Starve or surrender — Syria’s weapon of war
DAMASCUS - Starving an enemy is an old, albeit dangerous, weapon of war. In the Syrian civil war, starvation has often been seen as crucial in deciding the outcome of many battles.
Almost all warring sides have used this weapon to gain military and political advantages, always at the expense of civilians. Many people starved to death in besieged areas, with sieges lasting more than three years in some cases.
More than 400,000 people are under siege in Syria by one of the many warring parties, according to the United Nations. Besieged zones are scattered across Syrian territory from Deir ez-Zor in the east to Zabadani and Madaya near the Lebanese border in the west.
Different parties define siege differently. For the United Nations, any person who cannot secure food is considered under siege. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) contends that “there are zones that are difficult to access but not impossible to reach”.
The Syrian regime resorted to sieges on many occasions to pressure the armed opposition to relinquish territory or to impose a truce. Rebels made use of sieges to push the regime to relax its grip on other besieged areas and allow entry of humanitarian aid. Thus, the fate of besieged cities became intertwined.
For instance, the standoff between the Syrian Army and rebels led to an agreement in which humanitarian aid was dispatched to Zabadani and Madaya and some fighters and their families were allowed to leave the besieged town. In return, the opposition allowed inhabitants of Kefraya and Fua to leave the cities in Aleppo province and go to Sayeda Zainab near Damascus.
Ayham Mihriz, SARC’s head of operations, said: “Certain areas are difficult to access because of military operations but we still try to reach them via other ways.”
“We rely on local volunteers to provide the necessary services,” he said. “We have a chapter in the embattled town of Douma in rural Damascus and medical outposts in Arbin. These are areas difficult to reach but we are nevertheless giving medical care to the local inhabitants. In Douma we even provide dialysis sessions and diabetes medicine.”
“We are also working side by side with UNICEF and the World Health Organisation to assist populations in neighbourhoods in east of Aleppo that are under the control of the opposition. We dispense more than 30,000 kilograms of bread in besieged zones in areas of Damascus and Aleppo,” Mihriz added, noting that “last year, we have done a better job than the year before and this year we hope to do a better job than last year.”
In Deir ez-Zor, more than 200,000 people have been living under an Islamic State (ISIS) siege for more than a year. Trapped in four neighbourhoods under regime control, they lack food, medicine, drinking water and all other basic needs. With ISIS forces refusing to let in food supplies from surrounding villages, prices have skyrocketed and whatever is smuggled in is sold at 100 times higher than normal value.
“Prices of food items, when they exist, have simply gone through the roof. One kilogram of tea costs more than 40,000 Syrian pounds ($100), while in Damascus, it costs $7. Last week, the price of one loaf of bread reached 400 pounds, approximately $1,” says Mohamed al-Abd, who lives in Deir ez-Zor’s al-Joura neighbourhood.
“A low income family of six people living on a single meal a day would need about 450,000 pounds ($1,100) a month to survive. To meet these living expenses, most people in the city have used up their savings and some had to sell their furniture,” Abd added.
Deir ez-Zor’s parliamentarians have accused government officials of “starving the city” by failing to delivery assistance to the airport, which is still under army control. They charged that people are left under the mercy of “merchant officials”, who reap incredible profits.
Those who can afford it are fleeing the city. For 200,000 pounds ($500) per person officials would facilitate their transportation by helicopter from Deir ez-Zor to Qamishli airport in the Kurdish-held Hasakah province and from there to a land crossing point of their choice.
Following several deaths from starvation and lack of medicine in Deir ez-Zor, social media activists launched a cyber campaign they called “Save Deir ez-Zor”. That resulted in some supplies being air-dropped into the city.
During a visit to Damascus mid- February, UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura announced that more humanitarian aid will be dropped into Deir ez-Zor because it is not possible to deliver it by land.
With the progress of the Syrian Army north of Aleppo that led to lifting the siege on Nubl and Zahra, and improving access to Kefraya and Fua, home for pro-regime Shia populations, rebels fear they might lose their bargaining chip to force aid deliveries to Madaya and Zabadani.
Syrian government sources, however, insist that the aid programme is the result of an international decision and that the government will see to it that aid reaches all besieged areas.