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memri
February 13, 2014 No.
1069

Syria Regime's Tactic Against Opponents: 'Surrender Or Starve'

Introduction

For the past three years, the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria has been waging extremely bloody warfare against its opponents, making no distinction between fighters and civilians, but remains unable to defeat them. Along with its use of chemical weapons, Scud missiles, heavy artillery, and "barrel bombs," the regime has been hermetically sealing off opposition enclaves, especially in strategic areas such as Damascus and Homs. Since September 2013, there have been increasing reports of a severe humanitarian crisis in these areas due to food shortages; according to the reports, there have already been several dozen deaths by starvation, and thousands more are at risk.

The Syrian opposition has repeatedly alerted the international community to what it calls a deliberate policy of starvation by the Syrian regime. In October 2013, prominent Syrian oppositionist Michel Kilo, who is a member of the opposition's umbrella organization, the National Coalition of Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (henceforth: The National Coalition) wrote in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that "the shadow of death hovers over nearly two million people residing in the besieged areas."[1] The opposition has also called on the international community to assure safe passage for humanitarian aid to these areas. At the same time, a number of activists inside and outside Syria have launched social media campaigns aimed at attracting world public attention and urging the public to pressure world leaders to act to end the siege.

These reports made waves in the international community and some states and international organizations did call on the Syrian regime to allow humanitarian aid into these areas, but to no avail. In early October 2013, the U.N. Security Council issued a presidential declaration calling upon the Syrian government to immediately allow entry of aid shipments and called also on all sides in the conflict for a ceasefire so that aid convoys could pass.[2] That same month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that the Syrian regime is systematically preventing medicine and food from reaching much of the population, and called on the international community to act decisively so that lifesaving aid could be provided to Syria's civilians.[3] In November 2013, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt called on the EU to pressure the Syrian regime which, he says, "is using starvation as a weapon in the conflict."[4]

According to recent reports, several Arab and Western countries intend to propose that the Security Council resolve that both sides in the conflict must permit the transfer of humanitarian aid to residents. However, Russia and China may try to prevent such a resolution, as they did previously with three earlier proposed resolutions on the Syrian crisis.

There have also been international and local attempts to lift the siege at specific locations. In the first round of the Geneva 2 talks, which began January 24, 2014, moderator Lakhdar Brahimi, who is also the U.N. and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, tried to ease tensions by means of an agreement to lift the siege on Homs. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is also holding contacts with the Syrian regime with the aim of allowing humanitarian aid to enter the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp.

It was also recently reported that the siege has been lifted in several spots, including Al-Yarmouk and Moadamiyet Al-Sham; in some cases the lifting followed a ceasefire between regime and rebel forces.

Furthermore, several days before the second round of the Geneva 2 talks began, the Syrian regime, local opposition forces, and the U.N. established a several-day ceasefire in Homs to allow civilians to leave if they wanted, and to allow humanitarian aid in. So far, several hundred people, mostly women, children, and the elderly, have been evacuated, and humanitarian aid was reportedly allowed into the city. However, this ceasefire is regularly violated, with each side accusing the other of doing so.

It is clearly in the Syrian regime's interest to reach understandings with local elements, thus bypassing the National Coalition. and the international community. If it can do this, it will create the impression that the National Coalition does not represent the rebel forces and show the world that there is no need for international intervention.

The Syrian opposition attacked these local agreements that involve the evacuation of residents from the besieged areas. Members of the National Coalition contend that the residents' evacuation is a prelude to the massive bombardment of the evacuated neighborhoods or to repopulating them with regime loyalists.

As for now, it appears that both international and Arab efforts to deal with the humanitarian aspect of the Syrian crisis and to force the regime to allow in humanitarian aid have had limited if any success – and the Syrian people's distress remains unalleviated.

The regime's use of the starvation weapon is a reflection of both the conflict's escalation and the helplessness of international and Arab elements in dealing with this crisis.

