Other tragedies lurk after Madaya
The siege of 40,000 people in the Syrian town of Madaya is the latest example of the Damascus regime’s collective punishment of civilians. It is also an openly political act.
Twenty-three people, including six children under 12 months old, have died and ten others are in immediate need of life-saving medical treatment in Madaya because of the blockade. Although aid and food were expected to soon be allowed into the hillside town, the broader situation remains grave. “The medics we support report injuries and death by bullet and landmine wounds from people who tried to leave Madaya,” said Brice de le Vingne of Doctors without Borders (MSF).
“The desperation is getting so acute that [January 6th] there were scenes of rioting as people tried to seize the last remaining food available at the MSF-supported food-distribution point.”
Madaya and neighbouring Bloudan and Zabadani have for years held a special place in the hearts of Damascenes. Before the outbreak of revolt in early 2011, every Friday thousands of city dwellers made the short drive north-west to the mountain towns, including Madaya, to take in the fresh air and feast at some of the country’s best restaurants.
In summer, Damascenes were joined by Arabs from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf who went to the Barada basin to escape the heat at home. The flow of private money into the area, however, fell into the hands of a very few, meaning this line of settlements abutting the Lebanese border was largely impoverished and anti-government protests quickly erupted five years ago.
Since then, the relationship between wealthy Damascus and its suburbs has changed completely. Since word of how residents of Madaya were being forced to eat tree leaves and grass to stay alive made international headlines, one of the most chilling responses came from Syrians themselves. Government supporters, some of whom appear to be based in the Syrian capital, took to Facebook and Twitter to mock the starving in Madaya by posting pictures of lavish meals and despicably hijacking a hashtag campaign called “solidarity with the siege of Madaya”.
This response to the humanitarian disaster offers a window into the psyche governing Syrians and, importantly, the depth of persuasion that regime propaganda has achieved. Looking forward, the notion that Syria can maintain its geographic integrity when the war ends looks increasingly fantastical. Too much deep-rooted hatred has been groomed from above and too many people have lost fathers, sons and loved ones.
Although the 40,000 people besieged in Madaya appear to have won a reprieve, elsewhere even greater catastrophes are unfolding.
In a series of opposition-held towns north of Homs, 250,000 people have been cut off from the rest of Syria for two years. Because they had access to a large tract of agricultural land, civilians have been able to get by but frost has killed much of the area’s crops meaning that in the coming weeks a bigger crisis could unfold. “These harrowing accounts of hunger represent the tip of an iceberg,” said Philip Luther of Amnesty International.
What is clear is that this is a tactic the regime is unlikely to give up. The starvation of civilians serves purposes for the Syrian regime on multiple levels. It weakens its opponents militarily, forcing rebel groups to give up or face ultimate responsibility for the deaths of thousands of civilians.
It also works as diplomatic tool by which the regime can, when the time is right, arbitrarily decide to allow aid enter besieged areas. Then, it claims to have acted for the benefit of the people, conducting a gesture of goodwill and that it should be thus rewarded.
The consequence is that slow-burning, deliberate campaigns of siege against civilian populations are set to continue and the next Madaya — and even bigger tragedies — will continue to lurk around every corner.