This piece originally appeared on Warscapes here.
The horror of siege is that it is a manufactured famine, and its miseries are anticipated and slow to manifest. The United Nations, along with other humanitarian agencies, can see the disaster start to mount, but respond only after so many people die of starvation. And even then, response isn’t guaranteed. In Madaya, the small resort town controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and besieged by Hezbollah (a regime paramilitary force in Syria), the UN responded only after images of emaciated children were pushed into mainstream Western media by dedicated activists. Had activists not been able to document and talk about what was happening, it was unlikely aid actors would have even attempted to enter Madaya.
Regardless of whether a population is able to raise awareness of its own plight, the UN and International Syria Support Group need to prioritize breaking the sieges in Syria. Putting the onus on a besieged population to publicize its own starvation in hopes of receiving relief is immoral and damages the integrity of the system.
A look at Siege Watch shows the extent and severity of siege across Syria. An estimated 1 million Syrians are currently living under siege, 900,000 of whom are victims of pro-government forces. An area may be besieged by one actor, controlled by another actor, and the combination of both decides what degrees of freedom the population has. FSA-controlled areas under siege typically still have freedom of speech, which is how Madaya was brought into the international spotlight this past January when it reached a critical starvation point. In contrast, areas under ISIS, Regime, Jabhat al Nusra, and Jaish al Islam control all face varying degrees of restriction on freedom of speech. The regime routinely barrel bombs areas it besieges.
Deir Ezzor: Siege within a siege
By far the most restrictive sieges are those enforced by ISIS or the Assad regime. The eastern city of Deir Ezzor, home to 220,000 people, is besieged by both. Up till 2014 the majority of Deir Ezzor was controlled by the FSA. Then in July of that year ISIS entered the area and kicked FSA forces out, allowing the regime to move in and control most of the city with ISIS controlling the surrounding areas. By August 2014 most of civil society had been forced into exile due to the danger posed by both Assad and ISIS.
Then began a 6-month cooperative period between the regime and ISIS, where the regime would send its petroleum engineers to work on ISIS-controlled oilfields.
“Before the siege started, there was a deal between the regime and ISIS. The regime is getting aid through trucks, they’re getting food, they’re getting oil and gas and whatever, but they’re giving salaries of petroleum engineers who are working in the oil fields. I have some friends who were there. The oil fields were under control of ISIS. ISIS didn’t have the ability to control oil fields. So all the engineers were from the regime side,” says Karam Alhamad, civil society activist from Deir Ezzor, currently in exile.
Then on January 25th, 2015, ISIS sealed off the perimeter of the city and prevented goods from going in. On March 23rd, the regime began to restrict access to aid and control civilian mobility within the city. Clashes between the regime and ISIS have been ongoing since then, with US Coalition strikes targeting ISIS. Before partially withdrawing its troops, Russian planes flew over Deir Ezzor, airdropping supplies to the regime. Both these actors have killed non-combatants in the process. Civilians describe this situation as a “siege within a siege,” making Deir Ezzor one of the more difficult places to live in.
With siege came a rise in prices. Since January, the exchange rate in Deir Ezzor is 1USD to 390 SP. Sugar and rice, both normally costing around 200 SP each, now cost 4,500 and 3,000 respectively, according to Nashwan Alsaleh, former math teacher and activist from Deir Ezzor.
“To buy chicken would cost half a month’s salary,” Karam describes. “People are selling everything just to leave—their cars, their house. It’s more expensive to get to Raqqa from Deir Ezzor than to go to Germany from Syria.”
Back in January, Nashwan Saleh along with Moaz Talab, a member of the Deir Ezzor Civil Council, met with UNOCHA regional coordinator Kevin Kennedy to relay information about Deir Ezzor and the details of the siege.
“We told him about the siege and we gave him information he didn’t know, which is that the regime is part of the siege and is the first benefactor of the siege,” explained Moaz. “What we wanted was an air bridge for aid to the city because the regime is still able to feed its soldiers and send them weapons through airplanes.”
The airport in Deir Ezzor is still under regime control, and helicopters land and depart there daily. Residents report how the regime, along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, restrict access to aid and often sell aid at inflated prices. Though the UN operates in Syria under the consent of the regime, it has been unsuccessful in breaking any sieges. Linda Tom, a spokesperson with the UN, responded to queries on Deir Ezzor: “While airdrops help with the delivery of assistance, they do not provide the sustained access that humanitarian actors need to be able to conduct needs assessments, oversee distribution, provide medical treatment and conduct evacuations.”
In late February, the UN attempted one unsuccessful food drop into Deir Ezzor. Citing changing winds, the UN reported that pallets missed their target and were either damaged or missing.
This week, Siege Watch reported a successful aid drop to Deir Ezzor. “According to the World Food Programme, 22 out of the 26 food pallets were collected by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent,” said Marjolein Wijninckx, Syria Program Manager for PAX, one of the organizations collaborating on Siege Watch. “However, there is a lack of clarity about how the aid is stored and distributed. This underscores the need to independently monitor the distribution of aid to ensure aid reaches those in need.”
Going forward, the UN and parties associated with the Geneva talks need to prioritize lifting the sieges across Syria. Considering that UNSC members are flying over the country and dropping bombs, but are hesitant to drop food, it’s the least they can do.