The cheap, brutally effective medieval tactic shaping the Syrian civil war

February 10, 2016
A Syrian girl waits to depart Madaya with her family, whose members say they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town, after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria January 11, 2016. An aid convoy entered a besieged Syrian town on Monday where thousands have been trapped without supplies for months and people are reported to have died of starvation. Trucks carrying food and medical supplies reached Madaya near the Lebanese border and began to distribute aid as part of an agreement between warring sides, the United Nations and the Red Cross said. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki - RTX21WMZ

A Syrian girl waits to depart Madaya with her family, whose members say they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town, after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria January 11, 2016.  REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

On Feb. 3, the United Nations suspended talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and representatives of the Syrian opposition. The Geneva talks, which were aimed at ending the five-year-old civil war, had bogged down in distrust and regional politics before they even got underway.

The UN mediator, Staffan de Mistura, hinted that the initial round of discussions collapsed because the Syrian regime refused to lift the sieges that are slowly starving hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Assad’s regime has been using starvation as a weapon — technically a war crime, when used against civilians — for the past four years.

As the war has progressed, various rebel factions, like Islamic State and Nusra Front, have also adopted the strategy. But the vast majority of the people under siege in Syria are being starved by their own government. Today, up to a million people are being slowly and deliberately starved to death in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, many of them a stone’s throw away from grain silos full of wheat.

The Syrian opposition demanded, before participating in talks, that Assad’s regime allow food and medicine into rebel-held areas. De Mistura proposed that the talks resume by Feb. 25, once the foreign powers that back the different sides can exert pressure on their allies to make political concessions.

Assad could lift the government-imposed sieges with a wave of his hand. But his regime has been loath to give up this horrific tactic for one main reason: it works. The regime realized early in the war that instead of waging costly street battles to retake territory, it is cheaper and easier to surround an opposition-held area and starve its residents into submission.

Assad won’t abandon the sieges unless he comes under sustained international pressure. The external powers that are helping to fuel and prolong the war in Syria — Russia and Iran, which support the Assad regime on the one hand, and the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that support the rebels, on the other — must exert pressure on both sides to end the sieges.

The sieges and the resulting humanitarian crisis captured the world’s attention in early January, when Syrian activists began sharing photographs from Madaya, a mountain village close to the Lebanese border. The photos showed starving children with hollow eyes and skin stretched over bulging ribs.

After six months of siege by the Syrian government and its ally, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah, the people of Madaya were forced to eat grass and cats to stay alive. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, at least 46 of the approximately 42,000 people trapped in Madaya are estimated to have died from starvation since December. Madaya is not the first place besieged in Syria, nor is it the only part of the country under siege.

Like the indiscriminate use of barrel bombings in civilian areas, and the use of chemical weapons, the sieges represent yet another failure by the United Nations and the international community to protect Syrian civilians. In the matter of sieges, the UN was particularly craven: a Security Council resolution requires it to maintain a list of areas it considers “under siege,” as opposed to “hard-to-reach.” But UN officials left Madaya and other besieged areas off its official list of areas under siege — even as people there were starving — most likely to placate the Syrian regime, which allows the world body to maintain its base in Damascus.

Four years ago, the Syrian military began slowly restricting food and medical access to Mouadhamiyah, a town in the ring of suburbs around Damascus known as the Ghouta. Because the military imposed the siege gradually — restricting one food item at a time, until supplies of each ran out — people did not initially realize the danger. By the time the siege became total, in November 2012, it was too late to bring in food supplies. At least 16 people starved to death. Mouadhamiyah remains under siege.

Over the next four years, the Syrian military used a strikingly similar progression of restrictions in Eastern Ghouta, in the Yarmouk refugee camp south of Damascus, and in sections of the western city of Homs. This is no accident: Assad’s military has carefully planned and executed each siege, refining its playbook with each one.

The sieges serve a dual purpose: by using civilian deaths as leverage, they gain back rebel-held territory as cheaply as possible. And by making civilians fight for basic survival, the hunger often forces them to abandon any larger hopes or political goals. “They start to question their belief in the revolution, and even if it was worth all this suffering,” said Qusai Zakarya, the nom de guerre of an opposition activist from Mouadhamiyah, when I interviewed him two years ago. “All that they care about is to eat, no matter what the cost will be.”

In each case, the government allows guns and gunmen to infiltrate besieged areas — but not food. The dizzying patchwork of armed groups end up indirectly helping the regime, because they make the living situation worse. The sieges allow armed groups to profit by hoarding food and selling it at inflated prices. Many anti-government militias are guilty of such profiteering, but this warlordism would not be possible without the artificial scarcity imposed by the government’s sieges in the first place.

In early January, a political deal allowed the UN to send convoys of aid to Madaya and two other areas besieged by rebel militias. They delivered 7,800 food parcels to Madaya — enough for 39,000 people, by their numbers, which consider each parcel enough for a family of five to cover basic food needs for a month. But unless the regime permits more deliveries, those supplies will run out soon. When that happens, Madaya — just like all the other besieged parts of Syria — will go back to starvation and bitter cold.

The Syrian regime, which is extremely skilled at managing public perceptions, is counting on that. Sadly, it is right to do so: Assad’s strategy of waiting for the world’s attention to wane has succeeded for years. Two years ago, a picture of thousands of starving civilians waiting for food went viral, and briefly galvanized international attention. The result was a flurry of aid convoys and UN Security Council resolutions; but as soon as the world’s attention stopped, the aid deliveries did too.

