more access? Is it a question of political will? Funding?
SK: It’s raising awareness. You have to convince people that the aid workers and the ambulances shouldn’t be targeted. This is a better solution. The finances and the politics, well, it’s mostly persuasion and awareness. That’s more important than anything else.
SD: Has the ICRC ever had to pull their staff out of a conflict before because it’s become too dangerous to operate there?
SK: In Baghdad in 2003 after we were targeted, the ICRC had to pull out its whole operation.
SD: Is there any talk that that might happen in Syria?
SK: We’re not at that stage, no. And I hope we stay in Syria and continue our assistance.