Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in talks in Damascus yesterday that the group was welcome to operate on the ground in the country as long as it remains “neutral and independent,” state media reported.
ICRC spokewoman Rabab al-Rafai did not give further details about al-Assad’s meeting with Peter Maurer, but said the Red Cross chief later met with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad and was also holding talks with the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, Abdul-Rahman Attar.
“President Assad confirmed Syria welcomes the humanitarian operations that the organization is conducting on the ground in Syria as long as it works in a neutral and independent way,” the state-run SANA news agency quoted al-Assad as saying.
Maurer’s three-day visit, which began on Monday, comes as the need for humanitarian assistance in Syria has grown increasingly urgent with the fighting having spread to the country’s two largest cities — the capital Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo. Activists say last month was the bloodiest month since the uprising against al-Assad began in March last year, with about 5,000 people killed.
The escalating bloodshed has prompted a growing exodus by Syrians looking to escape the conflict.
The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, yesterday said 100,000 refugees fled Syria to neighboring countries last month, the highest monthly toll since the crisis began. In Geneva, agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the rise in people seeking asylum in neighboring countries brings the total of Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration with the UNHCR to 234,368 as of Sunday.
The Red Cross said earlier that during his trip Maurer would address the “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation” and the difficulties which the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent face in reaching people affected by the country’s civil war.
“At a time when more and more civilians are being exposed to extreme violence, it is of the utmost importance that we and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent succeed in significantly scaling up our humanitarian response,” Maurer said in comments made before his arrival in Syria. “An adequate humanitarian response is required to keep pace with needs, which have been growing exponentially.”
Maurer added that during his visit, he also intended to follow up on points agreed to in April, such as expanded access to persons detained in Syria and “the imperative necessity of helping civilians affected by hostilities.”
Syria’s uprising began with largely peaceful protests against al-Assad’s regime, but has since morphed into a civil war in the face of a brutal government crackdown.