Over the past two years, the Syrian government and its allied militias have persisted in using starvation as a weapon against opposition areas. Madaya, which only recently became the focus of media attention, is just one of more than 40 areas that has reached a state of crisis due to government siege tactics, according to the Syria Institute’s Siege Watch. The tactic is used to return rebel-held areas to, as government media describes it, the “bosom of the homeland.” The Syrian government has deprived areas of Homs’s old city, Yarmouk camp, Barzeh, al-Qaboun, Qudsaya and Hama of food, medicine and clean water, forcing opposition forces to hand over the remaining rubble and emaciated bodies so that the regime can declare victory.
Moadamiya lies only 2.5 miles (4km) from Damascus’s city center. It is strategically important because it is overlooked by the 4th Armored Division’s mountain base. There are three settlements for military and security personnel in the surrounding vicinity, and Mezzeh military airport is located nearby. Even more importantly, Moadamiya shares a border with Daraya – the city that, over the past three years, the government has been unable to seize.
The government resorted to besieging Moadamiya after several attempts to storm the city. The residents began demonstrating against the government early on during the revolution due to economic grievances. The government had nationalized and seized land owned in Moadamiya to build housing for military and security personnel. Residents protested, saying that the government appropriated the land without providing any compensation or remuneration to its owners. The government responded to the demonstrations with force.
On October 24, 2012, forces affiliated with the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division killed at least 27 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with local sources putting the number much higher. On August 21, 2013, government forces returned, striking Moadamiya and several surrounding areas with chemical weapons and killing 1,429 people according to a U.S. government report.
Following these attacks, and particularly after international threats regarding the use of chemical weapons, the government partially opened the crossings into Moadamiya. Many residents seized the opportunity and left the city, leaving it nearly empty. A few of the city’s residents and some of the rebel fighters and their families stayed behind, only to be trapped when the government again besieged the city. Residents became so desperate they resorted to eating grass. On December 25, 2013, the city signed an agreement to end the fighting and begin ceasefire negotiations. As part of the agreement, the city would raise the government’s flag in exchange for opening the crossings and ending hostilities. Negotiations would continue on other points until a broader agreement was reached. However, no progress has been made.
According to Ameenah Sawwan, a Syrian researcher and activist from Moadamiya, “The first thing the regime did after the truce was signed was return those residents of Moadamiya who fled to Damascus and its surroundings to their city, in exchange for not arresting them. This brought the city’s residents to 45,000 people, up from only 6,000 civilians before the ceasefire.”
Despite the truce, the regime’s checkpoints imposed taxes on anything the residents tried to bring into the city, either for their homes or shops. They even taxed bread, so that those who controlled the checkpoints took home large sums of money and caused an appalling rise in prices. As a result of repeated attacks and consistent harassment, the residents decided to demonstrate against the regime when Syrian television visited the city. In response, the regime again besieged the city, trapping 45,000 civilians, including 6,000 children under the age of 12.
The Muadamiya al-Sham Media Center stated that, as a result of the blockade, food supplies and consumable goods have been completely depleted. The besieged residents have resorted to searching for food in the garbage to survive, a fate shared by besieged residents in Madaya. The media center added: “The disaster that we have long warned of has, in fact, begun, following the death of five people – among them children – from starvation within 20 days.” They have called for “immediate action by international organizations to break the blockade and to bring in food aid. If they do not do so, 45,000 civilians will be condemned to die from starvation, the cold and shelling.”
Those besieged live in a state of extreme fear; they fear losing their children and see them die before their own eyes, while they remain helpless. A doctor at the field hospital in Moadamiya confirmed that, because of the lack of medicine, the hospital is no longer able to provide treatment, including for those that arrive daily suffering from malnourishment. The doctor added: “We are only capable, now, of providing first aid.” He has also confirmed that government forces have prevented the extraction of patients in critical condition and those suffering from chronic illnesses. According to al-Hajj Abu Khaled, a local resident: “The situation is utterly despicable. People have reached the point of psychological collapse and surrender as they watch their children die. No one ever imagined this would occur in Syria, a country usually filled with blessings – or, as the old Damascene expression says, ‘No one dies of hunger.’”
Fear, sickness and hunger have prompted residents to negotiate again. A new round of negotiations has begun, in which the government and Hezbollah forces appointed a media personality, Rafiq Lutf, rather than a government official, to head its negotiation committee. The residents perceive this as an insult meant to provoke them, a message that the residents of Moadamiya do not deserve to engage in dialogue with a more capable representative.
The government’s condition for ending the siege is full surrender: rebels must surrender their weapons, fighters and their families must go to Idlib, young men must surrender themselves to perform compulsory military service and the residents must give up individuals wanted by the government. The residents of Moadamiya demand the lifting of the blockade and the release of prisoners.
The government has coupled the blockade with barrel bombs in the south of the city. There, elements of the Free Syrian Army face a severe shortage of ammunition. Syrian army soldiers, backed by four tanks and a Russian mine flail, are working to remove the dirt barriers that the rebels had put up between Moadamiya and Daraya. The negotiations have gone back and forth without any developments, while besieged residents continue to starve.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
This article was originally published by the Atlantic Council is reprinted here with permission.
Top image: Activists hold up placards in front of the European Union embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, on Saturday January 16, 2016, during a sit-in against government-imposed sieges on towns across Syria. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)