This paper will review the humanitarian crisis in the areas of Syria under siege by the regime, and the efforts made so far to alleviate it:

Regime Besieges Opposition Strongholds In An Attempt To Subdue Them

The Assad regime's ongoing siege of opposition enclaves has been accompanied by its continuous shelling of them in an attempt to compel the opposition forces to surrender. The main enclaves under siege are the Al-Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, the Moadamiyet Al-Sham town in Rif Dimashq, the Al-Ghouta area in Rif Dimashq, and several neighborhoods in the old city of Homs.

Siege On Al-Yarmouk Refugee Camp, Cities Near Damascus

In late 2012, armed opposition groups entered the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus and drove out the Palestinian popular committees and the Palestinian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), both loyal to the Syrian regime. In response, the regime bombed the camp, and also has been besieging it for some six months, keeping food and humanitarian aid out. After over a year of fighting and siege, only about 20,000 of the original 170,000 residents remain in the camp, and they are suffering a severe food shortage, leading some to desperation. According to a recent report, one family kept alive on cat meat, and one father tried to immolate his children to save them from slow death by starvation.[5] Other reports have stated that around 80 people, including children, have died of starvation.[6]


Elderly man who died of starvation in Al-Yarmouk (source: Seraj.ps, December 29, 2013)

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has recently made attempts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Al-Yarmouk. PA President Mahmoud Abbas called on all sides to allow food into the camp, and sent a delegation to meet Syrian regime officials and local Palestinian leaders.[7]

Several cities in the Al-Ghouta region as well as the town of Moadamiyet Al-Sham in Rif Dimashq, all under opposition control, have been under siege for the past year. A Moadamiyet Al-Sham activist called the regime's siege historically unprecedented: "In war, the enemy leaves the other side an opening to retreat. This happened in Gaza and in the siege of Beirut. The Assad regime gives us and all the cities surrounding Damascus a frightening choice: Surrender... or starve."[8]

Dozens in Moadamiyet Al-Sham have reportedly died of starvation and lack of medical supplies. Some 1,000 injured may die because of a shortage of medicines, and about 150 were killed attempting to enter and leave the city. It was also reported that regime forces thwarted attempts by eastern Al-Ghouta residents to smuggle food into the area.[9]


Children from Moadamiyet Al-Sham who died of starvation (source: Almokhtsar.com, September 1, 2013)


Moadamiyet Al-Sham residents slaughter a lion for food (source: Hawamer.com, January 11, 2014)


Child in besieged southern neighborhood of Damascus staving off hunger with cardboard (source: Zamanalwsl.net, December 23, 2013)

Homs: 600 Days

Homs, one of the first centers of anti-regime protest, and particularly parts of the central old city, have been under siege since June 2012; some 3,000 people are trapped inside.[10] U.N. and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi has attempted to ease the humanitarian crisis and cultivate an atmosphere of trust by asking that citizens be allowed to leave and humanitarian aid to enter during the first round of the Geneva 2 talks, but no agreement has yet been reached in the matter.

Social Media Campaigns And Pressure On International Elements

Because of the international community's failure to adequately address the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria, civilian activists inside and outside the country have launched campaigns, mostly on social media, to garner international public support so as to pressure governments into action.

A campaign launched in October 2013, The Syrian Campaign To Break The Siege Before Any Talk Of Negotiations, was aimed at raising Syrian oppositionists' awareness of the siege and its impact, whether or not they or their organizations wished to attend the Geneva 2 conference The campaign's Facebook page, the most recent post of which was on December 7, 2013, emphasized the residents' suffering and called for negotiating in Geneva to be contingent upon a lifting of the siege.[11]


Picture on the campaign facebook page (source: Facebook.com/Stopthesiegeeinsyria)

On November 27, 2013, 21 Syrian media and oppositionist groups launched a campaign called "Break the Siege," aimed at motivating global and Arab public opinion to bring about a U.N. resolution that would force the regime to allow safe passage for humanitarian aid under the oversight of international organizations. The campaign focuses on besieged areas in southern and eastern Damascus, eastern and western Al-Ghouta, and Homs and its western and northern suburbs.

