Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Starvation tactics in Syria

As the push for a political deal in Syria picks up pace, the regime is using starvation tactics to alter the demographics of the country

Al-Ahram Weekly

A six-month siege of the Syrian town of Madaya, a mountain resort close to the Lebanese border, ended on Monday when relief convoys delivered a one-month supply of food to the town, reports Bassel Oudat.

Photographs of the emaciated inhabitants of Madaya circulating online in recent weeks had finally been enough to bring relief to the town, though not to the other 400,000 people still living under siege in various parts of Syria.

Doctors Without Frontiers, a relief group that has struggled to offer medical care to Madaya and nearby villages, described the town as an “open prison.”

Madaya, 30 km from the Syrian capital Damascus, has been under siege for months by the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hizbullah group, which is fighting on the side of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

According to UN sources, nearly 42,000 people were at risk of starvation in Madaya prior to the recent food delivery. At least 23 people, including children, died in the besieged town ahead of the delivery of the supplies.

Reports from Madaya over the past few weeks have spoken of the inhabitants eating grass, leaves, and even cats to stay alive.

Meanwhile, a group of regime sympathisers have been posting pictures of sumptuous meals online to taunt the inhabitants of the besieged city, using the Arabic-language hashtag “motadamen maa hisar madaya,” or “I support the siege of Madaya.”

In Lebanon, where Hizbullah has an extensive powerbase, protestors took to the streets to denounce the siege of Madaya, with observers warning that the humanitarian crisis may foment Sunni-Shia tensions in the country.

Hizbullah has tried to deflect criticisms by claiming that Syrian opposition fighters in the city were hoarding food and preventing civilians from leaving. But the inhabitants of Madaya have denied the claims, saying that anyone who tried to leave the town was either blown up by landmines or shot by Hizbullah snipers.

Over the past few weeks, Syrians have collected hundreds of tons of food and relief aid to send into the besieged town, but access was denied pending a deal with the regime.

Across the world, politicians described the starvation tactics as a crime against humanity. But the regime and its allies persisted with their starvation tactics, demanding that fuel be sent to Shia towns besieged by the resistance before any relief was sent to Madaya.

The Syrian armed opposition agreed to the demand, which may have been part of the deal under which supplies were sent to Madaya on Monday.

For the past few weeks, Syrian army and Hizbullah troops have been trying to break through the defences of Madaya and the nearby town of Al-Zabadani, but have been held back by a force of nearly 600 resistance fighters.

During the offensive, the Syrian army shelled Madaya with hundreds of rockets and barrel bombs, according to opposition sources.

According to observers, the siege tactics have been prompted in part by the regime’s desire to change the demographics of the country. When it besieges an area, it offers the inhabitants a “starve or submit” ultimatum. If the inhabitants agree to leave, the regime replaces them with its own supporters, thus bolstering its control of the town or district in question.

The story of Madaya is also far from unique. Dozens of villages and towns in Syria are still under siege by regime forces and affiliated militia. At present, the regime is besieging Duma, Al-Ma’damiya, the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, Daraya, Deir Al-Zur, Kafr Nebl and neighbourhoods in the cities of Homs, Aleppo, and Idlib.

Daraya, a town near Damascus, has been under siege for three years. The Yarmouk refugee camp has been cut off for 30 months. The Ghouta section of Reef Dimashq, farmland to the south of Damascus, has been blockaded for two years.

In all of these areas, the regime prevents the entry of supplies, even children’s vaccines. Other militias and armed forces, primarily the Islamic State (IS) group, follow the same tactics. Half the city of Deir Al-Zur is said to be under IS siege, while the other half has been cut off by the regime.

Ali Al-Abdallah, a Syrian opposition figure, believes the regime is intent on changing the demographics of the areas it has chosen to besiege. “The Syrian regime is using scorched-earth policies to force citizens to flee,” he said.

Some of the deals that have involved the evacuation of citizens have been mediated by the UN, Al-Abdallah pointed out. The UN’s agreeing to the “evacuation of citizens from their cities and villages will create lasting problems,” he said.

The irony of the last few weeks is that the UN has repeatedly found itself in the middle of deals for access to food and medicine that have been conditional on the evacuation of civilians from their homes, a policy that is in clear breach of the basic principles of humanitarian relief.

A recent report by the New York Times highlighted this point, saying, “While the United Nations emphasises that it is not a party to the agreements, its officials are intimately involved in [mediating] aid delivery and evacuations.”

Eager to find a solution to the crisis, the international community has been turning a blind eye to one of the basic principles of humanitarian law; namely, that the supply of food and basic supplies should be unconditional.

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