Civilians under siege

Bashar Assad has resorted to siege tactics because government forces lack the manpower for street battles with rebels.

Residents at the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus (photo credit: SANA/REUTERS)
Residents at the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus
(photo credit: SANA/REUTERS)
“Assad’s forces told us to submit or starve.” This was the desperate message relayed in early February in a Skype call from Qusai Zakarya, a Syrian Palestinian from the besieged Damascus suburb of Moadamiyya. President Bashar Assad’s forces placed Moadamiyya under siege 15 months ago, cutting off its population from outside aid. Now, rebels and activists say they are negotiating the final terms of a truce.
Zakarya, who uses a pseudonym for security reasons, accuses Assad of using starvation as a weapon to force oppositionheld Moadamiyya to submit. The town’s food supplies ran out months ago, and the 8,000 civilians who remain in Moadamiyya are reduced to scavenging for food, eating anything they can find, including grass, Zakarya says.
Several people – including children, the elderly and those wounded in the incessant air strikes and artillery fire – have died from malnutrition-related illnesses, locals say. The situation is made worse because there is no proper medical clinic, only an under-equipped, makeshift field hospital run out of the basement of an apartment block. The shelling has also destroyed much of the town’s infrastructure, so there is only intermittent electricity.
Since the siege began, Assad has allowed only small amounts of aid into Moadamiyya, in return for concessions such as raising the two-starred Syrian Arab Republic flag over the suburb’s main water tower, in place of the three-starred opposition flag.
“This town fell to Assad because of pressure. The Assad regime is making civilians turn against the opposition because of starvation. They say, ‘If you stay with the rebels, you’ll starve. But if you give them up, you’ll get food,’” Zakarya tells The Jerusalem Report.
Assad’s forces are now asking the town to hand over rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army, as well as activists like himself, as part of a truce deal, Zakarya says.
Zakarya is not alone in accusing Assad of using hunger as a weapon. Civilians in opposition-held towns in the Damascus suburbs and Old Homs tell The Report that the Assad government is using starvation as a slow-acting weapon of mass destruction to pressure rebels to stop fighting.
Susan Ahmad, the spokeswoman for the Revolution Command Council in the northern Damascus suburbs, describes the local situation as “very bad on all levels.”
Ahmad, who, like Zakarya, goes by a pseudonym for safety reasons, says people in the besieged Damascus suburbs and in the Yarmouk Palestinian camp in southern Damascus are literally dying of hunger.
“Even when some supplies have been allowed to enter the area, people still die.
They have gone so long without supplies that they are in a serious condition,” Ahmad reports, accusing Assad’s forces of attacking civilians as they wandered as close to the edges of the besieged areas as possible to search for food.
“People search for grass to eat, but there are snipers watching the area where it grows. Some people were shot,” she says.
Aid agencies say that the problem of lack of aid deliveries to civilians in besieged towns is extensive, and that the situation is getting worse as the conflict progresses.
Emilia Casella, a spokesperson for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which delivers humanitarian aid to Syria, tells The Report that WFP’s team in Syria estimates there are now around 200,000 Syrians in about 40 besieged communities in desperate need of aid.
IN HOMS, under siege for a year and a half, the situation is now “critical,” says Abu Rami al-Homsi, the spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Commission who lives in the besieged areas. Homsi said that Assad’s forces control most of Homs, apart from four neighborhoods in the historic center. Around 500-700 families – as many as 4,000 civilians – are trapped in these besieged neighborhoods. Around 100 people are critically wounded in desperately under-equipped makeshift clinics.
The siege is total, Homsi says. Nothing and no one has been allowed to enter or leave for over 600 days. “People are searching rubble and burned stores to find anything at all they can eat,” Homsi tells The Report in a Skype call.
Homsi describes the siege in Old Homs and other parts of Syria as a “war of starvation.” According to Homsi, “This is how Assad fights the Syrian people.
Starvation is just another weapon. He knows that when civilians see the suffering of their children, they will give up.”
Yet why is Assad, who has far superior armed forces to the rebels, including an air force, using siege tactics to try to break rebel towns? Dr. Thomas Pierret, an expert on the Syrian crisis at Edinburgh University, says Assad has resorted to siege tactics in part because government forces lack the manpower for street battles with rebels.
Taking areas like Moadamiyya and Homs requires a very large number of competent and committed soldiers, he tells The Report.
The Syrian Arab Army also has a tactical disadvantage when it comes to urban warfare against rebels entrenched in towns, he adds. “Retaking urban areas street by street is a difficult task. Defenders have a major tactical advantage, because they can hide and shelter in concrete buildings.