In the first stage of the campaign, lasting two weeks, activists sent written reports and videos about the siege in these areas to Arab and Western organizations and media outlets. When they did not achieve the desired results, they expanded their efforts, appealing to Arab and Western public opinion using protests, sit-ins, and exhibits.[12] At this time, the campaign is active on social media and distributes some content in English and the major European languages as well,[13] but it does not seem to be having much success in organizing mass protests worldwide.


"Break the Siege. Right no.1: The right to life" (source: Facebook.com/BreakSiegeSyria)

Last month saw the launch of several campaigns for Al-Yarmouk residents; one was a campaign called "Save Al-Yarmouk Refugee Camp" by the Syrian Al-Seeraj Institute for Aid and Development for collecting donations for the camp.


Al-Seeraj Facebook page: "End the Siege, Save Al-Yarmouk Refugee Camp" (source: Facebook.com/Alserajsy)

Similar campaigns kicked off also outside Syria. In the PA, young journalists organized a campaign called The Al-Yarmouk Refugee Camp Is Here; as part of it, 55 radio stations and PA TV devoted a full day of broadcasts to the situation in the camp. According to one of the campaign organizers Mahmoud Haribat, the campaign is nonpartisan and aims to pressure all factions to act to stop "the slow execution of over 20,000 refugees who are dying of starvation in the camp." Activist Mirfat Sadeq stated that the campaign's main achievement was bringing the voices of camp residents to their people in Palestine and getting the issue on the Palestinian agenda "after many months of neglect by Palestinian official, popular, and media elements."[14]

In the UK, activists and representatives of Palestinian factions launched an initiative to save the camp.[15]

Attempts To End The Siege Despite The Continued Clashes

Starting in late December 2013[16] there have been reports of a truce, or hudna, between regime and local opposition forces in several villages and towns, mainly near Damascus – Moadamiyet Al-Sham, the Barza neighborhood, the towns of Beit Saham and Babila, and the Al-Waer neighborhood of Homs. These agreements focus on: a reciprocal ceasefire; entry of food, medicine, fuel, etc.; a freeze on regime incursions or retreat; a rebel handover of heavy arms to the regime; permission for the rebels to remain in place; and restoration of power and water supplies to the residents. Many of these agreements have, however, reportedly been violated, by both regime and opposition forces.[17]

According to reports in early February, international organizations have successfully brought in humanitarian aid to Al-Yarmouk, but activists say that the aid is insufficient. Sources close to the Syrian regime claim that the aid supply is sometimes stopped by opposition forces firing at aid convoys.[18]

These steps began in the final days of the first round of talks at the Geneva 2 conference, during which moderator Lakhdar Brahimi tried unsuccessfully to draw up an agreement for allowing humanitarian aid into Homs. The Syrian regime asserted during this round that the humanitarian issue has nothing to do with the conference and that practical measures on this issue are the result of efforts that commenced prior to the conference.

On February 7, 2014, a few days before the second round of talks began, both sides announced the beginning of a days-long ceasefire in Homs, during which safe passage out of the city would be guaranteed for those wishing it, and humanitarian aid would be allowed into the besieged neighborhoods. Reports so far say that several hundred civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, have left, and that several aid convoys have entered. The regime is claiming that the plan was drawn up with the U.N. prior to Geneva 2 and that the opposition had no part in it.[19]

It is clearly in the Syrian regime's interest to separate humanitarian issues from political issues, , because any measures taken in the humanitarian sphere that appear to be Geneva 2-related would be considered a concession to international pressure or negotiations with the opposition – an opposition that the regime is attempting to discredit.

It should be noted, again, that by making agreements with rebel forces on the ground, the regime is trying to create the impression that the opposition delegation to Geneva 2 does not represent the rebel forces that are fighting, and that the regime can come to agreement with those forces without the opposition's help. Likewise, ceasefires for humanitarian purposes help the regime fend off the international pressure that it is sustaining due to the siege's severe effects. Tactical ceasefires also allow the regime to divert its forces to more pressing fronts.

