ICRC Delegation Visits IMESS ICRC Delegation Visits IMESS
On May 8, 2016, the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS) hosted a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In a joint session, the two sides exchanged their perspectives on the humanitarian activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria and Iraq, as well as Iran’s help and role ...

May 8, 2016

On May 8, 2016, the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS) hosted a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In a joint session, the two sides exchanged their perspectives on the humanitarian activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria and Iraq, as well as Iran’s help and role regarding the activities of the ICRC. IMESS’s resident and visiting research fellows and faculty members attended this joint session. From Iranian side, Dr. Kayhan Barzegar, Director of IMESS and Dr. Shahrokh Shakerian, Director of the Department for Multilateral Political Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, and from the ICRC’s side, Patrick Hamilton, Deputy Head of the ICRC's delegation in the Near and Middle East, Ms. Katherina Ritz, the Head of delegation of the ICRC in Iraq and Ms. Marianne Gasser, the Head of delegation of the ICRC in Syria, shared  their views on the afore-mentioned subject. Below is the complete report of this session.

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Welcome to the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies. It is a privilege to have the respected delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). My name is Kayhan Barzegar and I am the director of this Institute. Today, we are going to discuss about the ongoing regional developments specially in Iraq and Syria in the light of the  ICRC activities. The format of our session is that each speaker will talk in 10 minutes just to outline the points, then we go to the floor for the comments and questions. We are waiting for two other distinguished guests to join us. I will start by some introductory remarks and then Dr. Hamilton and Dr. Shakerian will present their perspectives. This is an informal exchange of views between the two sides. 

But before I begin, let me say a few words about the activities of our Institute.  We conduct research on the regional issues and for this we have different studies group including individual countries such as Turkish or Iraq studies, as well as subject-oriented groups such as energy security, disarmament in the Middle East, etc.  We have resident and visiting fellows. Most of our researchers are Ph.D. students. I myself am an academic and work on Iranian foreign policy especially towards the region. I have attended in several UN conferences on the regional developments and they were very informative for me. 

I personally believe that the UN has a great deal of playing its role in solving Middle Eastern issues especially when we have all these complicated regional crises especially in Syria and Iraq, which are somehow shifting the nature of power and politics in the region leading to the establishment of inclusive governments or the issue of pre and post conflict situations. There is another element that is coming in this dynamic and that is the dynamic of terrorism and extremism, which makes the situations even more complicated. Here no doubt the role of the UN and international institutions such as ICRC become more significant. But let’s listen first to our friends from ICRC, then I will come back again at some point and present further insights on the subject. 

Mr. Patrick Hamilton: That is great! Dr. Barzegar, Dr. Shakerian and colleagues and friends, thank you very much indeed for the opportunity to be here. We are honored and privileged to be able to be here this afternoon with you and to discuss some of the issues related to the current crises in the Middle East. 

My name is Patrick Hamilton. I am the deputy regional director for the Near and Middle East region at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and we will be joined hopefully in a short while by two of our other colleagues, our heads of delegation for the Syria operation as well as for the Iraqi operation. They represent between them respectively the first and third largest operations of the ICRC globally today. So obviously this is an indication of the weight and the significance that the ICRC accords to being able to discuss with the Iranian ministry of foreign affairs in general but also it is the significance of the scale of the crises that we currently face in the Middle East in particular Syria, Iraq and Yemen as well where we believe we see today a situation where the series of crises are of the worst that this region has faced really since the end of the First World War, the end of the Othman Empire and where we see a proliferation of trends across these contexts which are very worrying both in terms of the humanitarian consequences themselves as well as then the behavior of many of the different parties to the conflicts as well as some of the drivers of that behavior. 

So I think it would be certainly interesting to explore some of that. We are here today in particular because we have recognized the constructive role that Iran is seeking to play in this region to which it also belongs and in which it plays such an important role. We are here to see the advice and suggestions of Iran and the views as to how we might best play the constructive role that we are trying to play as a neutral independent impartial humanitarian organization to try to respond to the humanitarian consequences coming out of these contexts and for that we are really interested to garner and hear your perspectives. I think I probably stop there as we are trying to keep this introduction short and perhaps I hand it over to Dr. Shakerian.

Dr. Shahrokh Shakerian: Thank you very much for inviting us in this forum. My name is Shahrokh Shakerian. I am the Director of the Department for Multilateral Political Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran. The humanitarian issues are going to be dealt with in this department. We have the honor to work with the ICRC for a long time in Iran and it is the department of the humanitarian aids and assistance in this region with close relations with ICRC. 

When the idea of having the head of the office of ICRC in Iran came to my mind as well as Mr. Hamilton’s, it was better just to have a meeting with the researchers and those who are working in this field from an academic point of view. As the name of this institute indicates, this institute is going to focus on the strategy of the study of the Middle East. I think the depth of the crisis in this region is that we have to pay attention to the ratio of the humanitarian crisis in this region. 

When we always talk about the international crisis, the question that comes to our mind is that let us look at that from the struggle of power, vacuum of power and how to fill this vacuum of power. In other words, there are politics but at the same time, it is better to look at this crisis from the humanitarian aspect. I think in this institute we need to add the element of the humanitarian issue to the international crisis. That is why we decided to have cooperation with ICRC office in Tehran to convene a limited meeting with the researchers. 

I think, as Dr. Barzegar told the participants in this room full of people, it is better to find a new method for those who are focusing on the international crisis as the researchers instead of just having the very people many of whom are not related to the very gist of the issue which is the humanitarian aspect. 

That was the reason this proposal came out of the bilateral discussions between Tehran’s office of the ICRC and [NFA] and we decided to attend this multilateral meeting. We are in the hand of Dr. Barzegar, whatever he wishes to conduct this meeting, we are under his guidance.

