In a recent report, Amnesty International compiled examples of Syrian security forces questioning, detaining, or even shooting at SARC workers. In one case, an officer rejected an order from the governor of Homs that allowed safe passage to ambulances. "I don't take orders from him," he reportedly said. "Soak it in some water and drink it." Another video showed the bloody aftermath of an attack by Syrian security forces on a SARC ambulance that left one aid worker dead another two injured.
It's not only the Assad regime that views the SARC with suspicion -- it's elements within the opposition as well. The Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM), a coalition of aid organizations dedicated to providing relief to Syria, warned in November that 90 to 95 percent of the international aid sent to the SARC was "confiscated by the regime," and redirected to support Assad's war effort. In a statement posted on its website, the SARC condemned these "wrongful, uncertified and politicized accusations."
But if the UOSSM's claims are difficult to verify, there is no denying that the top ranks of the SARC are populated by figures close to the Assad regime. SARC President Abdul Rahman al-Attar, for example, is one of the country's wealthiest businessmen -- a figure emblematic of the now fraying alliance between the Alawite regime and the country's Sunni elite.
Attar is the president of the Attar Group -- a conglomerate with interests that stretch across the pharmaceutical, insurance, banking, tourism, and agriculture industries -- as well as the president of Syria's International Chamber of Commerce. "He's a big personality, and one of the richest, most powerful men in Syria," said one aid worker in a 2010 State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.
Attar enriched himself through connections to some of the most powerful figures within the Assad family. A 2008 State Department cable reported that Attar -- acting as "a possible cut-out for Rami Makhlouf," Assad's maternal cousin -- could spearhead attempts to lease aircraft for the country's national airline in order to circumvent U.S. sanctions. Makhlouf appears to have abandoned this idea in favor of setting up Syria's first nominally private airline, which the U.S. Embassy in Damascus reported was yet another attempt to circumvent U.S. sanctions. Makhlouf then tapped Attar to act as the face of the new airline -- even though, according to another leaked cable, he "has no aviation industry background."
How those ties affect the SARC's work in the current crisis remains unclear. Many Syrian activists draw a distinction between the organization's top ranks and the aid workers on the ground. "The volunteers are young people, they are enthusiastic, they are the ones who go to the street," says Alodaat, the former SARC volunteer. "The management of the organization, they have other concerns...they are the ones who need to communicate with the government." For other activists, however, suspicions still linger.
For Syrians caught in the middle of this war, of course, the political hurdles that keep aid from reaching their neighborhoods mean nothing. The same can be said for aid workers like Tawil, who have found themselves the unwitting victims of their country's disintegrating social fabric.
"He is someone with a vision, a humanitarian vision," the Syrian activist said of Tawil. "He is in real danger. And we are running out of time."