Syrian sieges leave more that 1 million at starvation risk

A women walking near one of curtains on Bustan Alqasr district in Aleppo city on Feb. 1, 2016. (Credit: Karam Almasri/NurPhoto)

The Syrian government is using one of the oldest war tactics to defeat rebel groups during its civil war – the siege. More than 1 million people are believed to be living under siege in Syria, according to the group Siege Watch. It argues that the problem is much bigger than the U.N. admits and action is needed to stop the incentives to use sieges.

It’s not just the Syrian government, the Islamic State and other armed groups are deploying the tactic that cuts off communities from essential supplies, notably food.

Recent reports from the town of Madaya of people dying from hunger drew international attention. After an agreement with the Syrian government, the United Nations was able to deliver supplies to Madaya, but the supplied would only last a few weeks, and the siege itself is not over.

A major assault in under way on the rebel-held city of Aleppo prompting more than 30,000 people to flee in recently days, according to the U.N., and as many as 300,000 people could be trapped in the city. Humanitarian groups are unable to reach the city and help its civilians.

“From a humanitarian standpoint, we are concerned about the shrinking of safe spaces for civilians,” said Dalia Al-Awqati, director of programs in northern Syria for Mercy Corps, in a Guardian OpEd. “There are very few places left in Syria where they won’t come under attack by warring parties. It is a bleak scenario both for people who have fled and for those who remain.”

Aleppo is particularly important because it is a stronghold of the moderate Syrian opposition. The assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces could set up a major defeat for the group and present a setback for countries supporting the moderate rebels, including the U.S.

There are concerns that these sieges are to Assad’s advantage. Despite the violation of the rules of war, humanitarian agencies must negotiate with Assad to gain access to cut off areas. As was seen in Madaya, the U.N. brokered a temporary ceasefire to deliver humanitarian supplies. Such deals require concessions by the international community and only encourage the tactic for Assad forces to get what they want.

The precise number of people living under siege is unclear. Siege Watch’s estimates represent the upper bound as opposed to the U.N. estimate of just under 500,000 people. A collaboration between Pax and The Siera Institute, the Siege Watch’s first report says that the U.N. is undercounting and it is a serious mistake.

“In light of the continued deterioration of conditions and the expanded use of sieges against civilians in Syria, the U.N. must seriously consider whether its response thus far has in fact exacerbated the crisis, and should immediately begin exploring alternative approaches,” according to the Siege Watch. “Ending the sieges of civilian areas should be a high-priority confidence-building measure for the international community if it ever hopes to broker peace in Syria.”


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]