MR. VENTRELL: Hi, everyone, and thank you for joining the call this afternoon. Today we have with us Kelly Clements, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration; and Christa Capozzola, Deputy Assistant Administrator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID. They’re going to be talking about humanitarian assistance to people affected by the conflict in Syria.
As a reminder, this call is on the record. I do want to mention that our original invite, in error, had said that this is not for broadcast. Because this is an on-the-record call, the audio of course can be used for broadcast.
So having said that, I’m going to turn it over to Kelly and then Christa to make some opening remarks, and then we’ll do some Q&A afterwards. So Kelly, go ahead.
MS. CLEMENTS: Thank you so much, and we appreciate you all joining us on the call today. The call is intended to draw your attention to the efforts that are being made to provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, both in Syria and in neighboring countries.
First, I’ll start with the numbers. The UN estimates that there are over 1 million Syrians inside Syria in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. Of that number, it’s an estimated 300,000 internally displaced.
Second, there are over 66,000 refugees in neighboring countries. And in addition to that, there are existing refugees, Palestinian refugees, totaling about 500,000 inside Syria as well as a hundred thousand Iraqi refugees inside Syria. So a sophisticated relief structure is already in place.
Third, in terms of funding, the United States has dedicated some $33 million to support the important work to assist and protect those in need in Syria and neighboring countries, and much more is on the way. It’s important to note that humanitarian assistance, the way that we will be talking about it in this call, is separate and distinct from the nonlethal assistance being provided by others. And our approach is to work through international and nongovernmental organizations. This strengthens our ability to deliver humanitarian assistance because those organizations have staff and infrastructure in Syria prior to the start of the conflict, which can be well utilized in current efforts to assist civilians in need.
The United States commends the brave and dedicated work that the humanitarian organizations on the ground in Syria and in the neighboring countries are carrying out, including the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and the World Food Program, and many international nongovernmental organizations.
There are thousands of courageous SARC – this is the Syrian Arab Red Crescent – volunteers risking their lives every day to deliver food, medical care, essential lifesaving assistance to displaced and conflict-affected Syrians throughout the country. And just yesterday, we learned that there was a SARC volunteer who was killed just outside of Damascus and Duma, and three others were injured while on duty.
I also want to just take a moment – and we can talk more about this – to commend the generous efforts of the governments of Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq in protecting and assisting those fleeing the violence in Syria. Without their efforts, many more would go in great need. And with that, I’ll turn it over to my USAID colleague, Christa Capozzola, for a few comments, and then we’ll take your questions.
MS. CAPOZZOLA: Thanks, Kelly. Let me know if you can’t hear me because I’m on speaker. The ongoing conflict in Syria has created a severe and growing humanitarian crisis, as you know, and the humanitarian organizations currently operating in Syria are tirelessly working to get aid out as quickly as possible into areas where safety and security are questionable. Aid workers in Syria are putting their lives in jeopardy every day to get this relief to vulnerable children, women, and men caught in this crisis. And to amplify Kelly’s comments, we just want to commend the selfless efforts.
To help meet the growing needs, the United States is providing food, clean water, basic healthcare, medical and other emergency relief supplies to benefit more than 400,000 people in Syria and neighboring countries so far. One of our largest emergency partners right now is the World Food Program, which has been helping to reach a hundred thousand people per month in some of the most conflict-affected cities and zones since this conflict began. World Food Program, WFP, is being distributed in coordination with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. So far, they’ve reached 11 of the 14 provinces in Syria.
Beginning last week, with support from the United States and other donors, WFP has expanded its emergency food assistance to reach now 250,000 conflict-affected Syrians, so the program is expanding. While some aid is reaching people in need through the Red Crescent, other UN agencies, as Kelly mentioned, and other international organizations, current humanitarian access restrictions remain a significant challenge to the aid effort. After months of working under these conditions, the aid organizations working in Syria are extremely stretched. To continue alleviating suffering and saving lives, they need more support and capacity from the international community.
We continue to urge the Government of Syria to allow the UN and its partners to expand humanitarian operations as soon as possible. It’s critical that humanitarian actors have safe, regular, unhindered access to provide lifesaving aid and emergency relief to those in need.
That’s it for now. Thanks. We’re happy to take your questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. If you would like an open line, please unmute your phone, press *1, and record your name when prompted. We can take a moment for questions to load. Please stand by.
Camille Elhassani, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you for doing this call. I had a quick question about the provinces that you say that you’ve reached with assistance. And you said 11 of 14; which ones haven’t you reached? And what efforts are you making to expand access to those particular provinces?
MS. CAPOZZOLA: This is Christa from USAID. I’ll have to get back to you with the names of those provinces, and we’ll be happy to do so right after this call.