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Well, thank you Dr. Shakerian! As you mentioned,  The humanitarian aspect is always important. Let me follow the discussion withthe term you used, ‘multilateral’. If you look at for instance the Syrian crisis, it has two aspects. One is the geopolitical aspect and the other is the humanitarian one.  I myself believe that the key to find the political solution in the country is to how to balance between these two aspects at some point. Of course, there are different views right now on how to deal with or how to process a  political solution in Syria but since we are in an  strategic center, I would like to talk about two points. First, the growing multilateralism in Iran’s foreign policy toward the region. This is the result of a new  pragmatism that is somehow influencing  Iranian foreign policy conduct and I can tell you that it is not just because of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 but this has been the case in the course of the time during the last decade while the regional developments required Iran to adjust itself with the new situations in the region. But fortunately we have the nuclear deal right now and that deal somehow triggered more multilateralism that can bring positive implications for the regional cooperation.  

the deal was somehow coming from this discourse that Iran should balance between its sources of national power and its strategic potentials  in the region. That has somehow led Iran to accept the deal in a way to manage this kind of multilateralism/pragmatism in its foreign policy conduct.  

As a result, Iran would like to show that how much it plays constructively and that it is ready to use its potentials for solving the regional issues. Of course, like other countries, Iran has its own aims and principles, no doubt. 

On the other side, the geopolitical urgency resulting from the regional developments such as increased violence and terrorism, subsequently the refugees issue, has somehow led the western countries especially at the top the United States to realize that without Iran’s participation, no regional crisis can be solved. In fact,the mutual strategic needs between Iran and the Western countries have somehow showed itself in the nuclear deal and the reality that some strategic discrepancies should be solved between the two sides so that we can proceed with any  thoughts of solving the regional issues. We can say that the nuclear deal has paved the way for more cooperation on the regional issues.  

In such conditions, the United Nations’ role, which I think has not been that much focused, is crucial because in the Middle East we have different involved major  regional and trans-regional powers. If we stick with one power, this way or [have] geopolitical rivalry [with another], that will somehow obsess  small actors who would like to stick with great trans-regional powers to preserve their interests and that  will bring a kind of division between regional countries. 

Therefore, there is a role to play by the UN and I think this has been showing itself in the Iranian approach as well. Dr. Staffan de Mistura’s peace plan in Syria is somehow, from an Iranian perspective, the most workable plan in solving the Syrian crisis. I do not know how much it is being reactivated or moderated or somehow balanced, but I think it has a future and we need to build  on that too. My point in this section is that the UN has a role to play because the nature of power in the Middle East is changing ad shifting towards multilateralism. 

My second point is about the necessity of regional and trans-regional cooperation. As the Syrian crisis has already shown, if we speak with this concept of balance of power somehow to put two states for instance checking each other’s powers like the traditional way of considering Iran and Saudi Arabia to balance each other, [this] is not working. To be honest, this approach that  has been taken by the U.S. and was recently expressed  by President Obama’s so-called new doctrine, that Iran and Saudi Arabia should share the region it is not workable. I do not think Iran and Saudi Arabia are two powers that have properties in the region. None of them are able to go in that direction. We should instead stick with the multilateralism approach by involving all actors. Regional and trans-regional, small and big [actors] should somehow sit together under the leadership of the UN and  all try to find solutions that can be relatively workable for all parties. If we accept this theme, then we should again stick with this concept that the UN has a role to play before the crisis, in the course of the crisis and in the post-conflict situation. For instance, take the Syrian crisis. We need to somehow create a ceasefire and then somehow elections and then transitional government and most importantly manage the post-conflict situation, which is very much important.  The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan show the difficulties of keeping coalitional governments after the direct conflict is somehow terminated. 

Here Iran has also a role to play because it has shown a great deal of having influence on different forces inside these countries, supporting  the coalitional governments in Iraq and previously in the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Dr. Shakerian can help us to go back to the Afghanistan peace process better than me, that how much in the process of the crisis, Iran has become more accommodative and been very helpful by the time. But let me finish here.  I just wanted to focus on two or three concepts resulting from the regional dynamics and that were multilateralism, pragmatism, inclusive governments, political consensus, etc and all the growing capacities of the UN. 

Dr. Shahrokh Shakerian: Thank you very much. I think the point made by Dr. Barzegar was very important about connecting the world by multilateralism and the role of Iran in the region. I can define multilateralism as the status of Iran and as the international relevance of Iran to international community. Iran is located in a region that from different angles it has relevance with the international community. For example being a neighbor to Russia, a neighbor to Iraq, to other countries in the Persian Gulf gives you some geopolitical status in the region. Being an oil producer gives you relevance to the international community and international market. But in this regard, I would like to highlight another relevance of Iran to the international community which is the humanitarian aspect of Iranian contribution in the region. 

As you know, right now in the region there is a very big conflict in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen in the north of Africa. If you look at the status of Iran, the government of Iran and the Iranian system historically and in the recent status of Iran, Iran is supporting the right of the minorities in the region. Now we are supporting the right of the Kurds, the right of the Alawites, the right of the Christians, the right of all minorities in the region as well as the other minorities including the Shia minorities in the other parts of the region and the respect for the right of the minorities is a very important aspect of the humanitarian aspect of the crisis. I think now when we are discussing about multilateralism, the status of Iran or as we call it, the international relevance of Iran to the international community, we have to think about the status of Iran as the supporter of the right of the minorities in the region which is one of the important elements of the humanitarian crisis. 

As Patrick and the other colleagues are just representing the ICRC, I mean the Red Crescent and Red Cross in this region, I think it is better to, with your agreement Dr. Barzegar, just focus on the issue of the humanitarian aspect of the work of the ICRC in this region as well as the contribution of Iran to this process of how we can shape the right of the humanitarian [organizations] to the current crisis in the region or how we are going to increase the humanitarian contribution of Iran to the current conflict in the region. Thank you.   
Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Good points. Let’s now take another view. We ask Ms. Katherina Ritz, the head of the delegation. If we can just have your views and then we go to the other speaker.

Ms. Katherina Ritz: Thank you very much. I am Katherina Ritz. I am heading the ICRC delegation in Iraq based in Baghdad. So [regarding] the speech of the other speakers in this short time I was here and I have followed up, I think what is important for us is to connect the humanitarians. I think we are not in a country detached from all the other issues. So, it is for us very important also to connect to think tanks and to policies and there is also the humanitarian policy which we try to shape through a little bit such debates to highlight the need of the humanitarian impact activities and then how they also can basically influence policies and new strategies to go forward. 

