Forget Chemical Weapons. Assad Regime Uses Starvation as Tactic Against Rebels

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A Free Syrian Army fighter holds his son outside their home in Habit village, in the Syrian central province of Hama, on Sept. 25, 2013

Updated Oct. 10, 2013

With the threat of using chemical weapons now off the table, the Syrian regime has apparently turned to even more punitive actions to force rebellious citizens into submission: blockade-induced starvation. For months now the government of President Bashar Assad has encircled the rebel-aligned suburbs south and east of the capital Damascus, cutting off road access, telephone connections, water and electricity. But in the wake of the Aug. 21 chemical-weapon attack on the area, which rebels and the West blame on the regime, the government tightened the blockade even further, increasing fears that mass starvation might lead to even more deaths than the estimated 400 to 1,400 victims of the chemical attacks. Already six have died from malnutrition, according to activists, and as winter approaches, conditions are likely to worsen. One rebel brigade says it has dedicated its forces to breaking the siege in Moadhamiya, a town about 10 km from Damascus that has been under siege for more than six months.

“The situation is bad in Moadhamiya; it’s a real disaster,” Oraba Idriss, commander of the 1,200-strong Maghaweer Brigade tells TIME via Skype. “People lack for everything. They didn’t even have bread to eat until we were able to bring them some wheat and flour.” According to the Moadhamiya Media Center, an activist group that works with Idriss, six people have died of starvation in the past month, including four children. Another dozen children are in medical clinics, suffering from acute malnutrition. One video, released by the media center and posted on YouTube and Twitter, shows the emaciated body of an 18-month-old girl they claim succumbed to starvation on Sept. 23. Whatever power there is comes from generators running off limited supplies of fuel that are smuggled in. Transporting something as simple as flour or fuel across enemy lines requires days of strategic planning and a large degree of luck. “Every mission to Moadhamiya is like a suicide mission for us,” says Idriss. “We have to go around tens of checkpoints, and if they discover us, death is inevitable.” In the past month he has lost four men. Still, he says, the sacrifice is worthwhile. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians are starving in Damascus, and if we don’t risk our lives for them, they will simply die.”

Update : A spokesman from the Moadhamiya Media Center disputes Idriss’ claim to have brought in food supplies, saying the siege has remained unbroken for  four months. “Nothing has entered Moadhamiya but Assad’s bombs and shells,” says Qusai Zakarya. “Nothing leaves but civilian lives.” Idriss counters that just two weeks ago he was able to deliver a supply of weapons and cash. Given the lack of journalistic access, it is impossible to verify either account. Still, both agree on the toll the siege is exacting from Moadhamiya’s civilians. “It is a living hell,” they both said, in subsequent interviews conducted over Skype.

(MORE: Inspectors Start Destroying Syria’s Chemical Weapons)

The use of siege warfare is not new in Syria: water lines to the city of Hama have been cut on and off for more than a year now, and in the north rebel forces have used the tactic in attempts to capture government military bases. Even where the government has allowed humanitarian access to provide food, it has refused to allow the transport of medical supplies, lest they be used to heal wounded fighters, say aid agencies. But nowhere has the blockade been as complete as it is in Moadhamiya, one of the first towns around Damascus to rise up peacefully against the regime. Government forces have completely surrounded the area, say local activists. “What the regime is doing is mass punishment for all the people who chanted once for the downfall of the regime,” says Idriss.

International aid organization Save the Children said in an appeal on Sept. 23 that more than 4 million Syrians, more than half of them children, do not have enough to eat. “The children of Syria have been shot, shelled and traumatized by the horror of war,” said Roger Hearn, Save the Children’s regional director for the Middle East. “The conflict has already left thousands of children dead, and is now threatening their means of staying alive.” The Syrian National Coalition, a group of opposition parties based in Turkey, joined the call, accusing government forces of tightening the siege on the Damascus suburbs in a statement released on Sept. 30. “Assad’s forces are starving people to death in those areas … The specter of famine looms on the horizon.” On Wednesday the U.N. Security Council urged the Syrian government to provide humanitarian access to civilians trapped in the country’s conflict, but the government maintains that Moadhamiya is occupied not by civilians but by “terrorists,” its term for antiregime fighters. Moadhamiya’s prewar population of 70,000 has been reduced to 12,000. Most residents have already fled, joining the 8 million Syrians, more than a third of the population, that the U.N. now estimates to have left their homes in a war that has claimed 110,000 lives. Those who remain in Moadhamiya either don’t have the money to leave, or have nowhere to go, says Idriss. In some ways the mass migration is a blessing, he adds. With winter coming, few families would be able to survive on the meager portions of food and heating oil that his brigade would be able to smuggle in.

