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May 13, 2013

ICRC: Many Armed Groups Hold Swathes of North Syria

by Reuters

Syria's rebels are fragmented into hundreds of armed groups who control swathes of the north, while government forces appear to have consolidated their hold on the capital, a senior Red Cross official said on Monday.

Marianne Gasser, who left Syria 10 days ago after completing a term as head of the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] team there, said there had been signs of "more assertiveness" by the government around Damascus since April.

Attempts to take aid to rebel- and government-held parts of the country also were being held up by roadblocks and stone blockades set up by a wide array of armed groups, she told reporters in Geneva.

Independent accounts of the balance of power on the ground in Syria's two-year-old civil war have been hard to come by, due to restrictions on the movements of many aid workers and independent journalists.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent [SARC], the ICRC's partner in Syria, has been the main agency distributing U.N. aid during the fighting, in which at least 82,000 people have been killed, according to one opposition group.

"We did feel they [the government] had more grip on Damascus and rural Damascus because it was a little bit more difficult for us to get authoritization [and there were] more checkpoints," Gasser said.

"In the past it was taking approximately four hours to reach [the northern city of] Aleppo [from Damascus], now it takes almost two days because many roads are blocked," she added.

A few hundred groups

Gasser said she encountered about 30 armed groups, half of them previously unknown to ICRC and SARC staff, during one March trip from the city of Hama to Aleppo, a northern city itself split between government and rebels.

It was very difficult to estimate the number of armed groups overall, she said, "But I would say a few hundred."

Some of the bigger opposition groups, like the Syrian Islamic Liberation front, were coalitions that include smaller brigades. The Islamist militant al-Nusra Front, distinguished by its black flag, was also "very very fragmented," said Gasser.

The number and variety of opposition groups made it hard to negotiate access across the conflict lines, she said.

"Sometimes it can take more than two weeks of negotiations with both sides. With armed groups maybe half of them will accept and with half we still have to negotiate," she said.

"Even if you get the green lights from both sides, you would have some groups or snipers who would not really follow instructions and would shoot at anyone who is trying to cross," said Gasser.

Some Islamist groups also have objected to the ICRC's main symbol of the cross - even though it is based on the Swiss flag, not the Christian crucifix.

"On the way back from Aleppo, we did encounter some problems. Suddenly [there was] a checkpoint. Young men all in black, and they were not Syrians. So you have this issue of foreigners and very [extreme] radicals, who were... quite aggressive with us, saying 'We don't like your flag,'" said Gasser.