The – we’re working on a daily basis. The access situation is evolving. As I mentioned, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is the partner for WFP. They’ve been making pretty good progress in terms of access, but it isn’t where we want it to be. So as Kelly mentioned, all the players on the ground right now are really in an extremely heroic mode to try to continue to push for better access. That’s really what’s going on. Thanks.
MS. CLEMENTS: Hi, it’s Kelly. Maybe just to add a couple of points to Christa’s comments about the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, just to give you an idea of scope, the organization has 14 branches and has about 16,000 volunteers. And that number is increasing to the extent that they can increase their capacity. The Red Cross movement has just recently gained increased access to some of the worst-affected areas, including Homs, Latakia, Daraa, and rural Damascus. And we expect that that access, as they can get in, will continue to expand and more goods go in. But it’s not where it needs to be yet to meet the needs. Thanks.
OPERATOR: There are no further questions at this time. If you would like an open line, press *1.
Steve Myers, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. I was – just to follow up a little bit on that – wanted to know, are you seeing any instance of the humanitarian assistance either being diverted, blocked, seized, or whatever by the Syrian authorities? Are you confident that in places where you do have access that it’s getting to the right people?
MS. CAPOZZOLA: No, we are not hearing reports to date of this humanitarian assistance being seized. The access problem is really the main impediment. We had heard reports of some of the makeshift clinics that are serving civilians being attacked or taken down. But in terms of food assistance and other relief and emergency supplies going in, we have not had that problem. Thanks.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. CLEMENTS: Maybe I could just add a quick comment to that. The incident that I mentioned in my opening remarks – yesterday with the SARC volunteer who was murdered – that actually was a case involving the SARC activities, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent activities, and the attempts to get into this part of rural Damascus which was a checkpoint, in fact, that they were held – 26 volunteers were actually trapped. So there are certainly constraints to delivering humanitarian assistance. But to the extent possible, these organizations are trying to push through that and continue to expand their current operations. Thanks.
OPERATOR: Nicole Gaouette, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thanks. Apologies if I missed this, but could you talk a little bit about access in terms of how you’re getting these materials into the country? What borders are you going through?
MS. CLEMENTS: Perhaps I can address the multilateral dimension to this, because of course --
QUESTION: Right. Is this Kelly?
MS. CLEMENTS: -- a good part of our support goes through the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. And they actually accessed Syria from every direction, whether or not that’s Turkey or Jordan or Iran, even, in terms of getting into Syria. So it’s from multiple directions in terms of the multilateral dimension. They do have – as they can cross, they have stockpiles inside the country. And it’s from those stocks that they’re using to draw down as they’re permitted access to various parts of the country. Thanks.
MS. CAPOZZOLA: Yeah. I would just add to that, amplify, since we talked a lot about World Food Program, that they are able to bring in food from all the neighboring countries right now to support their Syria operations. Other partners that we are working with inside Syria that have the ability to operate, and networks inside Syria have been able to supply themselves, as Kelly mentioned, from stocks inside the country and trade networks that are still open and functioning. Over.
OPERATOR: Arshad Mohammed, your line is open.
QUESTION: Two questions. One of you said that the multilateral assistance is coming from every direction. Does that include from Israel into Syria?
And a second question: There have been, at times, discussion of the idea of humanitarian zones, safe zones. Senator Rubio yesterday talked about safe haven buffer zones to try to – inside Syria to try to give people a place to go where they might be free from attack by government forces. Can you explain to us what are the advantages and the difficulties of trying to establish such zones or corridors in a circumstance where the environment is not permissive? In other words, where you would not necessarily have the consent and cooperation of the government.
MS. CLEMENTS: Maybe since I raised the – this is Kelly – since I raised the original point about the multilaterals drawing on resources from outside the country from every direction, I actually can’t confirm that assistance has come from Israel into Syria, but we can check on that and get back to you.
On the issue of buffer zones, maybe I’ll just start and then Christa can fill in with much more detail. Yes, certainly there have been discussions amongst some of the international partners about buffer zones, humanitarian corridors, safe havens, save zones. We have not, as a government, taken a position on the issue. But from the humanitarian perspective, I would just say that there are inherent challenges to creating such buffer zones or humanitarian corridors which would have to be taken into consideration, in terms of protection of those that would be in the zone, protection of those people going to the zone, et cetera, which all would have to be weighed in any decision or intention to go forward. Thanks.
MS. CAPOZZOLA: Yeah. The only thing I would add to Kelly’s comments is that full and unfettered access remains our primary objective right now in terms of getting aid to vulnerable people. Thanks.
OPERATOR: There are no more questions on the phone. If you would like an open line, it’s *1.
MR. VENTRELL: Operator, thanks very much. I think both of our speakers have appointments to make, so at this time we’re going to end the call. Thank you all very much for joining. Have a good day.