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opinion

Conrad Sauvé is chief executive officer of the Canadian Red Cross

Once again, the world was confronted with pictures of extreme suffering, including emaciated and starving children from Syria. The pictures are reported to be from Madaya – a town that lies only 25 kilometres from Damascus, not far from the main highway which connects Damascus to Beirut; a road well travelled and familiar to many humanitarian workers.

I have taken this road and have witnessed firsthand the suffering of Syrians from all walks of life. The images we have seen in recent days are shocking and should be of grave concern to all of us.

Last October, our colleagues from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other humanitarian agencies were able to provide assistance to Madaya. At that time, 40,000 people were without food, water, electricity, medicine or access to medical care.

We saw hunger and despair in people's eyes. We saw mothers not able to breastfeed because they lacked adequate food to produce enough milk for their newborns. Back then, the Red Cross and the UN provided two months' worth of food, medicine and other medical supplies.

The tragedy of Madaya is a stark reminder that half a million people are living in besieged or otherwise hard-to-reach areas in Syria. As humanitarian actors, our priority is to bring in assistance as soon as possible to Madaya, Zabadani, Foua and Kefraya, all of which are besieged, to avert the worsening of an already dire humanitarian situation.

It is important to recall also that even wars have limits. There are rules in the Geneva Conventions that prohibit starving civilians as well as denying them the basic necessities for survival. It is also off-limits to attack humanitarian aid workers.

Despite these clear rules, providing aid in this conflict has been disturbingly dangerous. Since the beginning of the conflict, over 55 Red Crescent aid workers have lost their lives while providing assistance to people in need.

The Red Cross calls on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law and to allow humanitarian agencies to be given regular, safe and unimpeded access to all areas in Syria so that life-saving assistance can be delivered. For those who are suffering and caught in the middle of war, this aid is very often their only hope for survival.

Humanitarian aid alone will not stem the tide of refugees nor end the conflict. A one-off delivery of assistance to besieged areas is not a long-term solution.

As Parliament reconvenes at the end of the month, we call on all political parties to remain committed to providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria but also to work together so that political and diplomatic solutions can be found. Canada can play a role.