“A morsel soaked in blood” is the means used by the parties to the Syrian conflict to exercise pressure on one another.
The most difficult and lengthy siege is the one laid on Darayya and Eastern Al-Ghouta that has been going on for three years.
Kafrya, Al-Fou’aa, Nubbul and Al-Zahra sided with the regime, and the opposition fights back with food.
Dier Ezzor comes under a siege of religion and starvation by the regime and ISIL.
The Al-Zabadani truce resulted only in a ceasefire and access to poisonous expired aid.
By *Raneem Salem
“The morsel of life” (Food) was the main tool used by the conflicting parties since the start of the war, after gunfire and killing failed to prove effective in putting an end to the uprising in Syria. Parties to the Syrian conflict became creative in using the weapon of starvation against one another. The regime besieges the areas that it cannot bring down, and the opposition factions did not fail to starve regime loyalist civilians in the areas they control. Besieged areas are all across the map of Syria from the northeast to the south. The besieged populations worked hard to break the siege using different tactics. New economic patterns emerged, some of which brought Syrians back to very primitive habits, and others uncovered inventions that the regime government failed to introduce for decades. They generated solar power, produced gas from recycling refuse, used wood for heat and ice panels in summer as well as large commercial generators for power. Food enters their districts through tunnels controlled by armed factions as in Eastern Al-Ghouta, and they live on what their lands produce.
Many areas in the Damascus countryside suffer from a tight siege that has been going on for three years in some of the areas such as Darayya and Eastern Al-Ghouta where the prices doubled twenty-five times in comparison with Damascus, until the price of sugar soared to 25,000 Syrian Pounds. Transporting food to these areas through tunnels resulted in prices inflating so much that the price of one kilogram of sugar reached 2,500 Syrian Pounds. However, the prices decreased suddenly of late. Activists credited this decrease to efforts exerted by the military actors and civic bodies that intervened to control the entry of food and petroleum materials. Investigations showed that the Al-Ghouta commissions affiliated to the opposition are the main reason for the high prices. Locals accuse relief agencies of being the reason behind the soaring prices.
Selling goods with relatively cheap prices at a number of selling points and commercial shops while decreasing the quantities of the goods in Local Councils (LCs) forced commercial shops to decrease the prices in order to enter the competition, said Muhammad Abou Uday, the spokesperson of Failaq Al-Rahman.
The prices in Al-Ghouta are affected by any news of any introduction or flow of goods. Goods sometimes disappear suddenly from the market. Sugar prices soared on one day in October 2015 from 400 to 1000 Syrian Pounds within only three hours.
The news of a fifteen day ceasefire had a direct, positive impact on prices which immediately decreased, although the agreement did not enter into force later on.
Having discussed Eastern Al-Ghouta, we move to its counterpart Western Al-Ghouta, and particularly to Darayya whose security situation is becoming more similar to its counterpart in Eastern Al-Ghouta, with a slight difference in the death toll. Both areas suffer from the same siege announced by the regime three years ago, despite having announced many battles to break it because the city is considered one of the biggest cities in the western Damascus countryside. The population of the city used to be roughly 250,000 people, and now only 1,000 families still live there and spend most of their time in shelters and basements due to the intense bombing.
Since the early hours of the siege, the locals of Darayya, who are originally farmers, decided to depend on the production of their lands. Almost every family depends on land they plant with wheat and green vegetables such as chard or spinach, said an LC member. This, however, does not mean that the city overcame the siege. There are many necessities the locals are not able to find alternatives for, most important of which are medical necessities.
In addition, Darayya has suffered from power and communication blackouts and water cuts since early last year. This forced the locals to use Artesian wells to get water in a primitive way, risking their lives by drinking this water is not guaranteed to be potable.
The Darayya Media Center issued a 1,000 dollar note in the middle of this year to remind the world that the city, where 10,000 civilians are cut off from the basic needs of life, has been under siege for 1,000 days. The Center deems that the only language that the international community understands is the language of interests and money, so it addressed this in a symbolic way with a dollar note.
The city of Darayya has a special strategic importance. It is less than seven kilometers away from the Presidential palace, where Bashar Al-Assad, the president of the Syrian regime, is based. It is only two kilometers from the Cabinet, located in the district of Kafarsoussa. In addition, Al-Maza military airbase, which is one of the most important military air bases in Syria, borders the city directly to the north.
The siege of Wadi Barada is less severe than that of Eastern Al-Ghouta and Darayya in terms of length and severity, because it has been going on for only about 100 days, according to the Media Center of the area. Regime forces blocked all roads to and from the area, except the Sheikh Zayid road through which they allow access to public servants and students to go and come from Damascus. They allow each one of them to take with them three kilograms of food and seven loaves of bread. The regime checkpoints confiscate any additional amounts and throw them on the side of the road. The markets and the shops of the city are almost empty while bakeries are closed due to the lack of flour.