These often remain efficient shelters even after being significantly damaged by shelling and air strikes,” Pierret says.
Retaking urban areas requires Assad’s forces to use armored vehicles that could sustain hits by the light anti-tank weapons held by the rebels, he adds.
According to Pierret, while Assad has succeeded on a small scale by using Shi’ite foreign fighters and elite troops from his Republican Guards and the feared Fourth Armored Division (its de facto commander is Assad’s brother, Maher), these resources are simply not enough. “These units can’t do everything, hence [Assad] resorts to sieges,” Pierret says. As a result, he adds, civilians end up begging rebels to leave because the alternative is starvation.
Assad’s failure to retake areas of Damascus and its suburbs has proved a major strategic problem for the government, weakening its control of the capital and key supply routes, and rendering vital military bases vulnerable to attack. Moadamiyya in particular is a key strategic location, surrounded by regime military strongholds, and situated right next to the Mezzeh Military Airport. It is also just south of the Fourth Armored Division’s main base.
In addition to sieges, Assad’s lack of manpower has led him to adopt other less traditional tactics to weaken the opposition, activists say. These include dropping barrel bombs – crude metal cylinders packed with explosives and shrapnel – onto civilian areas where rebels are also fighting. The aim is to demolish buildings, inflict large numbers of casualties, and cause civilians to flee, making the areas harder for the rebels to control, activists in Syria tell The Report.
Susan Ahmad from the Damascus suburbs says the sieges and increasing numbers of barrel bomb attacks indicate that Assad is becoming desperate, because he has not been able to make gains on the ground.
In describing the recent extensive barrel bombings in the west Damascus suburbs, particularly in opposition-held Darayya, immediately north of Moadamiyya, Ahmad says the barrel bombs are designed to create terror rather than take out rebel forces.
“Assad has nothing left, so he uses explosive barrels and hunger, and does his best to kill as many people as possible,” she says.
Civilians in the besieged areas say the starvation and barrel bomb tactics are working, at least to some extent. Both Moadamiyya and Homs have agreed to truces. The UN confirmed on February 7 that Assad had allowed 83 civilians to leave besieged Old Homs as part of a deal that included a three-day cease-fire to allow aid trucks to enter the city.
According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, whose embassy in Damascus helped broker the deal, the agreement allows all children, women, men over 55, and the wounded to “freely leave the combat zone.” The statement adds that those who leave “will be placed in temporary accommodation, and provided with food and medical care.”
While Moscow and Damascus lauded the deal as a “breakthrough,” civilians and activists in Syria expressed a less celebratory tone. They accused Assad of trying to isolate men of fighting age in Old Homs, leaving them vulnerable to detention and attack.
Activists also noted that the governor of Homs, Talal Barrazi, had insisted that men aged 15 to 55 – those most likely to be rebel combatants – not be allowed to leave, telling reporters that these men would be “dealt with later.”
Syrians in Damascus and Homs say that the aid delivered to Homs was insufficient, and accused Assad’s forces of resuming shelling on the rebel-held al-Hamidiyyeh neighborhood in Homs immediately after the aid trucks had departed. The Shaam News Network, a group of citizen journalists reporting from inside Syria, also reported the shelling.
Syrians in the besieged areas also say that they have lost faith in the international community’s will to help them, and accuse the Geneva II peace talks of being little more than a talking shop. “Some people had hopes that Geneva II might stop the violence, but now we have lost that hope.
The international community is not doing anything to stop Assad,” says Susan Ahmad.
Abu Rami al-Homsi says he and others in besieged Homs feel pessimistic about Geneva II. They’re just talks. No one cares that kids here are dying. People here are waiting for death,” he comments.
Yet despite the lack of faith in the international community’s ability or will to end the violence, both Ahmad and Homsi say that even amid the sieges, many civilians still retain hope that Syria will have a better future. Homsi says for that reason the Syrian opposition will not back down.
“We would prefer to die of starvation than return to Assad’s rule. When Assad is gone, then the Syrian people will be free to choose their own country and government,” he says.
Meanwhile, as bombs continue to fall on the besieged Damascus suburbs, Ahmad reflects that the opposition against Assad began peacefully, saying the violence is hard to believe. “Back then, when we went to the streets, we just wanted change. We didn’t intend to topple the regime. Then they fired at us. Now they starve us.
“But we still believe that one day, we will have a free Syria,” she asserts.