Iraq is a country who has suffered quite extensive impact due to conflicts, the 1980s, since I think I need to mention this but then in 2003 and since 2014, the Islamic State group controlled a very large part of Iraq, mainly the governorates of Anbar, of Neynava and also of Saladin. So how this impacts? I think we cannot just see it from a conflict side; we also have to see it in the overall context of the country, the diversity which is represented by an autonomous Kurdish authorities who have their own interests; we have the majority part which are the Shia population mainly represented in the south and in the center where we have them mixed and going to the Sunni population. 

So, this is connected and cannot be detached from one another. Today what we see is various dynamics impacting on the people. I think it is usually normal for the population suffering the most be it by the control of the Islamic State group taking religious cities and having an extreme approach towards the civilian population. Be it also that this is a country where before, I mean we had since 2014 to today, it is one of the fastest displacement in a short time. We have 3.5 million internally displaced. This means around one million is in Kurdistan. Kurdistan has 4 million citizens and one million displaced. So this adds a lot to the burden and the majority is not living in camps; they live in cities in the apartments. They live in unfinished buildings, maybe schools and sometimes mosques. 

So there is a variety of dynamics happening but there is a small part living actually in the camp settings where humanitarian actors have a good access and maybe can assist easier. People going into host families are generally not so visible and much more difficult for us to assess and to support which also means that we also have to support the host families and not just the displaced because they have an additional burden. 

We have also the central Iraq in Baghdad. I would say the majority of the displaced have gone into the Baghdad area because it is a mixed area and has lots of Sunni relatives. Today it is very difficult for the people coming out of this area to cross basically the frontlines and in the north the Kurdish Peshmerga have done trenches and also mines are being set to protect the territory. We see families who walk for these trying to get out somehow in a safer area. The same we have in great Baghdad security concerns, legitimate security concerns are also very high. We have seen an increase of suicide or car bomb attacks. So, this means that the population is being basically channeled into areas which are still in Anbar but it is desert. I mean people arrive; they are not safe in the middle of the desert and often very difficult for us also to access them, at least to support them at the beginning whereas they are also more or less prevented to reach Baghdad where they maybe can try to find easier access to other relatives or to support mechanism. 

So, the displaced today is happening or the problem of the displaced crisis is happening on different levels. We have a protracted crisis since 2014; we have an old caseload. We have not enough humanitarian aid. Usually [we] are quite underfunded for this context. So in the UN appeal, it is 25 percent funded for Iraq. So, one can imagine that a lot of the old caseloads but these are people who still have lives, have children and they need to go to schools. They cannot have access to humanitarian aid and most of actors focus on newly displaced which happen currently every day and then we have return process. Obviously we are also engaging in cities which have been retaken by the Iraqi security forces, there remains already the rehabilitation or reconstruction process and trying to bring people back to their homes which should then relieve a little bit of the pressure from the host families, the host settings, the government and try to give them support in restarting their livelihoods. 

This to be said obviously in such a crisis like Iraq and also looking at the back from 2003, we have a lot of detention places. Iraq has a high number of detainees which have been detained often in relation to the conflict but then we have a traditional system which has also lots of pressure on it which is not necessarily following the rhythm of the conflict. So, if we have thousands of people coming out from cities retaken from the Islamic State group, a lot of these are maybe temporarily or permanently detained by security forces and they are traditionally behind, I mean we have to bring them in front of a court; we have to try them. But this process cannot be followed. 

So, these are the aspects where the ICRC will deal with. This means we have to be ready to address emergency respond. Newly displaced are coming out where the situation breakdown of health structure; there are lots of wounded also from the armed forced which we assist when they go to the health center; we assist displaced peoples’ food but parallel we also have the older caseloads where what we support is the livelihood support. We try to give them cash, life stock support so that they can initiate again a little bit more economic activities to kick off a more sustainable independent livelihood. 

This happens much more in the south where we also have projects for widows. I think a lot of families have lost their husbands, their brothers and their fathers in the conflict. They are fighting. They are losing life. So this, we also have to take into consideration when we respond to this crisis which goes much more beyond just assisting the displaced. I think there is a general overview in that.      

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: This was very informative. Thank you! I am sure that we come back to you at some point. But let’s take another view, Ms. Marianne Gasser. Please, the floor is yours! 

Ms. Marianne Gasser: Thank you! Yes, I am Marianne, the head of delegation of the ICRC based in Syria. Very also briefly about Syria because I think we are all following very closely the evolution of the situation but unfortunately, yes, in Syria what we need, and you were mentioning it at the very beginning when I arrived, and I am sorry for the delay, that there is a political track which is ongoing and it is exactly this that to solve the Syrian crisis there is a need for a political solution. 

However, this will take, unfortunately I think, we think, a lot of time because of many actors. It is not anymore a Syrian-Syrian conflict. We can say it is a proxy war. We have many actors involved in the Syrian conflict. We have a lot of divisions within the international community since the beginning of this crisis. We have entered the 6th year amid of March of this year and unfortunately it is the civilian population paying the very high price. But I will not come with figures. 

We all know that we estimate more than 260 to 270 thousand people have been killed since the beginning of conflict in 2011. Over one million have been injured. We know that half of the Syrian population is displaced. Yes, what is also quite worrying is a lot of displaced people and now because of the length of this conflict that it did affect a lot the economy that a lot of people have no more [money]. Their savings have been depleted; they are jobless; this is one of the aspects why a lot of people have left their country. But according to our assessment, you know the ICRC, we have our partners at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent; we are present in the field conducting several assessments and we estimate together with the United Nations’ UN agencies that over 13 million people depend on the humanitarian aids that the humanitarian organizations can deliver. 

