January 12, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Starvation as Leverage

• On January 11, an aid convoy finally reached the besieged Syrian city of Madaya, providing brief relief to the more than 40,000 people trapped by regime and Hizballah forces

• An estimated 400,000 Syrians are trapped in towns besieged by either the regime or rebels, or in remote locations where consistent resupply is impossible

• In the Yemeni city of Taiz, 250,000 people have been without badly needed World Health Organization aid since mid-December

• The United Nations and other organizations have become less effective at persuading belligerents to allow the safe passage of aid convoys to suffering populations trapped in conflict zones.


In a war notorious for the many ways in which civilians have been brutalized and killed—from barrel bombs to beheadings and even chemical weapons—reports from Syria reveal yet another strategy: deliberate starvation. Withholding resources—especially food—is not a phenomena unique to Syria, but an especially cruel feature of entrenched warfare. On Monday, January 11, an aid convoy was finally permitted to make deliveries to Madaya, a Syrian town under siege by regime and Hizballah fighters since last summer. This aid came too late for the 28 people reported to have died of starvation or malnutrition since the siege began. As both the winter and the conflict intensify, the crisis in Madaya will be replicated across the country.

The UN estimates that 400,000 Syrians are trapped behind battle lines, through which little-to-no aid can be consistently delivered. The suffering of civilians is not a byproduct of the conflict so much as it is the deliberate objective of both sides. The siege of rebel-held Madaya is revenge for the sieges of the regime-held villages of Kefraya and Foua. Denying and then permitting aid deliveries when it suits the besieger has been a recurring tactic in the nearly five-year civil war.

As with everything in the Syrian civil war, the issue of aid delivery is complex and deadly. Negotiations with the Assad regime for aid delivery face substantial hurdles, given the military participation of Hizballah, Iran, and Russia. Due to the regime’s many documented atrocities against civilians, the threat of further war crime accusations—’starvation as a tactic of war’—does not provide the international community much leverage. Still, the traditional points of contact between a belligerent state and the UN and other organizations exist, and can lead to much needed—albeit temporary—relief, as in the case of Madaya.

The situation becomes much more difficult when trying to deliver aid to civilians besieged by groups like the so-called Islamic State. When it comes to the Islamic State, which has kept nearly 200,000 people in siege-like conditions in Deir al-Zour, negotiations are impossible for groups like the UN or the World Health Organization (WHO). There is no diplomatic leverage or moral persuasion effective against the Islamic State, leaving the people of Deir al-Zour to fend for themselves until the group can be pushed back.

In a conflict with so many actors both foreign and domestic, the trend of siege-induced starvation will persist, and perhaps even intensify, ahead of the planned negotiations to end the war. The leverage provided by denying and then granting access to contested territory will grow as all sides jockey for stronger positions in the lead-up to talks.

Syria is not the only proxy conflict in which civilians face deliberate malnutrition and starvation as a tactic of war. In Yemen, the city of Taiz has been cut off from WHO convoys since last December. As a result, 250,000 people are running out of medical supplies and food while the Houthi rebels continue to block aid, and the UN has explicitly accused the Houthis of ‘blocking supply routes and continu[ing] to obstruct the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian aid and supplies into Taiz City.' The Saudi-led pro-government coalition has also imposed a crippling blockade on the country in an attempt to cut off supplies to the rebels. This blockade, however, has primarily affected the civilian population, particularly in rebel-held areas. As in Syria, there is no shortage of graphic images and reports of widespread suffering.

Any assumption that ubiquitous media coverage of the horrors of war would generate enough public pressure to force positive change should be discarded. Societies with access to social media have become better at documenting atrocities, without the attendant ability to prevent them from recurring. The issue is not one of awareness but of effective action in the region’s persistent conflicts.


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