In terms of health, most of the pharmacies closed down due to the lack of medicine. The locals suffer from the lack of medicine for heart, diabetes, hypertension, and neurological diseases.
As for communications, only 40% of cell phone communications is available, but 3G internet services are cut off. Landline service quality is acceptable.
More than 150,000 people in Wadi Barada live under difficult humanitarian conditions with the advent of winter, severe cold and total lack of heating resources in the area.
Al-Zabadani, Kfarya and Al-Fou’aa:
Discussing the siege of Al-Zabani is linked with discussing that of Kfarya and Al-Fou’aa despite the geographical distance between them; the first is in the Damascus countryside and the latter is in Idlib. What brings them together is a truce signed by and between Jaish Al-Fatah (The Arm of the Conquest) and an Iranian Delegation under the patronage of the UN. The truce includes a cessation of military operations in Al-Zabadani and Kfarya and Al-Fou’aa and the evacuation of the wounded and the fighters of Al-Zabadani to Idlib in exchange for the evacuation of the wounded and 10,000 women, children and elderly from Kfarya and Al-Fou’aa. However, only the part related to the ceasefire entered into force despite breaches from both parties every now and then.
The original population of the city of Al-Zabadani was 35,000 people. Now only 965 people are still living in the city, and they are besieged in three districts, according to the Al-Zabadani Local Coordination Committee (LCC). Since February 2012, the regime’s army stationed tens of checkpoints surrounding the city and on its mountains, fortified with tanks, artillery and heavy weapons. Then the regime began bombing the area on a daily basis to the extent that the locals could tell the time based on the timing of the bombing that did not stop even for one day in four years except in times of truce that were always breached by the regime’s army, according to the LCC. Al-Zabadani LCC stressed that the resistance of the Al-Zabadani people and their prevention of the regime from entering the city led to the siege. The regime army laid siege and denied access of food and medicine. Furthermore, regime forces forced internally displaced people (IDPs) from Al-Zabani out of neighbouring areas such as Bloudan, which is under the control of the regime. It forced those IDPs to Madaya and Baqin which are subject to intensified bombing by the regime.
Having failed to defeat the armed factions in Al-Zabadani, the Hezbollah and regime forces stormed Al-Zabadani plain with bulldozers, burned it to the ground, exploded the agricultural rooms and cut off the only supply route to the opposition factions. This area was the only source of livelihood for the locals.
Negotiations between Ahrar Al-Sham and Iran started following the offensive Jaish Al-Fatah launched on the regime loyalist towns of Kfarya and Al-Fou’aa. They declared a truce in those areas in exchange for one in Al-Zabadani. Fighting started once again because of demands that Al-Zabadani locals deemed unfair until both parties reached a final agreement on September 24, 2015, declaring the cessation of the fighting and evacuation of the wounded and the fighters from Al-Zabadani to Idlib, as well as entry of food and humanitarian aid to the towns of Madaya and Baqin. However, until the date of the writing of this report, no one has left Al-Zabadani and aid has entered only once on October 16, 2015, under the patronage of the UN, to the towns of Madaya and Baqin which are still receiving IDP families from Al-Zabadani who are forcefully deported from the areas of Bloudan, Al-Insha’at, Al-Ma’moura, Al-Shallah, Sarghaya Road, Al-Rawdha and Kroum Madaya. The number of the IDP families reached 250, so the number of besieged people became 40,000 who suffer from starvation and the absence of food, medical supplies and fuel with the beginning of winter. Many deaths from malnutrition have been documented amongst children and the elderly. The UN added insult to injury by sending expired biscuit aid to Madaya resulting in more than 200 food poisoning cases, including 50 critical ones. Most of the cases were among children. The UN acknowledged the validity of the incident but considered it as “not risky”.
Nubbul and Al-Zahraa:
In Kfarya and Al-Fou’aa regime loyalists, both civilians and militants, are under siege, as mentioned above. According to statistics the population of Kfarya is 15,000 people and the population of Al-Fou’aa is 35,000 people, together totaling 50,000 people.
The locals of both towns participated in breaking the siege of Nubbul and Al-Zahraa in the northern Aleppo countryside. Because Kfarya and Al-Fou’aa supported the regime army against the armed opposition, the latter laid a siege against them and cut off all power, gas, food, water, and medicine supplies. The locals, since the first day of the siege, faced a lack of food, medicine and fuel that forced them to take recourse in agriculture to make up for their food needs.
Although the regime attempted to provide food and medicine to Kfarya and Al-Fou’aa through airborne operations, the large numbers of the residents of both towns made that aid insignificant.
The siege laid on these two towns is no less severe than that laid on the two regime loyalist towns of Nubbul and Al-Zahraa. These are located 20 kilometers to the west of Aleppo and 40 kilometers from the Turkish borders. They are affiliated with the District of Izzaz in Aleppo province. Opposition forces cut off the road to Nubbul and Al-Zahraa, also known as Gaziantep road. It is one of the most important roads linking the two towns with Aleppo. They are fully besieged and it is not possible to provide the locals with food, medicine, treatment and essential supplies.