Getting essential items across the sniper-monitored no-man’s land and past government checkpoints requires a combination of guile, cash and bravery, says Idriss. His men will watch the government checkpoints for hours, waiting for new guards to replace those getting off shift — a two- to three-minute window that offers barely enough time to dart past lugging crates of goods. “Some of the soldiers sympathize with the revolution and some others are bribed to allow us to cross. But you cannot bribe all the checkpoints and soldiers,” says Idriss. Locals from inside working with the Idriss’s brigade court the most corrupt regime generals, spending days or even weeks to get them to accept bribes — sometimes up to 25% of the value of the goods. “But the problem is when this general is deployed into another area, then we have to start it all over again and this means no food for the besieged people,” sighs Idriss.

Sometimes his men cross under the cover of darkness, and sometimes under the cover of nearby government shelling — a risky method. There is nothing worse than the heartbreak of seeing a shipment of food, medical aid and weapons destroyed by an errant shell, especially since the goods are already so hard to come by, even in areas not under siege, says Idriss. Shipments can take days or even weeks to put together. Supporters from Western and Gulf nations donate most of the items. Even then, he says, “Whatever we deliver is not enough and it doesn’t make more than 20% of the actual needs of people.” Once across the blockade lines, Idriss’s men hand the goods over to a local committee in charge of delivering aid to the community. In exchange they are given a slip of paper. Not a receipt, but a new list of necessary items. And the whole process starts again.

— With reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut

MORE: Facing Calls for Diplomacy, Many Syrian Rebels Reject Talks With Assad Regime

48 comments
Christiaan Fensham
Christiaan Fensham

Propaganda. Just propaganda, looking for an excuse to go to war. Believe it or not, Assad is the good guy and the rebels are al-Qaeda supported bad guys who fool the west. Not all rebels, but a large number of rebels. That's right, the rebels are rabid groups of fighters. No Assad = Civil War to decide which fraction of the rebels take control. At least Russia sees the truth.

pehn
pehn

A lesson well learned from Americans and their Genocide of Native American Indians- The Syrians will be hungry enough to put into internment camps and Reservations now

mams4
mams4

Where are all the Liberals and their "Peace Flotillas",  Oh, wait they only sail to Israel. 

ClydeDelgato
ClydeDelgato

I feel bad for the Syrians who are caught in the middle between their government and a bunch of terrorist and mercenaries hired by other countries to force regime change.  That is the situation as I see it.  There is no Syrian rebellion.  There is a bought and paid for insurgency to oust Assad so that countries to the south of Syria can complete a natural gas pipe to Europe and make trillions of dollars. 

The so called rebels are elements of Al-Qaeda and other groups that have been our sworn enemies for years and have been imported to Syria to destabilize the country.  No doubt the Syrian people are getting monumentally screwed but what can we possibly do to help?  Should we give Al-Qaeda their very own country?  Aren't they a big enough pain in the butt without having international recognition, millions of fresh recruits and a national economy to support their agenda? Maybe Assad is an awful person but I don't see how he can be much worse than giving the folks who brought you 9-11 a large modern country to call their own.

Antonio Morillo
Antonio Morillo

en este mundo lo unico que aprendimos fue hacer mal a toda la humanidad dios hasta cuando

ArunKottur
ArunKottur

Innovative ways???????

Cheaper ways ???????

Erwin S. Pioh
Erwin S. Pioh

Ah,.Assad make repilca tactic when Nazi siege Leningrad in WWII! Hehehe thats the Partner from excellency Mr. Putin, hohoho why Russia supports that tactics!??

Richie Zednem
Richie Zednem

AAAND we use starvation on Iran, oops forgot that TIME?

KeninIL
KeninIL

Last week they were in a Christian village making converts by force to Islam? (Convert or die !))  Assad's army booted them out. It was a village in the middle of nowhere with no tactical advantage. If they need food, then they shouldn't have chosen war.

dioheerai
dioheerai

And we should care about a bunch of Al Queida terrorists starving WHY????. These so called "poor victims" would kill us all ,women and children included, in a second if they could. 

