Syrian Regime Withholding Food, Medicine from Rebel Areas

Syria’s Bashar Assad doesn’t need chemical weapons to punish rebellious sections of the capital Damascus.

Damascus, Syria at dusk, September 27, 2005
Damascus, Syria at dusk, September 27, 2005 (Flickr/Upyernoz)

When the United Nations Security Council united last month and passed a resolution authorizing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, the reaction among Syrians was a mix of highs and lows, of jubilation and dismay.

For the survivors of a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians on the outskirts of Damascus in August, the news that those very weapons would be dismantled was a breath of fresh air.

But for those who are still trapped in besieged neighborhoods as well as the millions who have had to flee their homes, getting rid of the country’s large chemical weapons arsenal was the least the international community could do.

Indeed, as the war stretches closer to its fourth year with every passing month, more and more Syrians have resigned to the fact that the bloodshed and wholesale slaughter of entire families will continue for a long time, whether or not poison gasses are destroyed.

President Bashar al-Assad does not need weapons of mass destruction to continue his gruesome counterinsurgency campaign. If anything, the Syrian dictator has all the more incentive to use the tools of traditional warfare to carry on the fight now that international inspectors are cataloguing and destroying his chemical weapons.

One of such tools is the threat of starvation.¬†Surrounding rebellious sections of Damascus and cutting those areas off from humanitarian relief may seem a crude way to push Syria’s revolutionaries back but it is also a very effective one.

There have been reporters for months that insurgent held areas have been deprived of food, medicine and humanitarian access, all at the hands of a government that is trying to push rebels back from the capital. But the situation gained urgency this month, when a group of Syrian clerics released a fatwa that allowed Syrians in desperate need of food to eat dogs, cats and stray animals.

The response from the Assad regime — surrounding rebels neighborhoods with checkpoints, unleashing daily aerial bombardments and obstructing the work of relief agencies — can hardly be categorized as anything but a war crime.

Oraba Idriss, a rebel commander, succinctly aired his grievances to Time magazine about the regime’s tactics in the capital’s largest suburbs. “What the regime is doing is mass punishment for all the people who chanted once for the downfall of the regime,” he said.

Perhaps recognizing that the effort was getting too much grief from even staunch supporters of his regime, Assad allowed several thousands of besieged residents to flee the area. Yet that relief is a far cry from what the Security Council has called for: complete cooperation with relief agencies in order to reach the millions of civilians who are in desperate need of live saving treatment.

It is becoming clear that chemical weapons, however useful as a deterrent to outside invasion, are not necessary for Bashar Assad to prosecute the war. Keeping electricity, food, heating oil, medicine and water out of areas that are controlled by the rebels, even if civilians die as a result, will do. Regardless of how many humanitarian appeals the United Nations releases, this tact of war is likely to go on as long as Assad believes it will help him on the battlefield.