So, we always said at the ICRC; we always underlined also because the Syrian humanitarian assistance has become also unfortunately politicized. We always underlined that needs are on both sides. You have also a lot of displaced people, a lot of agents of the government side and also for sure in opposition-controlled areas. For us, the biggest needs of the population are still in besieged areas, areas which are really completely besieged where you have, we estimate, over 450 thousand people being besieged and in hard to reach areas. Besieged, if I take one of the cities where you have 180 thousand people who cannot receive aids because they are in Deir ez-Zor, an area controlled by the Islamic State. It is the city of Deir ez-Zor which is still under the Islamic State control and because we do not have contact with the Islamic State, neither us nor the UN nor even the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, we had to airlift the humanitarian aid. This was last year and now even airlifting was not anymore possible because the place was shot at. So it is the WFP who recently decided to do air drops in Deir ez-Zor at least to assist people because people were just really hungry.

Then also we have other besieged areas which on the one hand, I know that Iran played a very important role. There are two towns in the north al-Fu'ah and Kefraya, Madaya and Al-Zabadani in rule of Damascus where there were heavy fighting. So, at least I think a ceasefire could be brokered with the support of Iran. Still, these four areas have remained very much besieged. We could finally, after I would say months of intervention, we could finally in October for the first and ever bring humanitarian aid through the SARC, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, to al-Fu'ah and Kefraya and access and deliver aids also to Madayya and Zabadani because these four towns are interlinked. 

We continue to do it generally in March and last Saturday where the ICRC entered the cities especially to Madayya and Zabadani and there, we see a lot of people who are really in need because they receive no aids from the outside. So, we are very committed to continue to assist and even we are trying to access also al-Fu'ah and Kefraya. Some areas we could not access since over three years; we did manage this year like besieged areas in Homs, al-Rastan and Talbiseh and there are many other areas like this. 

For example, also I have to admit the ICRC despite all our efforts could never access Nubl and al-Zahraa. We knew that there were big needs. Finally, we could assist the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to open two clinics and we could go recently to Nubl and al-Zahraa. These two towns are not anymore besieged but where there are a lot of humanitarian aids and we are trying to help in the field especially of water. They need warm clothes and still these two towns, when I went there with our teams, remain very fragile even if it is not yet besieged but Jabhat al-Nusra also is very near, 500 meters away from the two towns. 

For us, yes, we are very pleased that we got more approvals by the government of Syria to access all those in need including in the armed opposition controlled areas because there they also have civilian population. The ICRC also has to meet armed opposition groups not only for our own acceptance and security but also to discuss humanitarian issues with them. They have, also, to respect international humanitarian law, respect the civilian population, not to take out the water and we have a dialogue also in this regard also with the Syrian government but also with the other parties to the conflict. 

We have to meet also with Russia be it in Damascus, be it also in Geneva and therefore the ICRC is counting on the support of everybody because our main aim is to provide humanitarian assistance to the people in need. For sure, you were speaking about cessation or ceasefire. When there was a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia at the end of February, still in many areas there was less violence, less fighting but it is not a cessation of hostilities or a ceasefire that we can say the population is not suffering anymore. 

Many areas in Syria are completely destroyed. There is no water, no electricity, no hospitals and therefore a political solution is needed as soon as possible to end this violence and we all hope that one day there would be a ceasefire throughout Syria for the whole country but the ICRC is not waiting for a ceasefire to deliver aid. We are since the beginning of this conflict trying. We have made a lot of efforts, also taking risks to cross frontlines; we count a lot on the Syrian Arab Red Crescent that have branches throughout the country, very committed volunteers. Still 53 volunteers were killed since the beginning of the conflict while on duty. 

The ICRC until today, we have three colleagues who have been abducted for 2 years and a half and also much more doctors from all sides, humanitarian workers are working for local NGOs, for charity associations have also been killed while trying to help and save lives. So, let’s hope we will find a political solution. I know that also Iran is a part and I think this has helped us to get also a little bit access in the International Syrian Support Group, ISSG. Still this is very good but on the other side, this group should not also, because it is representing many states, not to make it too much politicized because this could also, at the end, there is a division [which] can also affect the delivery of humanitarian aid and protection. We have, with the consent of the government, I think there we could really need trust and confidence that today the ICRC since it took us four years to reach where we are but the ICRC today is visiting prisons under the ministry of interior in Syria which is a very big step forward. 

We had a very confidential dialogue with the Syrian government and we had a dialogue also to access the other places of detention not only central prisons and it is not only to visit the places but we are also assisting the Syrian government to improve the conditions in the prisons, be it inside the detention sections, in health and we have a very good dialogue in this regard and we hope to be able to develop such activities because in this conflict also the protection aspect is of utmost importance. 

The day when this conflict will finish, we will have one main problem and that is the issue of the missing. We do not know how many people are missing. So, we also have initiated a dialogue with the ministry of national reconciliation. We have some forensic activities because this would be a major issue once the conflict ends. Thank you.    

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Thank you! This was also very interesting and connecting us more to the humanitarian aspects of the issue, it also showed the great deal of complication and sensitivity, I should say. But this is also helpful for us because we have some Ph.D. students present here and perhaps we all should think of this aspect as well in form of writing the thesis or perhaps you can help us as a think tank to somehow strengthen this theme of humanitarian aspects in the field we are in, political science and international relations and Middle East studies. Perhaps, in the future, Dr. Shakerian can help us and advise us more on how to somehow form the students’ thoughts in terms of their Ph.D. thesis. But Mr.  Director would you like to add something to this issue and then we can come back.   

Mr. Patrick Hamilton: Certainly, now I would like to thank my colleagues for their contributions in terms of describing the situations and the reality that they face on the ground in Iraq and Syria in terms of trying to respond to the humanitarian consequences of these crises. I think it is important at the stage just to make a couple of clarifications. 

First of all, I think it is important to point out that the ICRC, although we have been calling for political solution as urgently as possible to this crisis, the ICRC does not play any role whatsoever in trying to find those political solutions. The ICRC is not a political actor. It is not a part of the UN and, as such, we play no role in negotiating political solutions. The ICRC acts as a neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian actor in times of conflict with a mandate given to it by the international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, the additional protocols, the body of international law relating to behavior in armed conflicts that looks to try to put and set limits to behavior in armed conflicts and this is a mandate that has given to it by all of the states that are signatory to the Geneva Conventions of which, I think, there are 196 states that signed it. 

