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Breaking the Siege: Q&A with The Syria Campaign

Hundreds of thousands of people are living under siege in Syria, where starvation is being used as a weapon of war. Syria Deeply spoke with James Sadri, director of The Syria Campaign, to learn more about the prevalence of siege tactics in Syria, the perpetrators, and the charges of U.N. failure to help end the sieges.

Written byDylan Collins Published on Jan. 14, 2016 Read time Approx. 8 minutes
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The United Nations is failing in a “dramatic way” to end the widespread use of siege tactics in Syria, said director of The Syria Campaign James Sadri.

With nearly one million people under siege and three successive U.N. Security Council resolutions giving the global body permission to cross conflict lines in the delivery of aid “you’d expect the U.N. to be looking to leverage every bit of power it could to try and get life-saving aid to these communities where we know people are starving to death,” Sadri as his organization launched a new awareness campaign on Tuesday to highlight the widespread use of siege tactics in Syria.

The launch of Break the Siege comes at a time of international relevance, as word of deadly sieges in Syria has made global headline news over the past week.

Pictures and video from the town of Madaya just outside of Damascus show emaciated children and malnourished adults. Under tight, government-imposed siege since July 2015, at least 23 residents from the community have died due to lack of food since December, according to global charity Doctors Without Borders.

But while aid convoys earlier this week managed to break the siege on Madaya, in addition to rebel-encircled towns of Fou’a and Kafraya in Idlib, there are some 48 other besieged communities throughout the country, according to the watchdog organization Siege Watch.

“We want to break the silence around sieges in Syria and push the U.N. to get life-saving aid in,” said Sadri. “People are now talking about Madaya, but there are 1 million people currently living under siege, where starvation is being used as a weapon of war.”

While the latest U.N. figures detail some 400,000 people under siege in Syria, other organizations like Siege Watch estimate the figure to be closer to 1 million.

Formed on the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising, The Syria Campaign is an independent advocacy group focused on highlighting the lives and voices of Syrian civilians “trapped between the regime and extremist groups like the Islamic State (ISIS),” according to Sadri.

“[Civilians] are being increasingly silenced and ignored by both international media and politicians,” he said. “We campaign for those people.”

Syria Deeply spoke with Sadri about the prevalence of siege tactics in Syria, the perpetrators of the sieges, and the charges of U.N. failure to lift the blockades.

Syria Deeply: What is the goal of the Break the Sieges campaign?

James Sadri: We want to break the silence around sieges in Syria and push the U.N. to get life-saving aid in. People are now talking about Madaya, but there are 1 million people currently living under siege, where starvation is being used as a weapon of war. Not enough people know about it, and even fewer people are doing anything about it.

Syria Deeply: What groups are behind the sieges in Syria?

James Sadri: The regime, the rebels and ISIS are all involved in using siege as a weapon, but it’s the Assad regime that is responsible for blocking aid to 99 percent of those living under siege.

Syria Deeply: How many areas in Syria are under siege, and are there any areas particularly worse off than others?

James Sadri: The most comprehensive and detailed analysis of siege in Syria is being carried out by an initiative called Siege Watch, which is a collaboration between The Syria Institute and PAX. Their figure is currently 52 communities under siege, which totals nearly a million people – more than double the U.N.’s figures.

In terms of where the siege is the tightest, it changes all the time. Like we saw in Madaya, in a very short amount of time, if aid doesn’t reach an area, the local population can reach a critical situation extremely quickly. So it’s very hard to predict where and when the next starvation deaths will be.

Syria Deeply: So every siege varies in intensity, but in areas like Deir Ezzor, there is a double siege in place. Could you explain that situation in Deir Ezzor for us?

James Sadri: Deir Ezzor is an interesting situation because it is besieged not just by ISIS on the outside, but also effectively by the regime on the inside. While the U.N. considers Deir Ezzor as an ISIS siege only, when you speak to residents inside the area, they will tell you that it’s also the regime that is denying them access to life-saving aid and medical supplies. That’s because the regime controls an airport within the siege itself, which it uses several times a day for military flights to resupply its own forces, yet it is denying the U.N. the ability to use that airport to bring in aid for the civilian population. So the people there are essentially suffering from a double siege, with ISIS on the outside and the regime on the inside.

Syria Deeply: So one section on the new site is dedicated to the resistance of people surviving against all odds under siege. What are some of the creative ways people are managing to carry on and support themselves, their family and their community?

