As Syria’s civil war continues for a third year, the number of people facing hunger, even starvation, is increasing. The totals are astonishing: the UN has indicated that nearly 7 million Syrians – half of them children – need humanitarian aid. Around four million have left their homes for other places inside the country, while two million more have fled the country. All of them face, at least, food insecurity, a lack of access to basic food items.
Indeed, hunger and food insecurity are nothing new. For the four years before the 2011 uprising, severe drought in the north-east of Syria led the UN to warn that three million people were at risk of hunger – that was in 2010, when hundreds of thousands had left the affected areas for the big cities, increasing the scarcity of jobs and the strain on public services. That formed the backdrop to much of the initial unrest.
But the civil war has made everything worse. Hunger has now ushered in a new chapter of misery. Inflation has crippled the ability of families to pay for food. Restrictions on movement mean that food cannot easily get around the country. In the vast areas of rural Syria that live off agriculture, crops are no longer grown, or greatly reduced, because of a lack of security, or manpower, or because machinery has been damaged.
Worst affected by hunger are the rebel-held suburbs around Damascus, which the regime has been blockading. Rebels talk of taking deadly risks just to get food into the besieged areas. In at least one suburb, Moadamiyeh, people have died of starvation, according to rebel activists. A Syrian cleric was alleged to have issued a religious ruling, a fatwa, that people were permitted to eat cats, dogs and donkeys to avoid hunger.
Food insecurity now also threatens neighbouring Lebanon, with the United Nations warning that poor Lebanese are also close to going hungry. That Lebanon is now home to 750,000 Syrian refugees (and almost certainly tens of thousands more unregistered) has increased the pressure and pushed up prices.
Syria is starving, even as the world focuses on removing Bashar Al Assad’s chemical weapons. But that will not end the conflict, nor repair a broken society. The Assad regime has thrown every weapon in its arsenal at its people. Now it is wielding its most deadly weapon of mass destruction: hunger.