GENEVA (AP) — The Red Cross' president said Friday the Syrian president peppered him with questions during a "positive" meeting in Damascus that left the impression of a leader who has a serious interest in resolving the burgeoning humanitarian crisis that has enveloped a nation torn apart by civil war.
Peter Maurer said his talks with President Bashar Assad earlier this week focused on humanitarian needs and were "sober, to the point." He said the embattled Syrian leader seemed genuinely interested in resolving questions about ways to provide access to detainees and to free up deliveries of badly needed aid including food, medicine and other supplies to hundreds of thousands of people.
Maurer told reporters he also visited rural areas around Damascus where residents gave him "horrific accounts of armed attacks." He said the testimony left him with no doubt that Syria is engulfed in civil war since "all features of armed conflict are unfolding in front of us."
Maurer, who just returned from a three-day visit, said the Red Cross assumes it has access to prison detainees based on Syria's obligations under international humanitarian law, but that Assad gave no firm promises on how that would be implemented.
Assad, he added, "expressed his readiness to address this issue."
Since the uprising began in March 2011, there have been tens of thousands of people detained in Syria, Maurer said, and "their basic rights must be upheld and they must be able to get in touch with their families." Maurer withheld his opinion when asked his impressions of Assad.
He said Assad and other ministers generally agreed on the need to reduce barriers to delivering aid. At his first press conference at Red Cross headquarters since taking the helm of the Switzerland-based organization in July, Maurer was asked what made him think Assad would honor his commitments.
"You have a saying in English: Proof of the pudding is in the eating," he replied. At their meeting Assad asked "very detailed questions" that left Maurer convinced that "he is seriously interested in" trying to find solutions to the many challenges and problems, he said.
"The conflict is unfolding in a very different way in different parts of the country," Maurer said. "We are confronted with a new situation in a new context." Maurer is a veteran Swiss diplomat who represented Switzerland at the U.N. in New York and held the highest unelected position in the Swiss foreign ministry
The Red Cross' assessment of the level of fighting, particularly that it is a civil war, has important legal and humanitarian ramifications because the group's role as overseer of the Geneva Conventions makes it is the arbiter of the rules of war. That stature, and its neutrality, also lend it a unique role in the monitoring of prison conditions worldwide.
"The needs are growing while the violence is expanding," Maurer said. "Many men, women and children who could be saved are dying on a daily basis because they lack access to medical care."
Maurer said the Red Cross was looking at ways of engaging similarly with the Syrian opposition, but that any such talks are made more difficult because of the fragmented nature of the armed anti-government groups.
The U.N. humanitarian office's operations director, John Ging, says there are now 2.5 million people who urgently need food and other assistance in Syria.
"The entire population in Syria is gripped by fear and despair," he said. "They do not see any prospect for an end to this horrendous cycle of violence. ... It's escalated, rather than dissipated."
"The entire population of Syria is somehow affected by this crisis," he added.
Ging spoke at a press conference flanked by other regional aid officials after a closed-door meeting on aid for Syria. He said the more than 350 participants representing nations, U.N. agencies and other organizations urgently called for an end to the violence that has resulted in a "very serious deterioration" in the humanitarian situation.
"It was a mood of gloom this morning," Claus Sorensen, director-general of the European Union's European Community Humanitarian office, said of the three-hour Fifth Syria Humanitarian Forum held at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva.
Sorensen, however, said one bright spot was the EU's decision to provide, despite its severe financial crisis, an additional €60 million ($76 million) in humanitarian aid to Syria to provide shelter, medical aid and for other humanitarian purposes.
The funds bring the total aid donated by the 27-nation bloc to over €200 million, or about half of the relief aid provided so far by the international community.
Ging says it has been "a very slow and pedantic process" to gain the cooperation of the Syrian president's regime toward implementing its agreement to allow in aid workers and supplies. Much of the help for four provinces — Daraa, Deir el-Zour, Homs and Idlib — has been held up by visa delays and other bureaucratic hurdles.