So, this is where we derive our mandate from. International humanitarian law, the body of law concerning the conduct of hostilities says nothing about the decision to go to war. That is another subject of law related to, in particular, the UN Security Council resolutions which are supposed to determine when it is right or not to go to war. That is something that is completely separate from international humanitarian law which applies only when conflict actually starts. And, our role comes in primarily when conflicts begin and for the duration of conflicts. 

So, I think it is important just to be clear on that. We play no political role on the ground in Syria and in Iraq. As you have heard, our role is to respond neutrally, impartially to the most pressing needs of the people. Because we are neutral, because we are impartial, for us it is not important where the most crucial needs are in terms of whether those needs are with one community or another community, whether they are with one country or another, whether the people affected are from one religion or another, for us that makes no difference. The key issue for us is where the most acute needs are. Those are the needs that we try to focus on delivering too which is why as you have heard in the reality of Syria or in Iraq or Yemen we have to try to reach out to all of the different armed actors involved in the conflict, to try to be able to access the most affected people, the most affected communities within these conflicts. That, in this context, is extremely difficult. 

As I mentioned at the beginning, the multiple crises and actors in the Middle East extremely complicated battlefields where you have a huge number of different actors. You have each of these coalitions of states supporting local actors; you have often partnerships with none-state actors and often fighting against a range of other none-state actors. This of course means an extremely complicated operating environment that means having to negotiate moving from A to B with an aid convoy with different actors just to be able to go from one place to the next, to be able to deliver assistance. 

What we see in this region as well for the time being importantly is a big breakdown in respect by many of these actors for the affected populations, a breakdown in respect as well for humanitarian actors in their attempt to try to deliver aids to these populations and probably most fundamentally a lack of respect between these actors themselves where there is for the time being very very very little common ground or humanitarian space and where the international humanitarian law, the laws of armed conflict, are disrespected in general by most actors most of the time and where there is simply a very limited humanitarian space. 

We are obviously trying to engage with all of these different parties to try to create and broaden the humanitarian space and to encourage more respect between these actors. Obviously, we appreciate greatly the existing role and desired role of Iran in terms of playing and supporting us to do this and to work with these different actors to try to ensure a greater degree of respect. I would stop here but I think it was important to just seek to clarify our role and how we work in these different contexts and some of the challenges that we face across these three Middle Eastern countries at this stage. Thank you.       

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Thank you! This was very helpful. Now we can go to the floor and take some comments and questions. But I was wondering how the experiences in Iraq and Syria in terms of your mandate can give us some lessons in terms of different nature of the conflict. You know we have of course this so-called Islamic State (Daesh) which was at the beginning the point of divergence between the regional actors, different actors you mentioned already but now it is becoming fortunately a point of convergence between the states and they are somehow trying to battle this because they felt that this is really a common problem. But still they have their own specific containment strategy.How your work in this shape witnessed different experiences, I mean both inside the countries of Syria and Iraq. How do you compare that? I am sure that this will give us better  understanding of the way you have, somehow, worked in dealing with local issues. 

Mr. Patrick Hamilton: Sure! I will obviously give the floor to my colleagues in a moment to add to my response. But I think of course the situation that we face in these two contexts with the actors that you just mentioned is particularly complicated at the stage but nonetheless, I mean the ICRC has a very standard approach to any situation of conflict in terms of seeing simply parties to conflicts be the state or none-state actors. 

So, of course, there may be problems and the issues that arise in relation to the way that those parties are fighting their conflicts and, obviously, we try where we can in any conflict to raise concerns over behavior with the parties concerned but I mean first and for most our interest is in trying to reach the people in the territories controlled by any party to the conflict to try and alleviate their suffering and the needs faced by them. 

So be it in Syria, be it in Iraq that is what we practically try to do. We try to reach out to all of the armed actors be it the Syrian armed forces, be it Jaysh al-Islam, be it Jabhat al-Nusra and be it Islamic State group. We try to engage them in a humanitarian dialogue and to reach the people most affected by the conflict in the areas that they control. That is what we try to do. Our work does not endorse any parties’ political positions or political aims. It is not a comment on the righteousness of one side’s fight or another. All that is there to do is try to alleviate human suffering.    

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Ok! Do you want to add something?

Ms. Katherina Ritz: Yes, maybe. Just maybe to add and to give a bit perspective on the example of Iraq. At the end of 2014, I mean it was a year of big confusion because Mosul fell. Mosul is the second biggest city in Iraq. It fell and it was a big confusion. Until the end of 2014, we could still deliver aids to areas under the control of the Islamic State group. This means this includes the transparency with the government. 

Actually, we did transfer or transform medical items from the ministry of health to Mosul and to the other cities. Now then I think the longer gets the conflict, the more in hardened positions become. In Iraq, it was also through attacks, I think the positions of the Kurdish positions were attacked, suicide bombs happened and so on and this usually creates a counter-reaction which was blockade. So, in 2015, actually to assist all the people needs a consensus from both sides and the ICRC played its role as a humanitarian actor that is independent and has access to these areas. 

The group wants which is already very difficult to establish a dialogue on common issues as we can imagine but there is also the governments and other groups involved who need to understand our mandate and often it is also difficult because it seems we are supporting a group. 

So we have to create the environment where people understand that we are trying not to support a group but we are trying to assist the people which eventually will become again a part of their government and then I think it is a part of the solution, peace reconciliation and that is maybe the role we have to play also. 

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Ok! Let’s go to the floor and get some comments or questions if you might have. 

Question: At first, I would like to express my warm welcome to ICRC’s delegation. My name is Seyed Mahdi Nabavi and I am a Ph.D. student of Middle East Studies from the University of Tehran. I want to say that, on the one hand, we have the Middle East, the area of conflict and confrontation, with its role players, as Dr. Barzegar mentioned, small players and big players and trans-regional players here. On the other hand, we have the United Nations that must be impartial, neutral and independent. But it seems that it is somehow politicized and it follows the Western powers, especially the United States and this issue affected even ICRC. From the beginning of the crisis in Syria, the role of Iran has been neglected and ignored, at least for three years, and even though they did not invite Iran to Geneva peace talks, Iran was and still is a key player in the region and if ICRC used Iran’s abilities, it could deliver its humanitarian aids to the refugees, to the people who are displaced in the region better. So, my question is what is your plan and strategy to be neutral, to be independent and to be impartial? And again, as Dr. Barzegar said, I think the ICRC could really use the multilateralism to count all the players: Iran, Turkey and even Saudi Arabia and to help people and to have better negotiations in the future. Thank you very much.