The UN and foreign powers can restart the Geneva talks by forcing the Assad regime to end its sieges and allow humanitarian aid without restrictions to all parts of Syria. This won’t happen without sustained international pressure — not just from world leaders, but also the public. Otherwise, we’ll be looking at new photographs of starving children two years from now. The world cannot justify forgetting the starving people of Syria once again.

18 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

And yet anti-government forces do the same all is quiet, nothing is mentioned. How about a little unbiased reporting here?

Posted by Karl.H.S | Report as abusive

The case of Alep remind us of the fate of Warsaw during WWII in august 1944. Allied forces weren’t able to prevent of the destruction of the town after uprising and so are we stucked before Aleppo. If the Polish uprisers had been helped in that time should have the Soviet declared a new world war? Certainly not.
This exemple is very good because the EU is going to split especially because of the new Polish governement. He refuses welcome Muslims refugees but should be the head of the answer to give to the Syrian ally, Russia.

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

You have to ask yourself – who’s at the real source of these atrocities – who started this here in Syria and in Ukraine in the regime-change premise, that killed off over a quarter million people, displaced over 11 million locals those otherwise were minding their business, put tremendous burden on EU with looming political fiasco of otherwise respectable Merkel, and not to mention, pilfered billions of precious tax payer dollars.

Once you get the answer, you’ll know who the real terrorists behind this are.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Oh, the no one is paying attention to Russian trolls. Try harder, guys. Something about fascist Ukrainians may do the trick.

Posted by bohemian_baller | Report as abusive

Two comments: 1) to Karl H.S. : Two “wrongs” don’t make a “right.” 2) The writer is appropriately asking the public’s help to control Assad. His preference for “winning at any cost” is anathema for most human beings. He has no heart, is killing millions of his own, and destroying the fabric of Europe with his refugees. Fortunately, some of us believe the U.S. will elect a President this Fall who will take Assad out of the picture. Meanwhile, why doesn’t the writer suggest worldwide protests to “Oust Assad” (only more graphic than this paper would allow).

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

I hope the recent Ai Weiwei art display in Berlin (http://www.statejournal.com/story/31214 582/ai-weiwei-art-project-in-berlin-feat ures-refugee-life-vests) is just the beginning of every major artist, musician, actor, politician, agronomist, scientist, writer, and world citizen making a unified roar to place “Hitler’s children”(i.e. Assad and Saddam’s Legacy Dirty Dozen: ISIS), in jail.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

Disgusting. All godless savages! Yet they think they can criticize the west!

Posted by Sayithowitis18 | Report as abusive

Why is there no fighting in Damascus? When will the Arab world realize that their problems stem from religion. have you heard of Atheism?

Posted by privateer | Report as abusive

reuters a.k.a. rooters in d.c. trough.what happened to independent reporting? assad is trying to reclaim his own country, not an American colony or Islamic hell-hole.

Posted by greybot | Report as abusive

There were and are many towns in Syria where US supported “rebels” starved and put under siege for many years until they were liberated by the Syrian army with help from the Russian air force.

Posted by Lpauls | Report as abusive

Imagine that: waging war in a medieval fashion in order to win. Who would have imagined? This is why the west will never win another war…even against unsophisticated barbarian hordes waving a religious tome and caterwauling some holy phrase. Dresden is for the history books. Modern western societies will perish from the earth before doing what is necessary to win…which is…anything possible within our ability under the sun. More soldiers died in one afternoon at Fredericksburg than in ten years plus in Iraq at a time when the US population is ten times larger. One afternoon. Think about that. Our effort to plant seeds of hope and change (pun intended) there right smack dab between the epicenter of radical Shia governance in Iran and the radical Sunni society of Saudi Arabia was the last best chance at instituting a new dynamic in the Muslim world. The left and even some isolationists on the right used our experience there to cast what I would have considered a best case scenario beforehand into colossal failure.

Posted by drktampa | Report as abusive

Hillary’s War

Posted by StardustSeeker | Report as abusive

I am with Karl on this one. Western countries should not have started this civil war by sending weapons to people to destabilize the country. And starving people is not a war crime when they are in rebellion against the official government. Geneva conventions apply to two official militaries from two different countries in official uniform, no one else.

Posted by natxlaw | Report as abusive

Yeah Lincoln used the starvation strategy on the South too in the Civil War. We built a memorial to him. Don’t see why we are getting so upset at Assad

Posted by drchemy | Report as abusive

Bashar Al Assad is the man! Didn’t cave in like the former Ukranian president! Respect for Assad!!And the US government be damned!

Posted by Kirillbz | Report as abusive

The World should recognize what is wrong with Russia and Iran.
Russia is promoting the killing and relocation of the Syrian people to keep their presence in the middle East. Iran is supporting a cruel ruthless Dictator. Russia and Iran should be removed from all International Treaties and Organizations. World Trade should stop altogether once and for all.
This is the systematic slaughter and persecution of the Syrian people in order to keep Assad in Power. The World needs to Raise its voice and stop this travesty.

Posted by TerrenceFromCA | Report as abusive

If everybody starts supporting Assad nobody suffers. He gives amnesty to rebel groups that give up their arms. Just negotiate a little, all cooperate, all will be swell.

Posted by Exwaan | Report as abusive

We in the west live in an overly idealistic la la land where hugs and kisses are supposed to rule. The rest of the world does not hold to those ideals and use every chance they get to us them against us.

Posted by Volcilord | Report as abusive