As Syrian peace talks in Geneva broke up on Wednesday with no result, new figures from a watchdog group indicate that far more Syrians are living under siege in the country than the UN has reported — predominantly in areas surrounded by regime forces.
According to Siege Watch, a joint monitoring effort by the Dutch non-profit organization PAX and the Syria Institute, more than one million people are trapped in cities and towns by the Syrian regime and various armed groups, including the Islamic State. The UN, whose humanitarian operations in Syria are based in regime-controlled Damascus, has reported that far fewer, some 486,000 — and until recent weeks only 397,000 — are technically "besieged" in the country. About 200,000, says the UN, are cut off by the Islamic State in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
Reached for comment, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that it used three criteria to determine if an area is besieged: if it is surrounded by armed actors; if humanitarian assistance can regularly enter; and if civilians, and sick or injured people, can enter and leave.
"If all three criteria are satisfied, then an area is considered besieged," said spokesperson Amanda Pitta.
"We are aware that different aid groups use different definitions and have access to different data sources," she added. "Differences of opinion do occur."
Valerie Szybala, a researcher at the Syria Institute, said that Siege Watch had used the same set of criteria as the UN to arrive at their total.
"What they are saying obviously doesn't reflect what's happening on the ground and clearly they are taking political factors into their reporting," she said, referring to OCHA's public figures.
The Siege Watch data is split into three tiers, staggered to reflect the severity of sieges. Under the first tier, residents are considered at high risk of malnutrition and denial of medical care, and the area is under frequent attack. Under the second tier are territories similarly cut off, but where some food can be smuggled in. The third tier contains areas that are surrounded by armed groups or the government and face regular attacks, but which have access to sufficient alternative food sources such as local farms.
Siege Watch considers some 365,000 people in Homs province surrounded by government forces as suffering tier three sieges. Elsewhere, more than 460,000 Syrians cut off by regime forces fall under the first two, and most severe, tiers. That number is only slightly less than the UN's recently increased overall figure for besieged residents in the entire country, trapped by any side.
Szybala pointed to Madaya, a city in suburban Damascus, now overflowing with 40,000 people, and which has remained cut off by regime forces and Hezbollah militants for months. Its isolation went largely unreported until activists inside the city began publishing photographs of starving residents in December, Madaya has since drawn international attention. In January, UN-coordinated convoys were able to reach the city for the first time since October, part of negotiations that also saw aid let through to two predominantly Shia towns in Idlib province, Foua and Kefraya, that are surrounded by rebels.
But despite scenes described by several members of the aid convoy as "heartbreaking," Madaya was not listed as besieged by the UN until last month. The UN, said Szybala, was similarly underreporting the plight of communities in Eastern Ghouta that Siege Watch considers besieged by the Assad regime.
Even where the UN has declared sieges, for instance in Deir Ezzor, exactly who is responsible for cutting off residents is murky. The province, located in northeastern Syria, is divided between the Islamic State and the Syrian regime. According to Siege Watch statistics, nearly 200,000 people are trapped there — with most are living in areas controlled by the Syrian government.
The humanitarian situation is especially dire in Deir Ezzor city, the provincial capital that runs along the Euphrates river, and which has been divided between Islamic State and Syrian government control since 2014. ISIS occupies the eastern bank, while the government continues to hold the western side of the Euphrates, where the city's airport is located. But in some parts of the city, the line between ISIS and the regime run through neighborhoods, dividing families and turning city blocks into frontlines.
According to several Deir Ezzor natives who have recently fled from both the ISIS and regime sides, the humanitarian situation there is dire. ISIS has advanced on regime controlled areas in recent weeks, and the Syrian government impressed all military-aged males into military service. While civilians living in ISIS-controlled areas of Deir Ezzor can access the nearby countryside, the civilians caught in the regime areas are reliant on a thin trickle of food either brought in by the government's soldiers, or smuggled across the front lines.
Khalid, a 32-year-old pharmacist who requested his real name be withheld, escaped the regime-controlled side of the city in December, after saving up $700 to buy himself a seat on a military helicopter leaving the city. "Before I left, I was surviving on bread and water," he told VICE News from Turkey. "The people there are mostly just surviving on one meal a day."
According to Khalid, the regime soldiers defending Deir Ezzor monopolize the food supply and sell it at a markup to desperate civilians.
"The regime intercepts deliveries of aid," he reports. "They'd negotiate with traders to sell it at 100 times the normal price."
Karam al-Hamad, a former photojournalist, now lives in Istanbul, but much of his family is still in Deir Ezzor. He left before the Islamic State advanced and the siege was imposed, and he's in regular contact with friends and family who are still stuck back in Syria — some are living under the Islamic State, others in regime-controlled neighborhoods. As food gets more scarce, Karam says that those with access to any capital are liquidating their assets to pay for safe passage out of the besieged zones. Hamad has friends who've sold their houses and cars to a pay off soldiers or purchase a space on the military aircraft that still fly into Deir Ezzor. "Only poor people are staying in Deir Ezzor," he says. "If things don't change this is the next Madaya"
Szybala painted a similar picture of the city, explaining that "the prices they [the regime forces] are demanding are so high and the people there are so impoverished by the fact that the government has been extorting them."
"Our contacts in Deir Ezzor say they are besieged by both the regime and ISIS," said Szybala. "The regime has access to that area through the airport, but they are not supplying the besieged communities… they cut off their electricity intentionally and told the men they have to come fight with them."
But for now, conditions there are not as bad as Madaya, where dozens have starved to death over the past two months. Deir Ezzor is still accessible by air, and in mid-January, Russian planes reportedly dropped nearly 22 tons of aid into Deir Ezzor. Some local activists accused the military of monopolizing the supply, and since international humanitarian organizations do not have direct access to the city, it's impossible to verify who received the aid.
Even where humanitarian organizations do have access to besieged zones, demand often outstrips the supply of aid. On Thursday, the Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent gained access to the besieged rebel neighborhood of Moadamiyeh, just outside Damascus. But the aid workers were only able to bring "food and hygiene items" for 12,000 out of the nearly 50,000 who live there.
"People in besieged areas count every day of their life as a bonus. They have so little to survive on. They want us to bring relief regularly and that's what we are continuously asking for," said the International Red Cross' head of delegation in Syria, Marianne Gasser, who led the team which entered Moadamiyeh. "What we have seen on our way into town only shows how desperate the people are in Moadamiyeh. They are hungry and they need us. Unconditional aid must be allowed to reach people in all the besieged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria."
Despite the efforts of humanitarian groups, those living in besieged zones are largely at the mercy of the military dynamics on the ground. On Wednesday, a joint-Russian-Syrian Army advance threatened to cut off the province of Aleppo from Turkey — where most humanitarian aid to northern Syria originates. As the corridor to Turkey gets smaller, thousands of Syrians are rushing to escape what could become a newly besieged area. Speaking at an international aid conference in London on Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned of an impending crisis. As many as 70,000 Syrians were surging towards the Turkish border, he said, trying to escape before the province was cut off from the outside world.
"The siege of Aleppo looks like it might even happen," said Szybala.
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