The Swiss government said Thursday it had opened a “humanitarian office” in Damascus aimed at improving aid distribution and at monitoring and coordinating assistance programs on the ground.
Switzerland is thus the first western country, excluding the European Union, to open such an office since the Syria’s devastating conflict began nearly seven years ago.
“We finally have eyes and ears in Damascus,” Manuel Bessler, the Swiss government official in charge of humanitarian aid, said in an interview on the SRF radio station.
The new office, which opened a few weeks ago and currently has a single staff member, does not constitute a political or diplomatic presence for Switzerland.
Instead, it aims to “monitor more closely the dialogue to secure humanitarian access to the affected population,” a government statement said.
The office will also make it possible to “intensify efforts to improve relief services and to better monitor projects on the ground” in Syria, which currently is the focus of Switzerland’s biggest humanitarian operation, it said.
“The humanitarian situation in Syria remains alarming and support is needed from the international community, including Switzerland, now more than ever,” the statement said.
More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions have been driven from their homes since Syria’s conflict erupted with anti-government protests in 2011.
Since Switzerland shut its embassy in the spring of 2012, it has mainly carried out its humanitarian efforts through its representations in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and the government said those would continue to play a central role in its work.