NGOs to stay in Syria despite looming US strike

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with his national security staff to discuss the situation in Syria on Aug. 30, 2013. Many nongovernmental organizations will not pull out of the conflict-ridden country if the U.S. decides to intervene in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons. Photo by: Pete Souza / The White House

The alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime may well lead to a U.S. military intervention, now pending approval from Congress.

That action could clearly exacerbate the humanitarian situation inside the country, and put more lives — including those of humanitarians — on the line.

Last week, international medical organization Medecins Sans Frontieres reported that one of its staff members — Muhammad Abyad — was killed in northern Syria, where this group supports several hospitals and health centers.

The circumstances behind the doctor’s death “remain unclear,” according to MSF, but it shows the dangerous environment both local and international aid workers endure in the country, where the Syrian Arab Red Crescent for example has already lost 20 volunteers.

Not pulling out

So what will happen if the United States do in fact intervene in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons?

International leaders remain divided on whether to support such a strike, while aid groups consulted by Devex refused to comment on the political issue but said they have no plans of pulling out — at least for now.

“No, we’re not considering this, but we are working in a very low profile,” said a spokesperson for an iNGO that has several offices across the country.

MSF added it is too early to tell the exact humanitarian impact of an intervention.

But almost all of the organizations noted that meeting humanitarian needs, access and security are already a huge concern inside Syria due to delayed donor funding, lack of access and the limited number of operational NGOs inside the country.

“Whether there is an intervention or not, humanitarian aid for the population needs to be stepped up … As it is today, the humanitarian response is well below the needs. The destruction of [the] health system has left even the most basic health needs uncovered in some areas,” MSF UK press officer Sophie-Jane Madden told Devex.

Organizations need to secure permission to work inside the areas controlled by the regime, a requirement that has prevented MSF from working in government-held parts of the country.

Another iNGO official, meanwhile, raised the issue of securing visas for international staff members.

The official said his organization has no plans of leaving, although he confirmed that they temporarily withdrew two expats from the country, when the first reports of chemical weapons use came out, but both have already returned.

Awaiting investigation

In a statement, the G-20 leaders last week condemned the use of chemical weapons, which most believe were used by the regime in an attack on Aug. 21 in Damascus. However, MSF — which reported on a possible use of a neurotoxic agent — has repeatedly said it cannot scientifically confirm that the symptoms — convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress — that appeared in many of the patients reported by the doctors the organization supports in Damascus were indeed linked to the use of chemical weapons.

“Without scientific evidence it is not possible for us to be certain as to what was responsible for these symptoms, which is why we called for an independent investigation … to determine the nature of the toxic agent so that we know how to respond to it medically, but also shed light on what could be a grave violation of humanitarian law,” noted Madden.

She added: “This is a presumptive diagnosis. So, there is a need for laboratory test to confirm scientifically the causes of the symptoms.”

U.N. experts investigating the possible use of chemical weapons has yet to release a final report, but the leaders have called on them to “present its results as soon as possible, and for the Security Council to act accordingly.”

They also pledged to continue providing humanitarian support to the Syrian crisis, and again called on all parties to the conflict to “allow humanitarian actors safe and unhindered access to those in need.”

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.