Syrians helping Syrians

More than 350 airstrikes have been carried out against the Islamic State in Syria by the US and its allies since September 23. However, the recent focus on IS has kept the Assad regime, and its crimes, out of the spotlight. In opposition held areas, barrel bombings are a routine occurrence, and snipers target civilians indiscriminately. There is evidence for continuing use of chemical weapons – repeatedly challenging the “red line” laid out by President Obama two years ago. The destruction has left little infrastructure remaining.

For civilians living in the conflict zones, the result is a humanitarian disaster. In order to mitigate the suffering, local communities have begun to form volunteer-run organizations to perform basic civil functions and relief work. The United States Institute of Peace held a discussion on Wednesday with members of one such organization. Meet Syria’s Rescue Workers: Saving Lives, Building Peace, brought together two members of the Syrian Civil Defense Units: Raed Salah, Head of the Idlib branch, and Khaled Harah, member of Aleppo city branch, along with Samer Attar of the Syrian American Medical Society, and medical volunteer in Aleppo. Hind Kabawat, Senior Program Officer at USIP, moderated.

Opening the discussion with his experiences working as a doctor in opposition held areas, Attar outlined the difficulties faced by Syrian medical workers. Attar listed the major shortcomings of medicine in Syria as a lack of experienced personnel, of basic supplies, and capacity at treatment centers. With no end to the fighting in sight, these shortcomings will only to intensify.

Across Syria, many doctors have fled. Assad’s forces have targeted medical workers in rebel-held areas. Hospitals are regularly hit by barrel bombs, to the point that makeshift field hospitals are now codenamed and hidden. As resources have been used up or destroyed, the lack of supplies has become more acute. One effect of this is that Syrians no longer seek or receive medical attention for anything other than war wounds. Chronic conditions and routine health problems among those unable or unwilling to leave are not treated. This adds an unseen element to the suffering of Syrian civilians.

Raed Salah and Khaled Harah both spoke of their experiences in the “White Helmets,” volunteer Syrian Civil Defense Units. Salah also discussed the development and spread of the organisation.

The Civil Defense Units comprise localized groups acting as rescue workers to their own communities. The groups originated in refugee camps in Turkey, where refugees received training during relief projects undertaken there. This highlights the importance of continued training and education in the camps. Following Free Syrian Army gains in the north of the country, some refugees moved back, taking with them skills and organizational abilities they had learned. The Civil Defense Units have since grown and attracted numerous volunteers, leading to the formation of more regional units. Salah cites the number of volunteers as over 1000.

The community driven nature of these units has been important to their success. People who sign up work at their local center and undertake rescue work within fixed areas. Both Salah and Harah claimed that this provides a psychological boost and motivation, as they feel they are directly aiding their own community.

The neutrality of the Civil Defense Units was also stressed. Though their first members were Muslim, the first center was opened in a predominantly Christian area. The recruitment policy allows volunteers of all backgrounds. Salah stressed rescue workers do not discriminate politically or religiously when attempting to save people. This has meant that even in areas where conflict between the moderate opposition and jihadist groups, the Civil Defense Units have been allowed access to carry out their work.

Salah and Harah’s organization represents just one example of volunteers performing vital civil roles in the Syrian conflict. These organizations are vital for alleviating the humanitarian crisis, supplementing the work of foreign aid workers. Such groups may also have a role to play when it comes to rebuilding the country. Both men stressed the need for international support and funding for civilian projects like theirs. Though they cautiously supported the recent airstrikes on IS, they felt that by not putting more pressure on the Assad government the US has unintentionally aided the regime’s forces.

Concluding, Hind Kabawat called for the imposition of a no-fly zone to end the continuing bombings by the regime in civilian areas. She also noted that groups like the Syrian Civil Defense Units demonstrate that there is hope for Syria’s future.

A video of the event is embedded below.

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