The locals meet part of their needs through the Kurdish district of Afreen located to north and west of the city of Nubbul. The lack of materials made the locals plant the crops they need, mostly vegetables, in their home yards, but they have been deprived of basic crops such as rice and wheat because they ran out. Regime helicopters try to provide the locals with food, medicine, medical equipment and clothing through airborne operations, but aid provided in this way is not sufficient to meet all the needs.
The regime, having controlled the Kwaires Airbase and advanced toward the towns of Al-’Ees and Tal Al-’Ees in the southern Aleppo countryside, is expected to break the siege laid on Kfarya and Al-Fou’aa as the way ahead is easy now.
The eastern countryside of Homs has been under a tight siege. The locals dodged the siege by planting vegetables, utilizing the Orontes River that passes through their lands. However, the situation in the Al-Wa’aar district, which has been under siege for two years, is worsened due to the lack of plants within the district and the inability to store goods because they are not sufficient.
In Homs, 300,000 people in Al-Wa’aar have lived under siege by regime forces since October 2013. It is worth noting that the original population of the district used to be 50,000 people. The number increased due to the large numbers of IDPs coming from the old districts of Homs before the siege. Now the IDPs are sharing the siege with the original residents.
Every now and then UN agencies, regime forces and influential people from Al-Wa’aar engage in negotiations to allow aid in. Activists reported that the regime forces allowed the entrance of small vehicles that contain some vegetables, dairy products and eggs to the district, but the amounts allowed in, after much negotiations and compromises by both parties, do not suffice for even one street. The negotiation committee, whose members are original residents of the district, promised previously to do its best to exercise pressure on the regime to allow vegetable, dairy and meat vehicles in.
Early this year, Al-Wa’aar fighters declared a truce with regime forces. The truce resulted in a ceasefire that was sometimes breached. The siege continued, but limited amounts of food entered under the pressure of the UN.
The repercussions of the siege of Deir Ezzor have many aspects, the last of which was the lack of bread. Justice for Life (JFL) Observatory in Deir Ezzor reported that the regime is besieging the areas under its control (Al-Jourah, Al-Qusour, Harabish and Al-Bugheiliya) for the tenth month in a row. The regime stopped providing these areas with food through the military airbase due to the battles taking place around the latter. This forced civilians to depend on materials smuggled from areas controlled by the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIL. Smugglers pay both parties resulting in soaring prices.
The regime is still denying the locals of those areas the right to travel unless they pay up to 100,000 Syrian Pounds for travel by land or 300,000 for travel by air. It is worth noting that travel through the Deir Ezzor airport is not possible due to the battles taking place between the regime and the IS.
The only bakeries are still working in the city. They are the Al-Jaz, Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed and Al-Dhahiya bakeries. According to the JFL observatory, those bakeries provide bread only for regime security forces and brokers while many families cannot get bread.
As for fuel, civilians buy the fuel produced by the regime refineries stationed near Al-Assad hospital. The regime manipulates their need and sells fuel to them at inflated prices.
Besieged areas receive polluted water most of the time due to the lack of chlorine. Some areas, such as Al-Sign Street, and Al-Tib quarters which are affiliated to the Al-Joura district, receive water once a week.
Hospitals in besieged areas provide almost zero service. Al-Assad hospital is in critical need for cadre and medical necessities to the extent that it is able only to receive a small number of civilians. The military hospital denies civilians access and serves only regime forces and para-military members wounded in the battles of Deir Ezzor. The JFL observatory documented a case of death in October this year in the Al-Joura district. The death in that case resulted from severe starvation and disease because the person had not received the needed care.
The Islamic State (ISIL) imposed a travel ban on locals of the city of Al-Mayadeen in Deir Ezzor, not allowing people to travel to areas outside its control until they take a sharia course and receive a document that proves they have passed the course. Moreover, it arrested the owners of the travel offices that arrange travel to Turkey in Al-Buseira sub-district.
In conclusion, the siege and starvation that caused the death of many people in many of the provinces, particularly Deir Ezzor and Eastern Al-Ghouta has not resulted in the stoppage of the war machine except within the framework of truces and only after civilians are starved to death. In fact, the armed conflicting parties do not care whether the siege is severe. On the contrary, the more tight the siege, the more profit is made by those who control the tunnels and the checkpoints, both from the regime and armed opposition. This is not the case everywhere, though.
The most bitter of scenes is the one where we see bread and vegetables mixed with civilian blood due to the bombings and clashes, or when we see food thrown beside the road near a besieged area after bombing a public market such as the one in Douma. No one would pick this up because those horrendous events made people forget their bread, so their food literally becomes “a morsel soaked in blood”.