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Ok! Thank you.  Of course it was mentioned by deputy director what is exactly the ICRC’s role but still we are in a strategic studies center and so our researchers have this broader view that how the strategic issues in terms of the role of state actors can affect your activities. But let’s get another question or comment.  

Question: My name is Anna Yousefian and I am a research fellow at this Institute. My question is a bit similar to his question. If you consider the political solution as a key element in reaching a solution for the humanitarian crisis, then how do you assess the UN’s role in making that happen up until now?  

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Would you like to take this question deputy director, thanks.

Mr. Patrick Hamilton: No, both good questions. I think in the first case, just to say it again, the ICRC is not the UN and we have a different role. We are not involved in inviting people to Geneva for peace talks and so on and so forth. 

Mr. Nabavi: I meant the ICRC is affected by the policies of the UN.  

Mr. Patrick Hamilton: No, you are quite right. Also in Iraq and in Yemen, we have seen very lengthy and extremely strong attempts by numerous state stakeholders to politicize humanitarian aids particularly within the UN Security Council dynamics of the last 4 or 5 years that has been a very strong characteristic of these conflicts in Syria in particular. We have tried our best to avoid being implicated within these dynamics where we see these regular briefings of the humanitarian situation in the UN Security Council in particular on Syria but also on Iraq and also on Yemen. We refuse to take part in those humanitarian briefings and we decline to have our humanitarian reading or responses represented within those briefings at the UN Security Council. 

We have very pointedly tried to keep our efforts and our responses completely out of the UN Security Council debates. Instead, what we have tried to do is simply concentrate in each context in pursuing our efforts to answer the humanitarian needs as the way we do in any context within the confines of the sovereign state territories of each particular country be it Syria, be it Iraq, be it Yemen and in ongoing humanitarian dialogue with the different parties to the conflict be it the Syrian government, be it some of the armed opposition groups, be it the Iraqi government and its state armed forces and the armed opposition groups there and the same in Yemen and being transparent to each that we are having that dialogue with their enemy at the same time. 

So, I mean we try to operate in a way that it is generally bilateral, confidential but also transparent and our approach is to increase the security but also transparency, trust and confidence that we can only deliver assistance and meet needs when we have the approval, the green light of all of the different parties to the conflict. And in relation to that of course, as mentioned, these contexts are no longer purely local. It is not just into Syrian, as Marianne was saying, it is not just into Iraqi, as Katherina was saying, but you have this regional dimension to the conflicts and you have the geopolitical dimensions to the conflicts with the UN Security Council dynamics. 

This obviously has complicated life for us but you know, to a certain extent, as we are doing here today coming to you here in Iran, we also reach out to some of the other actors, Saudi Arabia, as you mentioned. We were in Moscow, my director and I, only six weeks ago reaching out to the Russian government. We have obviously been in dialogue as well with the U.S. government precisely trying to ensure that people are clear on what our objectives are, that our agenda is purely humanitarian and that there is an understanding for how we wish to play our role and to try and make sure that it remains neutral and unpoliticized. 

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Ok! Would you like to say something?

Ms. Katherina Ritz: Yes, thank you very much. I think it is a good point that obviously we are [affiliated]. I think the ICRC is generally invited into a country. Even though if you have a mandate, you cannot impose yourself on a state. Then, when you are invited, we have to negotiate basically for each activity. Maybe we have to negotiate to get access to detention places. This means we need trust; we have a role to play; we need to have an activity. 

But the difference to the UN, when you said how we should act, we call it the principle approach and I think we have this dialogue also with the UN. Let’s say, the United Nations in Iraq is managing the unity stabilization front. So basically you have states giving money for the six months to stabilize the area. It can be 5 to 10 million that is taken and then, they would just have a very rapid response to bringing generators established everywhere so that all the people can use. 

Now even there we have to try to have a principle protection approach and say, ok, we have to look at the bigger picture because there are principles of return. People are not allowed to be pushed back. They should choose when they want to go back and this means the security needs to be given. So that is sometimes the level of the difference between an ICRC who has a principle approach and we try to take the approach from their law, from the people and also go to the people and see how they want to do it and it is not just the politicians and the way that ranges. 

But this is obviously very complex and to stir between different forces pulling and influencing as the confidential approach helps us maybe not to be caught too much in between and have a dialogue which is really bilateral where we can talk about our concerns.           

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Thank you! This is very interesting. To be honest, I think this has a great deal of learning for us. Now we know more about your missions, no doubt. But I would like to know how you, I mean the delegation or your members, faced with the threats on your  way of doing or conducting these missions and how the host states have somehow cooperated in conducting your missions? I mean, the whole issue goes how this humanitarian mission plays out in politics again, how this evolves in the issue. I think this is very interesting but still, if you have something to add or Dr. Shakerian you might want to add to this also. Afterwards, we will go back again to the floor and take your comments and questions.
Dr. Shahrokh Shakerian: Thank you! Let me talk about the very important question of how ICRC is working under the many threats that we are facing. But I want to add to this very important aspect that why they want to draw the attention to another important issue. Since we are here at the Middle East Strategic Studies center, we have to think how the work of the ICRC is getting close to the strategic studies. 

As Mr. Hamilton and my other colleagues from the ICRC also mentioned, the ICRC is not the UN. It is just a humanitarian organization which only deals with the humanitarian aspect of the crisis and it has no roles to play in order just for reconciliation. It tries to just step away from these sorts of activities or any political solution. But at the same time, I want to point this as a question to Mr. Hamilton. For example, when we are going to deploy in a country like Iraq, at the same time, we need to have some strategy study more about all of the activities we need to do while we are going to stay in that state and also what is the situation in Iraq, what is the role of this country in the conflict in order to do more activities, in order to abandon for example the duration of your stay in Iraq. 

