On Nov. 8, Mohamed Raed al-Tawil was toiling away at the Damascus headquarters of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). He had been doing volunteer work for 18 years -- at 36 years old, half his life. Around noon, a man walked into the office and told him that he had left his car lights on; Tawil followed him outside to check. It was the last time his friends or family saw or heard from him.
Tawil was eventually located in Damascus's notorious al-Khatib prison where, according to inmates who were incarcerated with him, he was tortured. The Syrian government has not formally charged Tawil, but current and former Red Crescent volunteers believe that his only crime was doing his job -- providing aid to the victims of Syria's 21-month civil war without regard to their political views.
"Raed and other volunteers provided services to the opposition areas," said an activist based in Syria who has been involved in efforts to secure his release. "This angered the authorities. They were collecting info and [decided] now was the time for them to have open war on the organization," the activist said, referring to the SARC.
Others agree that the regime targeted Tawil, who ascended the aid agency's ranks to become an elected board member, specifically to hobble the SARC. "He's one of the people the regime will affect the entire organization by arresting," says Laila Alodaat, a former volunteer in the SARC's international humanitarian law department.
Tawil's plight reflects a stark new reality in Syria: Even purely humanitarian groups are being pressured to take sides. Aid has become one more weapon in the country's destructive civil war -- a disastrous development for Syrians in need. The SARC estimated that 2.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced by the conflict, and war-stricken cities like Aleppo and Homs have suffered from bread shortages.
The real obstacle to providing assistance inside Syria isn't a lack of resources -- it's politics. "Logistical and security-related problems -- this is the real bottleneck of our operation," said Robert Mardini, the head of Middle East operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC has no direct authority over the SARC, but works with its Syrian national affiliate to deliver aid across the country.
Red Cross officials undertake endless negotiations with the Assad regime and local rebel groups in an effort to provide assistance to stricken areas. Mardini says it took "weeks and weeks" of discussions to organize a one-time aid delivery to the war-wracked neighborhoods of Khaldiyeh and Hamidieh in the city of Homs in early November. At that time, the city had been besieged by government forces for nine months.
It often falls to the ICRC to assuage suspicions that its national affiliate favors one side over the other. "Even SARC volunteers are aware of the misperception, and they are asking us to be present with them in certain locations," says Mardini. "Khaldiyeh and Hamidieh were a typical place that the SARC volunteers were very happy that the ICRC delegates were also present."
It's when communication between aid agencies and the regime breaks down that Syrian aid workers get harassed, arrested, or worse. According to figures provided by Syrian activists, 12 SARC volunteers have been killed since the conflict began and another seven are currently being held by the Syrian government. A slew of Facebook pages have emerged to mourn the dead, and express solidarity with those imprisoned. "Before they would detain volunteers in an ambulance for a few hours, but now we are facing systematic, targeted abuse," says Alodaat.