Saturday, 31 December 2016
Surrender or die: Syria's sieges are the difference-makers in the conflict
'Aleppo was not the first city to be besieged, nor will it be the last. On 23 December 2016, 12-year-old Mohamed al-Maleh in Madaya, besieged by the Syrian army and Hezbollah since June 2015, was shot in the head by a sniper while playing on the roof, severely injuring him.
Al-Maleh is one of 1.3 million people trapped in besieged communities across Syria, primarily by the Syrian army and its allies. This does not include over 1.1 million others who are partially besieged or living in siege-like conditions, according to Siege Watch’s latest quarterly report on Syria.
Prior to the Syrian government and its allies reclaiming eastern Aleppo, it has used similar tactics to win back opposition-held areas in and around other major cities in Syria, including the capital Damascus, as well as Homs, Syria’s third-largest city.
Near the capital Damascus is the large opposition stronghold in eastern Ghouta. Though the siege of the area lasted for three years from 2013 and 2016, in a territory significantly larger than eastern Aleppo both in size and population, its complicated situation, both in terms of internal politics among the opposition factions, and the relationship between those besieged and government-held areas, kept it from taking centre stage in the media.
Aron Lund’s analysis on eastern Ghouta for The Century Foundation indicates that several distinct features of this siege made it even more effective for the Syrian government and its allies.
First of all, internal clashes between factions, including the notorious Salafi group Jaysh al-Islam, led to the fragmentation of opposition groups in the area. Moreover, the black market has been a major source of income for officials on the side of the Syrian regime, as smugglers and traders went in and out of the besieged territory from time to time.
Outside of war strategy, this is an example of how the regime can benefit economically from sieges, as well as rhetorically; the Syrian government and Assad have been referring to the opposition as extremist Islamists and terrorists ever since day one, and the president has portrayed himself and his allies time and again as protectors of secularism and of ethnic and religious minorities in Syria.
In Ghouta, over 200 civilians died due to lack of food or medical equipment between 21 October 2012 and 31 January 2015.
While the lack of essential aid alone has caused deaths, the besieged territory is not without airstrikes and shelling from the Syrian army and its allies.
On the morning of 21 August 2013, rebel-held Ghouta was on the receiving end of rocket attacks containing sarin gas. MSF reported that they received around 3,600 patients “displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours” that very morning. More than 1,000 civilians died.
The siege of the Homs neighbourhood of Al-Waer came to an end with an agreement between the Syrian army and opposition forces on 1 September 2016, but not without years of suffering.
In August 2016, warplanes dropping a flammable substance killed people in their sleep, including two siblings both under the age of three. Though their mother survived, she suffers emotionally and psychologically.
One year prior to the Al-Waer agreement, during the truce negotiations, Al-Waer’s 75,000 residents, who have relied on growing their own food for some time, were astonished to receive “such a great quantity of aid”, which consisted of 14 trucks with food, blankets and clothes, and some basic medical supplies. The psychological impact of sieges drops the bar so low on what dignity looks like; after all, the two options are starve or surrender.
The truce that ended the siege of Al-Waer involved the systematic evacuation - which resembles evictions, if anything - of civilians and fighters, including the injured, in exchange for the Syrian army to regain control of the area.
Human Rights Watch Syria researcher, Hadeel al-Shalchi, has described these truces as using civilians as bargaining chips. In a phone interview, she explains the unethical foundation of these truces, saying: “The basis of these truces is using injured and sick people, dying people, as bargaining chips.”
The lack of any meticulous monitoring has prolonged the sieges, and enabled those doing the besieging to impede aid deliveries.
Reema Hibrawi, programme manager and analyst of The Syria Institute, says this is a cause for great concern: "If UN humanitarian aid is sent, it is insufficient. Few UN aid convoys go through Syrian government checkpoints and approvals, and the supplies support a fraction of the besieged population.
"The majority of civilians do not have their basic needs met including food, medical or heating supplies. UN agencies are not monitoring and reporting aid inspection by the Syrian government which is limiting what people receive, and are not holding actors accountable for diverting aid."
Indeed, we often read about aid from the UN, the ICRC, and Syrian Arab Red Crescent, but we never know what happens after those trucks arrive.
Last September, in besieged Moadamiya, residents found their aid rendered unusable, as their food items were mixed with sand and glass by Syrian government forces, according to Siege Watch.
Moreover, much of the aid that has come is not what the residents need. Residents in Darayya received a UN aid delivery, which included one bottle of lice shampoo for every two residents, and over a thousand sand-fly nets: items that are far from essential in a town devoid of basic foodstuffs and medicines.
The sieges are thus prolonged, with a PR success for the Assad government, given the general assumption that (1) the aid being brought in is what the starving population needs, and (2) the aid is distributed equitably and the aid isn’t confiscated or tampered with.
As besieged areas are attacked until its starving residents surrender, a new problem emerges. While the Syrian government with the help of Russia and other allies takes back areas they have besieged, its residents are being evicted under the guise of an evacuation, to Idlib, which is the remaining hub of the Syrian opposition.
While the Syrian government has stated that it has been welcoming fleeing besieged residents with open arms, the UN reported that hundreds of men have gone missing while crossing from previously opposition-held eastern Aleppo to government-held Aleppo.
There has been no guarantee from the Syrian government that the displaced will return to their homes, nor that those who flee to government territory will not be persecuted.
Surely, such a situation can be described as a nakba - or catastrophe - equivalent to the one experienced by the Palestinians in 1948. And it doesn’t appear that this problem will be addressed anytime soon.
Hibrawi from The Syria Institute does not expect this problem to be resolved, stating, "It’s difficult to see things ending well. Forced population transfers displaced thousands of people into Idlib province. Attacks continue to increase in Idlib along with Eastern Ghouta in Damascus countryside, Al-Waer in Homs countryside, and Aleppo western countryside. Lack of accountability also continues for the sieges across Syria and the recent forced population transfers."
It would not be farfetched to say a siege of Idlib is in the works - an unnamed member of Hezbollah claims that the tactic will continue to be used, including in Idlib. So, let’s make it official: the deliberate starvation of people is a viable tactic in Syria, and there are no signs of it stopping anytime soon.'