Syrian Opposition: U.N. Helping Syrian Regime Avoid Paying For Its Crimes

The National Coalition condemned these local agreements, saying that they do not meet the demands of the Syrian people and questioning the regime's intention to implement them. Its criticism reflects its fear that these agreements may help the regime fend off international pressures and improve its image in the eyes of the world. Presumably, it also fears that these agreements between the regime, the U.N. and local opposition forces will help the regime attain its goal of undermining the coalition's legitimacy as the umbrella organization of the opposition. The fact that, during the first round of talks at the Geneva 2 conference (which commenced on January 24, 2014), the coalition did agree to discuss a local ceasefire in Homs suggests that it is not so much opposed to local agreements as concerned about being marginalized.

Following the ceasefire in Homs, ahead of the start of the second round of talks in Geneva II, the National Coalition stated that the ceasefire represents only "a partial and insufficient response to the international legal obligations and the demands of the besieged people of Homs," and that "the agreement does not meet the demands made by the National Coalition on the behalf of the residents of Homs and the Syrian people to lift the siege from all the besieged neighborhoods in Homs old city and from all other besieged areas in Syria." Questioning the regime's intention to respect the agreement, the National Coalition pointed out that the regime has arrested some of the residents evacuated from Moadamiyet Al-Sham and their fate remains unknown. It also stated that the agreement could pave the way to destroying the evacuated neighborhoods over the heads of any residents who do not to leave. It called upon the U.N. and the international community not to fall into the regime's trap and let it buy more time while it continues to massacre the Syrian people.[20]

The opposition's interim prime minister, Ahmad Tu'ma, also doubted the regime's intentions, saying that it does not want to bring aid into the besieged areas but rather to evacuate women and elderly people in order to search them, arrest them and torture them and deport them.[21] These fears proved to be valid. According to U.N. reports, the regime indeed arrested over 300 men as they were leaving the besieged areas as part of the agreement, and is interrogating them without supervision by any neutral party.[22]

Senior opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun focused his harsh criticism on the U.N. for its role in these agreements that, he said, enable the Assad regime to escape paying for its crimes. He wrote on his Facebook page: "[The idea of] saving residents from starvation by removing them from their homes, with or without their consent, instead of saving them by bringing in food and medicines, is a conspiracy between the international bodies and the regime... Instead of punishing the criminal who imposes a collective punishment upon the residents, the international bodies, headed by the U.N... shirk their responsibility and punish the victims by removing them from their homes..."[23] On another occasion he wrote: "Perhaps evacuating the residents from Homs, which has been under siege for over a year and a half, will save their lives... but this is [still] a forced exodus under threat of siege and famine... It is an organized ethnic cleansing [carried put] under U.N. sponsorship and with Russia's encouragement."[24]

PA Involvement In Al-Yarmouk Camp Crisis: Humanitarian Aid Alongside Support Of Syrian Regime

The PA, for its part, preferred to address the crisis at the Al-Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the humanitarian level alone and to refrain from exerting diplomatic pressure in the Arab or international arenas. The PA and PLO, under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, worked to extend humanitarian aid to the camp residents via UNRWA "in full cooperation with the Syrian government."[25]

PA officials stressed that the PA was taking a "neutral" stance on the crisis at the camp, for the sake of the refugees,[26] and refraining from interference in Syria's internal affairs.[27] This stance in itself, and the absence of any condemnation of the Assad regime in light of the humanitarian situation in the camp, constitutes support for this regime.

Moreover, several representatives of PA President Abbas visited Syria and expressed support for the Assad regime. Abbas Zaki, the personal envoy of the PA president to Syria, said after returning from this country in October 2013 that the two leaderships – the Palestinian one and the Syrian one – have agreed to coordinate their positions on resolving the crisis at the camp. Zaki also noted that he had told Assad that "Palestine stands with Syria."[28] In an interview on Syrian state television he explained that the alternative to the Syrian regime would be catastrophic for the region and for the Palestinian cause.[29]