Lets save our compassion for those WORTHY of it , these "rebels" aren't them

TC Erol Duygulu
TC Erol Duygulu

Important news from Turkey. We, all the retired noncommissioned officers of Turkey celebrating "The world NCO's day" on the day october 17. We have a call to whole world. Because,Turkish media, politicians, the government and General Staff of the Turkish armed forces do not hear or do not want to hear us. There is a disciriminaton aplied us since years. We feel ourselves as slaves in service and after retirement also. We only want justice and equality. Please support us and do not leave alone on 17 october world NCO'S DAY. The whole world must hear our voce, so all Turkish media, politicians, the government and General Saff of the Turkish Armed Forces may hear us. Thank you.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Using indiscriminate starvation of innocent civilians, children and old people included, as a weapon is not new to the Middle-East. I myself, then a 3 years old boy in Jerusalem, was a target of similar tactics through 5 month during the '48 War of Independence of the State of Israel. The narrow mountain road from Tel Aviv was blocked first by Arab villagers who lived along the only connection from the besieged city to the rest of Israel. And when the irregulars where defeated at a great cost in young life, the blockage was taken over by the Arab Legion, a regular army established, trained, supplied and commanded by the British government and its proxies (like Sir John Bagot "Glubb Pasha", an ex-British general in service to HM King Abdullah of Jordan). The trauma of being shelled from the hills overlooking Jerusalem by an Arab Legion gun battery, that systematically followed the rout of the water tank lorry, dispensing the ration of half a gallon of stall water per capita, is unforgettable. Women and children were waiting in the streets with earthenware jars and tin cans for the lorry to show up because the water supply pipes were cut by Arabs while the Brits were still our overlords. Exploding shells killed many mums in our street, but no one could effort to miss her family water ration. Twice our home was hit directly by shells, causing great damage and killing one of our neighbors, a lone piano teacher rebuilding his life as a Holocaust survivor. I and my mother survived, hiding under the dinner table, pretending that the flimsy wood can withstand a 25lb. bursting shell. There were no better shelters in Jerusalem and no Jewish artillery to counter the murderous gunners. Then, like now, no one outside the war even bothered to offer help.

Brian Price
Brian Price

I wish I could take you serious but you created a fake facebook profile of a One Direction singer because you're ashamed of who you are.

thebax
thebax

If the rebels have guns and ammo they sure ought to have some food!! I don't recall reading about the "starving" people of Syria before all this AL-Qaeda backed terrorist rebel war began! 

Wibowo Kelvin
Wibowo Kelvin

After e chemical attack ploy used by e West was exposed by Russia, they started another ploy to make Assad looks bad.

Samantha Pitzer
Samantha Pitzer

STARVATION?!?!?! Unheard of. Unless, of course you remember Kim Jong Il, Stalin, Mao Zedong, the Khmer Rouge et al

Zayen Malik
Zayen Malik

what about the 'terror' tactics usa use to justify their invasions to put their puppet leaders on every nation so that they can control the whole world like a dictator? the biggest dictator in the world is usa! these so called syrian and other dictators are nothing compared to them!

Iyad Khaddour
Iyad Khaddour

All supplies of food, cooking gas are sent as usual to areas under rebels control, they just steal them and sell them at high prices, not the governments' fault.

Dawnya Hiner
Dawnya Hiner

I hate this whole thing, and what can be done?

Musa Polat
Musa Polat

usa stop to support terrorısm in syria and middle east

dajadags
dajadags

this assad is a modern day ghengis kahn and his opponents are worse than him with the sharia law that they want to impose on the people, so if the rebels want bread for their wife and kids stop trying to destroy the country.  this is very, very easy to say that democracy is a joke for a country loaded with tribal thought.  you need an assad and women now have some rights but sharia law destroys the image of a woman.  america needs to shutup and stop with support to sharia terrorists.  assad looks like a great guy compared to these killers of christians.  

Sk Rabioul
Sk Rabioul

Then, Kill Asad and bring more turmoil

andbary
andbary

It seems that some journalists are living in a different reality.

Why Assad to feed terrorists?

Why do we show the hungry children, not burning tanks with debris?

Why terrorists are using civilians as human shields?

pjaisq
pjaisq

Waris merciless.The children in a country which is in the presence of a state of war are unlucky . They can hardly have enough food and clean water and they can not be really happy .Everyone may have his/her own child . I hope that people can pay more attention to children's health especially in the place of war !(1120102213)

pjaisq
pjaisq

War is merciless.The children in a country which is in the presence of a state of war are unlucky . They can hardly have enough food and clean water and they can not be really happy .Everyone may have his/her own child . I hope that people can pay more attention to children's health especially in the place of war !

Blue-lark
Blue-lark

Syrian was the ancient civilization "Phoenician",they were merchants and peaceful people ,why do Syrian lose their naive?



traderjim7
traderjim7

@andbary   Journalists want the terrorists to win.  It is that simple.