Is there an end in sight to Assad’s starvation policy?
On Wednesday there was some small relief for the 4,000 besieged residents of the Syrian town of Daraya. An aid convoy carrying medical supplies – the first in three years – was allowed to pass through the lines of the Syrian army to reach the town. Since a smuggling route was shut off last year, almost nothing has reached the town from outside – except for constant bombing and shelling. More than 6,000 barrel bombs – crude devices made of oil drums filled with explosives, which are dropped from helicopters – have hit it, according to the opposition forces defending it.
It is worth looking at the fate of Daraya as an indicator of how ferociously the Syrian regime’s policy of “starve or kneel” is being implemented. From time to time, reports of UN convoys reaching besieged towns flash across TV screens. But this does not mean that the use of starvation – described by the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon as a war crime – has been dropped. Far from it.
The UN lists 18 Syrian towns, with half a million residents, as besieged, meaning that no one can leave or enter and there is no access for humanitarian supplies in a legal and orderly fashion. Other organisations, such as Siege Watch, put the number of people living under siege far higher – at more than one million. In addition, there are 4.5 million people who are classified as “hard to reach”.
As a result of international pressure to relieve the siege, the people of Daraya were told on May 12 that aid was finally arriving. The trucks reached the front line, but Syrian security held them up, and after six hours, they turned back. The convoy did not contain any food – the UN staff knew it would be confiscated – but only medical supplies. Even so it was prohibited.
UN officials publicly blamed the Syrian army’s fourth armoured division, an elite formation commanded by the president’s brother, Maher Al Assad, for blocking the promised delivery. It has been known as an ultra-loyal formation since the early 1980s, when it spearheaded the assault on the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold of Hama.
A week later Russia joined the United States in demanding that the UN start delivering aid by air drop on June 1 if ground convoys were blocked. This is a desperate measure – it is expensive and dangerous, and food and medicine tend to go astray. Nevertheless, the Russians showed they can bend the regime to their will. Moscow announced a 48-hour pause in the fighting around Daraya, and on Wednesday the convoy finally got through.
Jubilation is hardly in order. In the words of opposition spokesperson Basma Kodmani, “one convoy is obviously not a sign of the end of the starvation strategy”.
The army did not allow any food or surgical supplies through to Daraya, only basic medicines. There is now no shortage of anti-malaria nets – hardly top of the residents’ priorities. The result is that the starving children of Daraya who hardly ever go outside for fear of barrel bombs can receive vaccinations, but not get a meal.
The World Food Programme, the UN branch in charge of humanitarian supplies, was allowed to take some food to the neighbouring besieged town of Muadhamiya. They hope to take some more in the next few days and deliver some for the first time to Daraya.
So what is going on?
It is no surprise that surgical supplies are not allowed. Since the start of the uprising, the regime has made it a criminal offence for doctors to provide care to opposition forces and effectively to any civilians in occupied areas. Targeting of hospitals continues unabated. In opposition-held Idlib, the national hospital was destroyed by multiple air strikes on Monday evening, killing two dozen people. It was the fourth medical institution to be hit in the course of two days. In the opposition-held sector of Aleppo, a hospital was destroyed in April, killing one of the last remaining paediatricians in the city.
As for humanitarian supplies, Daraya is singled out for harsh treatment, but the same system applies throughout the country. Daraya is a suburb of Damascus situated close to the Mezzeh air base, which is used by the Russian air force. In the regime’s battle plan, driving the rebels away from Mezzeh is a necessity for a future push against rebels in the south.
So the regime’s stance is clear. The policy of “starve or kneel” proceeds, with minor concessions when international pressure rises, accompanied by much kicking of dust in the eyes of the media. The British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, described the deliveries to Daraya and Muadhamiya as a cynical ploy to avert air drops. Britain, France and the US are still calling for the UN to proceed with air drops.
While the situation on the ground in Syria is unremittingly grim, the open question is to what extent the breaking of the siege of Daraya is a sign that, despite all evidence to the contrary, concerted diplomatic action is a possibility.
The statement calling on the UN to deliver aid by air was first made by the International Syria Support Group which brings together all the parties looking for a solution to the Syrian war, including regime allies Iran and Russia. With a membership of 17 states and three international organisations, it looks too cumbersome to achieve anything. But, chaired by the US and Russia, it did achieve some small progress in Daraya.
Could it achieve more? It has taken five years to put together such a body, a clear sign of the complexity of the problem. At the moment, it would be foolish to build a sandcastle of hope on the basis of one small humanitarian success, particularly in a US election year when the Obama administration is on the way out and in no mood to make Middle Eastern engagements. But we may hear more of it in months to come.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs
On Twitter: @aphilps
Updated: June 2, 2016 04:00 AM