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The Weaponization of Famine in Syria

By initiating sieges and blocking aid, the Syrian government is using starvation to force surrender in rebel-held towns and neighborhoods.

by Evan Helmuth
Jan 27 2014, 4:40pm

Photo: Anadolu Agency

Last September, an 18-month-old girl named Rana starved to death in the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya. Her mother, Um Bilal, had watched helplessly for months as her child grew thinner and thinner. Bilal holds the international community and the Syrian regime equally responsible for her child’s death. “The whole world watches the crimes of this regime that murdered my child and does nothing,” she said.

Under siege by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad since November 2012, Mouadamiya has endured regular and indiscriminate bombardment with heavy artillery, mortars, and barrel bombs dropped by regime aircraft. The town now has few intact buildings and is running short on places to bury its dead, but residents still refuse to surrender.

Mouadamiya has the misfortune of being situated between the Air Force's Mezzeh Military Airport to the east, a Republican Guard base to the west, and the elite 4th Armored Division — run by Assad’s brother and chief enforcer, Maher — to the south. This accident of geography makes the town easy to surround and choke off. Consequently, the regime eventually stropped trying to retake the town by direct assault and instead resorted to siege. The result has been starvation.

The Syrian regime is also employing similar tactics against other rebel-held Damascus suburbs, and has been for close to a year now. Having tried and failed to take back these strategically vital areas for fifteen months and having used everything in their arsenal, from tanks to fighter jets to a massive sarin gas attack on August 21st of last year, they are now resorting to simply starving their opponents out.

The aftermath of a bombardment by the Syrian regime in Mouadamiya

The most recent victim of the weaponized famine in Syria has been the Palestinian refugee neighborhood of Yarmouk on the southern outskirts of Damascus. For seven months, the town has been surrounded and subjected to the same treatment as Mouadamiya; at least 54 people have starved to death as a result, according to Ahmed Awad of the Fajer Press Center in Yarmouk. Photos and videos depicting skeletal corpses seem to confirm the claims of Awad and of other residents. The latest person to starve to death in Yarmouk was a man who appears to be in his sixties and whose name was given only as Abu Madi to protect his family from reprisal. His body was discovered in the street on January 18.

“We have eaten almost all the cats and now we are eating grass,” Awad told VICE News on January 17.

The following day, an agreement was reached between the Assad regime and the leaders of the various Palestinian factions in Yarmouk that finally allowed food aid to reach the starving town. A UN convoy carrying 7,000 boxes of aid — the convoy had been forced by gunfire to turn back on January 13 — reportedly made it into Yarmouk and began distributing food. Fifty critically ill people were evacuated, with more aid deliveries and medical evacuations expected.

This agreement followed a week in which the regime suffered an enormous PR black eye over the conditions in Yarmouk, with hundreds of damning stories in the international press. It also came four days before the scheduled start of peace talks in Geneva, for which the regime is eager to be seen as showing mercy from a position of strength.

Similar truces have been tried in other rebel-held areas of Damascus. In Moadamiya, a small food shipment was recently allowed in exchange for the raising of the regime flag over the town for Syrian State TV to film. According to Abu Adnan al Hourani of the Green Military Engineering Battalion, the deal also required rebels in the town to hand over an armored truck and some light weapons. “The regime is extorting the people of Mouadamiya in exchange for food,” he said. According to Qusai Zakarya of Mouadamiya’s local rebel council, the shipment amounted to one meal per person in the town. “Thank God, we are surviving, but we don’t know for how much longer,” he told VICE News.

An earlier agreement with the regime in late November led to the evacuation of about 1,800 people from Mouadamiya. However, some of those people — Reuters reported 230 military-age males, while activists in Damascus say the number was much higher and included women and children — were promptly arrested by members of the feared Air Force Intelligence directorate. Of the evacuees not arrested, some have reportedly fled to relatively safer parts of Syria, while \ others are now refugees in neighboring countries.

One of the biggest reasons for the continued survival of the 8,000 or so remaining residents of Mouadamiya (of a pre-war population of more than 50,000) and other besieged parts of the capital is corruption. One activist in Damascus who declined to be named for this article out of concerns for his personal safety told VICE News, “If it weren’t for some people with money who were able to bribe [regime] army officers to get a little food in, there would be dozens of people starving to death every day.” The same activist reported having often been shot at by pro-regime forces when attempting to deliver food to besieged areas.

Zakarya said the provision of small amounts of aid is designed to turn residents against the regime’s opponents. “Assad wants to show people that he can give them food and security, if only they surrender." In some areas, the tactic appears to be working.

Mouadamiya resident Abu Malik, whose family of six survives on a couple of pounds of rice per day, said that the recent food shipment into the town had caused black-market food prices to fall by 90 percent. While rice used to cost about $25 per pound, it's now closer to $2.50. But Abu Malik said he doesn’t expect the lower prices to last long. “That food shipment will only last maybe a week, and then things will be back to normal,” he said. And "normal" in Mouadamiya means starvation.