Kidnapping of aid workers in Syria adds another layer to conflict

The humanitarian crisis in Syria is mounting, with reports of starvation in some towns. The kidnapping of seven Red Cross and Red Crescent workers won't make aid distribution any easier.

The kidnapping of six international Red Cross employees and one employee of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in Syria has added more fuel to worries about the growing hazards of providing aid to hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced by the country's ongoing civil war.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Robert Mardini wrote this morning that the Syrian and three of the other kidnapped aid workers have been released, but also drew attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the country.

The BBC reports details of the kidnapping:

A convoy carrying six ICRC staff members and one Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer was intercepted by unidentified armed gunmen near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province, ICRC spokeswoman Rima Kamal told the BBC.

"We call for the immediate release of the seven colleagues abducted this morning... who work tirelessly to provide assistance to those most in need in Syria. Incidents such as this one unfortunately will undermine our capacity to assist those who need our help," she said.

The ICRC has declined to reveal the identity, gender or nationality of the abducted workers but they are believed to include both local and international staff, who are mainly medical specialists.

The ICRC is active in conflict spots around the globe, but also operates in less overtly dangerous realms - the Red Cross has been in the news recently for delivering food aid in Britain and advocating the punishment of war crimes in video games.

The dangerous atmosphere in Syria seems unlikely to fade anytime soon, despite international diplomatic pressure. Proposed talks in Geneva hit a major speed bump when a large rebel group refused to participate in them.

Syrian National Council leader George Sabra said the group would pull out of the umbrella coalition if it took part in the talks.

He said his faction would not negotiate with the Syrian government, adding that conditions for talks were not right while Syrians continued to suffer.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has also been pushing an end to the violence, albeit on a temporary basis. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning group, working with Syria and the international community to identify and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, has been challenged by the violent conditions of the civil war and told the BBC that it is calling for local, short-term cease-fires to allow its experts to work.

In his first interview since the OPCW won the prize, Mr Uzumcu told the BBC's Today programme that Syrian officials had been co-operating and facilitating the experts' work.

He said they had been taken wherever they wanted to go, and that they had already reached five out of at least 20 facilities capable of producing chemical weapons.

However, Mr Uzumcu said, routes to some of the sites went through opposition-held territory and this prevented access.
"They change hands from one day to another, which is why we appeal to all sides in Syria to support this mission, to be co-operative and not render this mission more difficult. It's already challenging," he said.

The chaos of the civil war has made untangling the origins and motivations of specific violent acts difficult if not impossible. A car bomb Monday killed at least 12 people in the rebel-held town of Darkoush in Idlib Province, reports The Associated Press.

And an evacuation has given some relief to a rebel-held suburb of Damascus where hunger has become a serious scourge, according to The New York Times:

Hundreds of people were allowed to leave a besieged, rebel-held suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Sunday in a rare cease-fire, according to the government and its opponents.

But aid workers said they were still unable to enter the town, Moadhamiyeh, which international organizations have been trying to reach for months and where six people have reportedly died of malnutrition.

The challenge of moving food, medical aid, and international observers around in a civil war is a serious one, reports the Times in a story about the country's highways.

Road tripping in Syria reveals the sometimes surreal experience of Syrians’ trying to move themselves and their goods around a country that has become a patchwork of rebellion and control, where government and rebel fighters share the roads with families and traders trying to go about their business.

Part of the problem lies with the nature of the rebellion, a much contested and increasingly complicated part of the story of Syria's civil war. The Washington Post looked at the rival Al Qaeda-linked groups within the rebellion:

The two rebel groups [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Jabhat al-Nusra], with their distinct lineages to the terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden, have become the focus of Western fears that jihadist influences within Syria’s rebel movement are rising. Two and a half years after the conflict in the country started, Islamists are carving out fiefdoms and showing signs of digging in.

As factionalism mounts among rebels, so have rebel-linked atrocities. The Economist looked at attacks on Alawites, the minority group to which the ruling Assad family belongs.

But is President Bashar al-Assad actually lucky to have so many jihadis squaring off against him? Perhaps, says a Monitor story, which suggests that Mr. Assad may have aided the radicalization of the rebels in hope of winning international support for his besieged regime:

Even the Assad regime is believed to have played a role in establishing a hard-line salafist presence within the armed opposition. In May 2011, when the rebellion was in its infancy, the Assad regime granted amnesty to political prisoners, releasing hundreds of them from jail, including members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. The newly released Islamists went on to play leading roles in the armed opposition, including helping found Ahrar ash-Sham.

But whether hard-line Islamists make up a large percentage of anti-regime fighters is an open question that is difficult to resolve. The Monitor does its best to break it down and finds that there is much wiggle room between confirmed facts and sometimes dubious analysis:

Consider a headline yesterday from The Telegraph of the UK. "Syria: nearly half rebel fighters are jihadists or hardline Islamists, says IHS Jane's report."

Pretty scary sounding, no? But in fact, based on the work of the Jane's analyst Charles Lister, at least as it's cited in the report, the headline could have easily been: "Only 10 percent of Syria rebels aligned with Al Qaeda" or "A majority of Syria rebels not fighting for Islamist causes."

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