James Sadri: What really strikes you when you speak to people inside the sieges is the resilience of the communities, and what people are forced to do in the face of such extreme neglect by the international community. People are finding ways to create surgical tools, manufacture their own medicines, generate electricity, grow their own food in places which are clearly not agricultural in the slightest … growing vegetables in bombed out, rubble-strewn areas. There are a huge amount of creative ways in which people are managing to survive the sieges. But what also strikes you is the solidarity between the people in the community as well. People are giving everything they have so that their neighbors and those around can also survive. In certain areas there are tunnels that have been dug to try and get supplies into the besieged areas, but that’s not the case everywhere.

The people in Deir Ezzor told us that one of the reasons why the regime is keen on maintaining the blockade is because of the siege economy. They say regime forces profit heavily through selling some of the aid that they manage to get in through SARC (Syrian Arab Red Crescent), but also by taking bribes to get people out of the siege via the airport. They’re running their own route out of the siege if people can pay enough.

Everybody talks about the siege economy and how there are various groups that emerge in such a situation to try and benefit from the new routes of trade, the smuggling at checkpoints, from materials that come through tunnels. In each of these cases it’s always the civilians that suffer because of the inflated prices and a lack of direct access to the international aid they should be getting.

Syria Deeply: As you’ve noted on your new site, many Syrians have accused the U.N. of complicity in government sieges of civilian areas. Is there any truth to this?

James Sadri: There are two things that the U.N. is failing on in a fairly dramatic way when it comes to sieges. One is that they are not using the authority given to them in three successive Security Council resolutions – 2165, 2191 and 2258 – to cross conflict lines in the delivery of aid. They have been given a mandate to get this aid into besieged areas without asking for bureaucratic permission from the Syrian regime. And yet they’re still asking for it, and if you read their latest report to the Security Council in December, they list the requests that are still pending with the Syrian authorities.

The U.N. shouldn’t be waiting for unnecessary authorization from anybody. This is not a security issue at all – that should be addressed separately. What we’re talking about is unnecessary bureaucratic permission. Security Council resolution 2165 states that “United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorized to use routes across conflict lines.”

The resolution says “notification” should be given to the Syrian authorities, in the same way as they do when aid crosses the border. But by saying the regime has the right to grant permission or not, you’re offering the principal besiegers a veto over aid delivery to these starving populations. The U.N. is permitting the regime to hide behind bureaucratic red tape while a million people are going hungry. It’s pretty scandalous.

If the U.N. was serious about delivering aid to these sieges, it would notify the regime that “we are delivering to area X, on date Y using route Z.” If indeed it is the regime or any other forces that are threatening these aid deliveries, this should immediately be reported to the Security Council so it can be escalated. When you have 1 million people living under starvation siege, you’d expect the U.N. to be looking to leverage every bit of power it could to try and get life-saving aid to these communities where we know people are starving to death. Knowing that the U.N. isn’t using all the power that it has to do that is beyond frustrating.

The second way in which the U.N. is failing is in the classification of besieged areas, or what some call the silencing of sieges. The U.N. does not consider many of these critical areas as besieged, and in doing so it is understating the scale of the problem and therefore the response that the international community is likely to generate. We’re simply not seeing the full extent of the problem. There is no more concrete example of this than Madaya itself, which still isn’t classified by the U.N. as a siege. It’s officially a hard-to-reach area, and yet we’ve seen dozens of people starve to death. So whether you go for the figure of a million under siege, of if you look at the Doctors Without Borders’ figures of 2 million under siege, it’s clear that the U.N. is grossly underestimating the number of people who are besieged in Syria.

Accusations of U.N. complicity, or really the lack of impartiality in its Syria operations is not just coming from Syrians or NGO workers I’ve spoken to, in some cases it’s from the U.N. staff themselves. Part of the problem comes down to a split in the way the U.N.’s operation works. It’s divided between its Damascus office, an office in Turkey and an office in Jordan that together form its response for all of Syria. And there are many that feel that the Damascus part of the operation, which works very closely in its day-to-day functioning with the regime – it needs permission for its visas and its presence in the country, etc. – is essentially overriding concerns from other parts of the organization. That is a serious concern.

One small recent example of this is that during the consultation that went into forming the 2016 humanitarian response plan, the Damascus office agreed to some last-minute edits from the regime that included removing all mentions of the words “siege” or “besieged” from the plan. The Damascus office accepted the edits without consulting with any of the other regional partners. That’s just one micro-example of the kind of ongoing pattern that lots of people are pointing to – as I mentioned, not just Syrians themselves, but NGO workers and even in some cases, people inside in the U.N. itself.

Top image: People wait to leave the besieged town of Madaya on Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. Reports of starvation and images of emaciated children have raised global concerns and underscored the urgency for new peace talks that the U.N. is hoping to host in Geneva on Jan. 25. (AP Photo)