So how do you reconcile between these two aspects in not being a political organization and just being a humanitarian organization and at the same time, we need to conduct some sort of very deep strategies to stay out of getting a political position. How do you consider these two aspects? 

Mr. Patrick Hamilton: Thank you Dr. Shakerian. It is a very good question. I think we, as an institution, are in many ways more or less constantly in a reactive mode in a sense that we can only react to the realities of politics and conflicts in the context in which we work. It is not us, as mentioned, determining what those politics are and where those conflicts go. Instead, we react to what they are doing. Of course with experience we are able to read some of the trends and so we go through an annual planning exercise for the next year on a year by year basis which helps us try to develop our plans and our budgets and so on. But often it is quite difficult to predict exactly where these trends and these conflicts in this politics will take us in reality. 

So, we are an institution that very often has to adapt and change really fairly rapidly in response to what is happening. Now we have, in any conflict, a very basic operating model. In any conflict, you have basically the behavior of the parties to the conflict which then result in humanitarian consequences. 

We, as an institution, try and address these two factors through three main means. In the first place, we try to address the behavior, first of all, through what we call prevention activities. So we try to interact with the political stakeholders or the political leaders of the parties to the conflicts to promote international humanitarian law with them. We try to do the same with the military stakeholders and try to ensure that there is an awareness of those of armed conflicts amongst the military and the armed actors and generally with academic institutions, think tanks like yourselves, we try to promote an understanding of those who are on conflict and our role so that it is understood be it prior to conflict breaking out or at least during it, so that our role is understood. 

We, then, have a second main access of work which is what we call protection work. This addresses itself to the behavior of the parties through the confidential bilateral monitoring of the way in which hostilities are conducted and where there are problems or alleged violations of the law. We try to raise these problems to the parties concerned and try to ask them investigate and take measures if indeed these violations or this problematic behavior is confirmed. 

We also carry out these independent monitoring visits of prisons, detention facilities, to monitor the conditions of the treatment of the people that are held in relations to the conflict to try and ensure that they afforded the minimum of dignity at least in compliance with the law and as well, we try to address the issues of separated and missing people.

And then lastly, in response to the humanitarian consequences, we have our assistance programming and the assistance programming can be anything from the emergency responses, emergency food packages, emergency household items, cooking sets, clothes, hygiene kits and so on, water trucking, for example, or surgical assistance to try and ensure that wounded are cared for adequately right through to then recovery assistance. So trying, as for Katherina’s description, to help people who are turning to their homes to be able to do so, to start reconstructing their lives, to begin to earn a livelihood so that they can support their families in their places of origin once again. 

And last but not least, in the aftermath of conflict as well, as Marianne mentioned, there is often the issue of trying to determine the fate of missing people. I mean, this is obviously an activity which we have longstanding engagement with Iran over in relation to the conflicts of the 1980s with Iran. 

So, there are these sorts of different pillars of activities and depending on where the context is at, we will do more or less of one or another of those standard pillars of activity. Syria and Iraq, we try to do just about everything. These are big operations but there are other contexts where there is no conflict and where we simply try to maintain a presence like in Iran to be able because Iran has obviously an important influence in the region and where we feel that it is very important to have Iranian perspective and understanding of what it is trying to do. 

Question: My name is Majid Mohajerani. I am a researcher at this Institute.  and a Ph.D. candidate of international relations. I have a comment and two questions. First of all, I think all international organizations are facing the harshest challenge when they face the ISIS and when ICRC is facing with the challenge of ISIS, I just say that we could just pray for you that you are dealing with such terrorists. My questions: first of all, Ms. Gasser mentioned the missing people. Aside from those who are killed during the conflict, there are a lot of people who lost their lives within the camps, where they are hunted by the human traffickers. Is there any supervision to prevent such events? And my second question, Mr. Hamilton mentioned that the ICRC will make sure that the military stakeholders are aware of their duties over the IHL [the International Humanitarian Law]. I want to ask if it has happened especially in Iraq with a lot of military forces not nongovernmental military forces and Syria. Thank you. 

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Ok, any of you who would like to say something. But I have to mention that this was the last question if there is not any. After these, we go for a simple reception and group photo. 

Ms. Marianne Gasser: Maybe for the missing people, as I said, the Syria conflict is very worrying in terms of humanitarian consequences and the missing is also one of the biggest humanitarian consequences. About human trafficking for Syria, at this stage, we are trying. Those killed or missing or abducted or detained whom their families have no news about their whereabouts, a lot of people also have for example mass graves have been discovered. So it is now to help maybe and assist like what we are doing now and to give some training to some Syrian forensics in terms of identification and other aspects in this regard. Now for human trafficking, it is more maybe the issue of the refugees but this would be outside Syria. So this is for the missing. 

Maybe Katherina can complete for the missing in Iraq. But also for the other question that you mentioned how to be rich non-state actors and to discuss with them that they also have to respect the civilian population, the basic rules of the international humanitarian law, we are trying to do it. If I take Syria, we have a lot of difficulties but with the time, we would develop. It is of utmost importance otherwise also for us, we could not reach these places and as I said, even to discuss because also in some areas, the main water pumping stations are in areas controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra. So it is also to ask them not to cut the water because sometimes they cut the water to the population. 

So, we are trying to do it like we do it with all our sides also too. We did at Geneva also recently submit to all parties to the conflict maybe also external that essential infrastructure should be also respected because you know that the conflict also is not only on the ground but also in the air. So we are trying to do our best but focusing on humanitarian aspects. 

Ms. Katherina Ritz: Well, maybe I can complete what Marianne said on Iraq. I think for us the missing file also has two aspects. You have the missing which are alive for whom we do tracing. So they go to Europe and their families try to trace the relatives and decision activity which is an activity which goes through all the Red Cross and Red Crescent system. 

So, basically the Swiss Red Cross could write to the Iranian Red Crescent and this is a tracing request. So we connect families again through phone calls. Then we have the missing persons which are also dead and I think the importance of this file, I do not need to tell this to you as there are lots of families still very much affected by having no news. Not knowing that somebody is dead or alive I think is the worst in terms of humanitarian impact in what people face. So there we have to see because first we do the tracing and then the mass graves and so on are discovered. 

