February 1, 2016

Seven myths about sieges in Syria debunked

Here is what you need to know

Myth: If there really was sieges in Syria surely more people would be dying?

Reality: A siege means being cut off from food and medicine. Many people live in these conditions and rely on occasional aid deliveries or goods smuggled in and sold at exorbitant prices to survive. People can be under siege for years and manage to stay alive. Besieged areas are also subject to aerial bombardment by the Syrian regime and Russia. These bombs target market places and hospitals. People are dying every day because of these attacks.

Myth: In the news reports it says 400k people are under siege. 

Reality: Unfortunately there are a million people living under siege. The UNOCHA [UN Relief Agency] reporting inexplicably fails to include dozens of areas that are besieged due to their definition of “besieged.” Many humanitarian organizations disagree with their system of classification. To give you a sense of why and how badly they are getting it wrong — Madaya, the town whose starving residents made the headlines a few months ago was never, and still isn’t, classified as “besieged”. [1] As a result, the magnitude of this crisis is much greater than many realize.

Myth: All parties in Syria are besieging innocent civilians equally.

Reality: The Syrian government is responsible for the vast majority [2] of all long-term sieges in Syria, and all siege-related deaths by starvation. It is the only party that has implemented sieges against civilians in a widespread and systematic way, possibly raising its actions to the level of ‘Crimes Against Humanity’. 99% of aid being blocked is being blocked by the Syrian Government. 

Myth: The Syrian regime faces consequences when it blocks UN humanitarian aid shipments to besieged areas, or removes medical aid from convoys.

Reality: The regime faces no negative consequences for these actions. UN agencies submit requests to the regime to send aid into areas it is besieging [3]. Normally these requests are denied or ignored, or approved but then physically blocked on the ground. In 2015 more than half the requests made by the UN were simply ignored despite the fact that under numerous UN Security Council Resolutions the Syrian Government must permit humanitarian access. In response, the UN simply withdraws or resubmits them.

Myth: Madaya is the only place under siege in Syria right now. If we can get aid there we solve the problem.

Reality: Over 1 million people [4] are living under siege in Syria of which Madaya represents just 40,000. Sieges are happening not only in Damascus province, but also in Homs, Idlib, and Deir Ezzor. They all face incredible circumstances of deprivation and starvation, and some have been living this way for years with no outside support. 

Myth: Ceasefire agreements have been effective ways to end sieges and this is the solution we should be pushing

Reality: In most cases where ceasefire agreements have been made, the access restrictions have remained in place, and civilians still remain trapped in the area. Some food aid may get in, but it is insufficient and sporadic. The siege remains in place. The town of Moadamiyeh for example had a truce in 2013 and now people are starving again. When ceasefire agreements are negotiated and the Syrian regime is able to retake control of a town, it is encouraged to continue using its “starve or submit” policy in other areas across Syria [5]. War crimes should be negotiated over – they should be stopped.

Myth: After a ceasefire agreement, the trapped civilians know that they are safe, because the international community is now protecting them.

Reality: No UN or international protection is provided after a local ceasefire is negotiated, and many ceasefire agreements are quickly violated [6]. The besieged areas keep getting bombed, the civilians remain trapped and deprived. 

Myth: If we can just evacuate civilians then we can resolve the sieges

Reality: In some evacuations, like from the Old City of Homs, even with UN supervision, civilian men were detained by the regime and some were never heard from again. As a result, people in besieged areas now are afraid to leave even if a ceasefire is made. They know they or their family members will not be protected. In Old Homs, people have also been prevented from returning to their homes later on, suggesting that the evacuations are being used to implement demographic re-engineering.



[1] “Few in the humanitarian aid community endorse OCHA’s main statistics on sieges, and still fewer can explain them. OCHA routinely asserts that there are just under 400,000 besieged people in Syria, half of them in government-held territory — but the Syrian American Medical Society estimates that at least 608,000 are under government siege alone. Local officials in Syria, cited by the Syria Institute, a U.S. nonprofit devoted to charting the sieges, estimate the number at more than 1 million.” http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/15/u-n-knew-for-months-madaya-was-starving-syria-assad/ 

[2] Of the 52 besieged communities in the country, 49 of them are under siege by the Assad regime, two of them by the rebels, and one of them by Isis and the regime.

[3] “Some of the U.N.’s failures are self-evident. Hillo acknowledged last week that the U.N. had obtained assent from Damascus for only one-tenth of its requests to send convoys of food and medical supplies in 2015.” http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/15/u-n-knew-for-months-madaya-was-starving-syria-assad/

[4] “With the 2015 additions of Deir Ezzor and several towns in the mountains northwest of Damascus City, there are over 1 million people currently suffering under siege in Syria.” http://siegewatch.org/#7/35.111/38.540 

[5] “The experience of Moadamiya shows a general pattern: Assad uses “local ceasefires” as diplomatic companions to his military sieges. He surrounds a town, starves its residents, then offers a “local ceasefire” in exchange for food. After residents surrender weapons or other strategic advantages, Assad resumes the siege and locals are less able to defend themselves.” http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/239169-the-nail-in-the-coffin-for-local-ceasefires-in-syria 

[6] “With the cease-fire, basic services were supposed to be restored, checkpoints removed and prisoners freed. None of this has happened. The regime continues to cut off power, gas and other basic services to Moadamiya. Some humanitarian aid is allowed to enter, but not nearly enough for the town’s residents.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-assad-regime-does-not-honor-local-cease-fires-in-syria/2015/02/20/acbb2c22-b3d2-11e4-886b-c22184f27c35_story.html