Syria’s war has been brutal even by the normal standards of a civil conflict.
Half a million are thought to have died, while many thousands have ‘disappeared’ into prisons which are known to be sites of mass murder; millions have fled Syria, and millions more have been internally displaced within the country.
These numbers are difficult to comprehend. The violence they portend may be difficult to understand. Concrete stories add a little necessary context.
The war has involved the deliberate targeting of civilian populations with weapons of mass destruction, as well as the indiscriminate use of conventional weapons to kill thousands of innocents – all by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its allies.
Civilians have been attacked by the air forces of the regime and its Russian ally. They have been brutalised by Assad-supporting mobs and Iranian-sponsored militias.
This intense violence is evident and its use has been constant. Other forms of violence have been consciously employed. One such form of violence, which is lower intensity, but presents as great a threat to civilian populations, brings a medieval practice into the modern day. It is the tactic of besieging towns and even cities.
The laying of sieges is not exclusive to the regime and its allies. The monitoring organisation SiegeWatch notes examples of sieges maintained by the Islamic State group (IS) and others.
All of these place great strain on civilian populations and provide fertile ground for brutality. The greatest perpetrator of sieges remains the pro-regime coalition.
Pro-regime forces have placed numerous cities, towns and villages under siege, restricting the supplies of food and other essentials.
A new report by Amnesty International examines siege tactics in Syria.
In conjunction with the report, Philip Luther, Amnesty’s research and advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, commented that ‘cynical use of “surrender or starve” tactics has involved a devastating combination of sieges and bombardments’.
Luther continues: ‘These have been part of a systematic, as well as widespread, attack on civilians that amounts to crimes against humanity’.
Near Damascus, in East Ghouta, the site of a regime sarin attack which in August 2013 briefly caught the world’s attention, a large population – possibly as many as 400,000 civilians – came under siege.
As conditions deteriorated, the situation became desperate. Substantiated reports described food shortages and many civilian deaths.
Last month, Reuters reported that, in the view of UNICEF, more than 1,200 children suffered from malnutrition, with 1,500 more at risk of the same.
This is only a microcosm of an extreme problem. Other besieged communities have suffered appallingly. In Madaya, a mountain settlement which was under siege for two years, from 2015 to 2017, dozens starved to death.
All of this fits the pattern of behaviour of a criminal regime which believes it is beyond sanction. Its earlier displays of brutality met with little effective response. Because the regime believes that it is safe from international action, it feels secure in doing such things. Its officials know that world will only condemn, not punish.
And this makes barbarism seem a reasonable strategy; a course of action which can be pursued without consequence. Starvation sieges are merely the latest in a series of tactics through which the regime cultivated brutality and enlisted savagery in the cause of its own survival.
And they serve this purpose well. Their use rests on the ability to make life unliveable. By trapping people, confining them, starving them, the regime terrorises civilians and makes their apparent protectors appear powerless. This is particularly useful in rebel areas, whose inhabitants the regime has lost, but who can be marshalled into a broader propaganda point.
That can be found in the movements of individuals either under siege or under the threat of it. Inhabitants of these areas, seeking only the essentials of life, may move to regime-controlled areas which are not under regime siege.
The same can be observed of civilians under constant aerial bombardment. When Russian and regime jets devastate Idlib, they destroy hospitals and civilian infrastructure, rendering normal life impossible.
Some civilians thus flee Idlib, either leaving the country entirely, or heading to ‘safer’ areas of Syria. Unsurprisingly, these are likely regime areas where air forces consciously set out to kill civilians.
These examples can be counted as a tremendous propaganda victory, as population transfers make the regime appear stable in the eyes of unobservant onlookers. They can even be dishonestly used to give Assad’s forces the appearance of popular support. Such support is illusory, of course; it is merely the by-product of brutality carefully deployed.
But it can still be enlisted in pursuit of a wider goal: a sort of ill-gained and unconvincing legitimacy, which can be earnt only when the world at large does not care to pay attention.
This is the game the Assad regime is playing and this is the objective it seeks. It lays sieges and starves Syrian civilians because it thinks the results will aid its survival. This is an unacceptable state of affairs, but it can be righted.
Global inattention has led to a situation in which a murderous dictator is able to starve and bomb civilians with impunity. That he can do so in a fraudulent bid to win over world opinion approaches real perversity.
But this does not have to be the case. World leaders have all the evidence before them that the regime and its allies are besieging large civilian populations. This is a war crime, and one it should be easy to combat.
Nations such as the United States, France and Britain can begin dropping food to besieged populations quickly and with relative ease. After that, they must look to confronting the prime mover of Syria’s sieges with more than words.
This would require the reversal of years of implicit policy. All it would require is a little political courage.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.