We help usually, like in Iraq, we have two forensic advisers. They worked together with the forensic institutes in north in Kurdistan and in Baghdad and they helped them on excavation, on DNA and on lots of these things which is needed to identify actually again and bring back the people to their families to close and to get closures for their families. So that is, on the missing, important, I think, for every context and for every family who has a missing loved one.

On the IHL, the IHL violation, I think where there is war there are violations. I think we are not here to pinpoint; we are not here to blame a think tank. That is normal and I think we are here to try to prevent violations. Our action is not to go with document. Basically, our action is to document, to dialogue and to recommend and to prevent it from happening again. 
We are mainly involved in compensation system. This happens much more directly through the victims and maybe the state or an army or an armed force or a coalition force. But our aim is basically to prevent. This means also we have to do recommendations. We have to offer something to an armed actor. You know, they are shooting at us so we just shoot back. Then we have to explain how many civilians might be around and what percussions somebody has to take, an army has to take an armed act. So that is for us important. 

Yes, there are violations and I think there are lots of violations but the approach of prevention is the aim of the ICRC and not necessarily of criticizing. It is a sensitive topic but I think it is a topic which takes years and that is where the prevention is, the armed forces come into play and that is where, what Patrick said, we are mainly active in countries where there are conflicts. When there are no conflicts, we often have a presence, as we have in Iran obviously. But there is also other countries where we have been training its armed forces and this is also prevention before a conflict. So you train them because dialogue is easier when there is no conflict than when there is. Thank you! 

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Ok, I saw a hand over there and this would be the last question. 

My name is Behzad Ahmadi. I am a visiting fellow at the Middle East Strategic Studies Institute. Actually, I am thankful to you for describing the area very well but my question goes on to the way the EU is nowadays handling the refugee crisis. As you know, according to the European resources, this way of handling deal between the EU and Turkey for turning back the refugees and migrants and pushing back the refugees is inhumane and against the international humanitarian law and also against the international human rights law. 

My first question is whether we going to witness any changes in the volume of the humanitarian law regarding handling this refugee crisis, first of all? And the second is, as you know, the ICRC is an advisory body of international humanitarian law and, in some cases, the international human rights group. Has the ICRC done anything in correcting this false trend of EU regarding the solving of this issue, I mean, the refugee crisis or at least to be somehow critical? Thank you so much.

Mr. Patrick Hamilton: Thank you! I think it is a very good question. Yes, as an institution, I think we do have our concerns about the decisions made by the EU with regards to the problem of refugees and migrants coming into Europe. We are in dialogue with the EU about expressing those concerns. We have also been looking at trying to mount our own response to try and assist some of the authorities in particular in Greece, looking at some of the places where people are being held in Greece, working with the authorities to try and ensure that conditions and treatment and so on are what they should be and similarly looking at supporting the activities of some of the forensic authorities for sadly some of the bodies of the washing up on Europe’s shores as well to try and ensure that again missing people are identified and traces of these people are kept so that families who are looking for them are able to have some understanding of what happened to their loved ones. 

But yes, I mean it is a big concern and I think, as we mentioned earlier on, in many ways the biggest humanitarian consequence or the most overwhelming humanitarian consequence of the multiple crisis going on in the Near East at the moment is the displacement. I mean you have half of the Syrian population displaced. You have ten percent of the Iraqi population displaced. You have two million people in Yemen displaced. I mean collectively across the region you have somewhere between sixteen and eighteen million people that have had to leave home and many of them multiple times and it is overwhelming obviously not only for the authorities remaining in those contexts but for the neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon with huge huge pressure with the populations that they have had to take on, Turkey as well, and evidently Europe is now on the quite some pressure also. 

We do see that not only in Europe but also in the region there is less and less will by authorities to deal adequately with people displacing and seeking the protection in safer territories be it within countries in Iraq, in Syria or alternatively in the neighboring countries. You currently have some 50 thousand or more people stuck just inside the Jordanian border with Syria and indeed this is problematic that is increasingly replicated across these different contexts and it is another major protection concern for these people. 

So, I think obviously, yes, the European recent actions are a concern as we are trying to address them to the EU parliament. In reality it is a problem that is common across these different contexts and I think it is really worrying. We are trying to intervene on behalf of these people that are stuck at different borders, at different frontlines and so on but it is a problem that is growing and we are really worried that it is going to continue to grow and that people’s rights and as such are going to fail to be respected. So it is a really good question.  

Dr. Kayhan Barzegar: Ok, I think we should finish now. Thank you all very much. This was wonderful. I think you have made a good impact on us. I personally have a very good impression of your presence here. As Iran is rising as a powerful country in the region, relations and studies about the international conventions and divisions like yours is becoming more popular among us and we have a duty, as a think tank, to connect you with the academia and research circles. 

Thank you very much for bringing us these packages and gifts showing the ICRC activities. We take them with us to the university and let our students and researchers know more about you. I thought this was very helpful and very good exchange. The task of this kind of exchange is not just exchanging knowledge. I think the fact that we have met you and you came here and saw us I think this is very worthy and helpful for us to continue build on our research. Now we will have a group photo in our garden and then a simple reception. We can continue our exchange but please join me in thanking our friends from the ICRC. (Audience applause)

Report: Fahimeh Ghorbani, a research fellow at IMESS    

For Academic Citation: 
ICRC Delegation Visits IMESS, institute for Middle East Strategic Studies, May 8, 2016.

Photo Gallery

Link to the Farsi version



IMESS- CENESS Joint Seminar on “Russia and the MiddleEast Nuclear Weapons Free Zone”
IMESS- CENESS Joint Seminar on “Russia and the MiddleEast Nuclear Weapons Free Zone”

Director Anton Kholpkov is a Member of Advisory Board of the Russian Security Council, Member of th...
Read More..

IMESS- AMU Joint Seminar on “Iran, Poland and the Middle East”
IMESS- AMU Joint Seminar on “Iran, Poland and the Middle East”

Professor Tadeusz Wallas’s is Dean of the Faculty of Political Science and Journalism at Adam Mickie...
Read More..