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