Palestinian officials even praised the efforts of the Syrian regime to resolve the Al-Yarmouk crisis, while blaming the situation there on armed militias fighting the regime – thus echoing this regime's own rhetoric. In an interview with Al-Quds Al-Arabi 'Abbas Zaki condemned these militias, saying they have turned the refugee camps into battlegrounds and are thus trying to put an end to the Palestinian presence in Syria: "There is official Palestinian-Syrian cooperation to distance the Palestinian refugees from the suffering of the war going on in Syria and to prevent their ongoing deportation as a result of the [actions of the] armed militias...[30] PA Labor Minister and PLO Central Committee member Ahmad Al-Majdalani, who was sent to Syria to resolve the Al-Yarmouk crisis, praised the regime's measures to resolve this crisis and accused armed fighters of "hijacking the camp" and preventing aid from coming in.[31]

This PA position sparked criticism within the PA itself. Muhannad 'Abd Al-Hamid, a columnist for a PA daily, wrote in response to the statements by Al-Majdalani and Zaki that the PA must not prefer the Syrian regime to the Syrian opposition.[32]

* N. Mozes and E. Ezrahi are research fellows at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 16, 2013 ]. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5511, Syrian Oppositionist Michel Kilo: Assad Perpetrating Mass Starvation; International Intervention Necessary, November 7, 2013.

[2] UN.org, October 10, 2013.

[3] Foreignpolicy.com, October 25, 2013.

[4] Syria-news.com, November 18, 2013.

[5] All4syria.info, January 4, 2014, January 15, 2014.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 31, 2013; All4syria.info, January 4, 2014; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), January 5, 2014; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 27, 2014.

[7] Dp-news.com, January 4, 2014. Palestinian Labor minister and head of the Palestinian delegation Ahmed Majdalani implied that the refugee camp has also become an arena of struggle between Hamas and the PLO. Majdalani accepted the regime's version of events, praised its efforts to solve the situation in the camp, and accused armed elements of "hijacking the camp" and preventing humanitarian aid from entering. Syria-news.com, January 14, 2013. According to him, elements in the camp tied to Hamas are attempting to prevent an agreement that would ease the residents' suffering. In response, Hamas claimed that the PA delegation was trying to grow close to the Syrian regime at the expense of the suffering of Palestinians in refugee camps. Aksalser.com, January 15, 2014.

[8] All4syria.info, October 12, 2013.

[9] All4syria.info, October 12, 2013; Alarabiya.net, December 26, 2013.

[10] Al-Hayat (London), January 28, 2014.

[11] Facebook.com/Stopthesiegeeinsyria.

[12] Almaghribtoday.net, December 1, 2013; Akhbar.alaan.tv, December 1, 2013; All4syria.info, December 14, 2013.

[13]Facebook.com/BreakSiegeSyria.

[14] Alarabiya.net, January 12, 2014.

[15] Alarabiya.net, January 6, 2014.

[16] The first report was on November 11, 2013 regarding the city of Qudsiya near Damascus in an attempt to allow humanitarian aid in. See Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 11, 2013.

[17] All4syria.info, December 29, 2013; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 15, 2014; All4syria.info, January 15, 2014.

[18] Syria-news.com, February 1, 2014.

[19] All4syria.info, February 7, 2014; Syria-news.com, February 9, 2014.

[20] All4syria.info, February 7, 2014.

[21] All4syria.info, February 8, 2014.

[22] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 12, 2014.

[23] Ar-ar.facebook.com/BurhanGhalion, February 6, 2014.

[24] Ar-ar.facebook.com/BurhanGhalion, February 12, 2014.

[25] Wafa.ps, January 31, 2014.

[26] See statements by PA Labor Minister and PLO Central Committee member Ahmad Majdalani: wafa.ps, November 4, 2013.

[27] Fatah's Central Committee clarified in early February 2014 that it is not sparing any efforts to end the suffering of the Palestinian refugees at the camp but that it objects to interference in Syria's internal affairs. It called on all the sides in Arab countries not to involve the Palestinians in their internal conflicts, clarifying that the Palestinian refugees are temporary guests in the Arab states. See: wafa.ps, February 3, 2014.

[28] Amad.ps, October 10, 2014.

[29] Sana.sy, December 24, 2014.

[30] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 9, 2013.

[31] Champress.ne, January 16, 2014.

[32] Al-Ayyam (PA), February 21, 2014.