Ten days ago, the eagerly awaited and arduously negotiated ceasefire could finally be established. Indeed, the agreement left room for several loop holes. ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups categorized by the United Nations as “terrorist groups” were specifically excluded from it – a precarious circumstance given that the Syrian regime denies all insurgents any legitimacy and refers to them as terrorists. Precarious also because the maps used by the Russian Defence Ministry demarcate only tiny patches as free of Jabhat al-Nusra. Since February 26, numerous breaches of the truce have been registered on the websites set up by the NGOs Adopt a Revolution and The Syria Campaign to keep a record of violations against the ceasefire. Yet, by and large, the number of attacks has dropped considerably and the agreement remains in place.
For many Syrians, this has brought about great relief. Having been the target of daily air raids, the absence of aircrafts from the sky means a world of difference to them. Many have trouble remembering when they were last able to walk the streets without fearing an air strike, when they last experienced a certain degree of normality of everyday life, or even when the day-to-day soundscape was not dominated by missile explosions and gunfighting.
The world should not let itself be lulled
“Do you hear the birds singing?” an activist asked the Syria Campaign which is doing a campaign to lift the sieges during a phone call. Nonetheless, the world should be advised not to let itself be lulled by the truce and instead should harness this moment to also defuse the second cruelest weapon the regime deliberately utilises against the civilian population: hunger and a lack of medical supplies in besieged areas.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens live under siege. If East Aleppo was to be besieged also, the number of people could even exceed the one million mark. People in these areas are not permitted to travel. Provisions are prohibited from entering and in some instances access to electricity and water is also cut off. The overwhelming majority of them live in regions that have been sealed off by the regime, few remain in locations controlled by ISIS or rebel groups. There is not only a significant difference in the numbers of areas occupied by each side, but also in the harshness of conditions those living in the respective areas are exposed to: Unlike the opposition groups, the regime has an air force, planes and helicopters at its disposal, which have inflicted immeasurable damage and suffering on people living in areas not controlled by the regime and which have rarely been deployed to provide humanitarian aid. In a nutshell, that captures the cynical stance held by the regime towards Syrian citizens. It refuses to accept any responsibility for their welfare and savours its power over life and death, regardless of whether that power is used against members of the opposition or against loyalists.
Occasional aid deliveries are merely publicity for the regime
The conditions due to hunger blockades differ from location to location. “Many areas are besieged – but some avail of a tunnel which facilitates the passage of basic supplies; there are checkpoints through which food can enter – needless to say, at the cost of bribery. In other areas, there is neither the one nor the other,” a Syrian activist explains. Whether and to what extent a checkpoint is penetrable depends on the instructions received from Damascus and it depends on the person on site – and importantly on the question of who actually maintains the checkpoint: “That is one of the problems that make the siege of Madaya so unbearable. Nearly every checkpoint is controlled by foreign actors allied with the regime. To bribe them is significantly more difficult than it is with proper regime forces.”
“We do not long for the next aid convoy,” a Syrian activist thus tells us, “Our aim is to lift the sieges. Occasional aid deliveries merely serve as publicity stunts for the regime, to demonstrate that things are not as bad as they seem. The regime is using the relief of Syrian citizens for publicity” – and its arbitrariness remains unchanged.
Unrestricted humanitarian access was demanded in several UN Security Council resolutions from resolution 2139, adopted in the spring of 2013, to resolution 2254, adopted in December 2015, time and time again and that is being highlighted by the Syrian opposition. Members of the opposition perceive it as the prerequisite for negotiations. However, the regime refuses to grant unrestricted humanitarian access. In preparation for the truce, the Syrian president claimed to agree to humanitarian aid “in principle”, However, “in principle”, 91 aid deliveries requested by the UN were approved by the Syrian regime in 2015. In reality, that year only 13 could be executed, as described in a report of the UN Secretary-General. Each and every aid delivery requires a special permit to be issued by the regime. By whom exactly? Even humanitarian organisations are not entirely sure in that matter. On all accounts, a multi-stage procedure and a multitude of institutions are involved. This leads to problems with the issuing of permits. An attempt to deliver medical aid to Moadamiyeh – a town that reached sad notoriety in 2013/14 in the run-up to Geneva II due to the many deaths caused by starvation – failed when relief items that had been previously approved by the Ministry of Health were not allowed to pass through a checkpoint in February 2016. Only after days of tedious negotiations, the goods could finally be delivered to their destination.
Draconian penalties for the smuggling of medication
It is a feat to have the Ministry of Health approve medical goods in the first place. Since 2011, the Syrian regime has pursued health care professionals who tend to insurgents and the “smuggling” of medicine has also become subject to severe penalties. “With some goods, it is clear that if you are caught with them, you will inevitably disappear to one of the interrogation centres. When it started, some doctors still attempted to bring bags for the storage of blood, for example, from Lebanon to Syria. But the punishments are draconian, as well as for antibiotics, disinfectants or bandaging,” an employee of a medical organisation in Syria tells us, “And if you are caught with isotonic saline solution, you risk execution.”
Neither the UN nor other international organisations are granted access which would allow for them to accurately measure people’s needs at a local level. Already in 2015, the UN estimated that more than 10 million Syrians were indigent. Around 4 million of them live in areas classified as “hard to reach” and 400,000 of them live under siege in the provinces of Idlib, Homs, the wider Damascus area and Deir ez-Zor. However, the distinction between “besieged” and “hard to reach” is not clearly defined. Yarmouk camp – notorious for the picture of a huge crowd queueing for aid that went around the world in 2014 – is, for example, only classified as “hard to reach” by the UN.
Especially infants are in danger of starvation
The goods that were delivered in the past few days of partial peace demonstrate that the suffering of civilians, especially the most vulnerable of them, was not significantly alleviated, but that it was rather shifted to a different level. Syrian advocate and human rights activist Ameenah Sawwan, from Moadamiyeh herself, writes in the Huffington Post: “Two weeks ago, the ICRC tried to bring in some aid to the city but the destruction process was in the Eastern neighbourhood of Moadamiyeh where Assad supporters and check points are based. Few families of Moadamiyeh had the courage to cross the street to get a small box of aids but many others didn’t even think about taking the risk. The World Food Program after a long term procedure of pressure on the Syrian regime were able to bring in 4400 food baskets for 7500 families who live in besieged Moadamiyeh. The amount was almost enough for half of the population for almost a week.”
She also describes how medical supplies and baby food are not permitted to pass at checkpoints and quotes a UN representative with the words: “We can’t help you more! We hope we could bring in more but it’s not our choice. We can’t do anything without the regime permission.”
Infants in particular run the risk of starvation – and that is not only caused by regime politics, but also by UN standards that prohibit the delivery of powdered milk and baby food, the reasoning being that it is best for children to be breastfed. “That renders the delivery of baby food impossible – the only option would be to disguise it in the overall budget provided by the UN or other large international NGOs,” a representative of one of the humanitarian organisations in Syria states.
No progress in Geneva
Under normal circumstances, the policy makes sense: Breastfeeding reduces the risk for infants to contract diarrhoeal diseases from polluted water. However, the besieged areas in Syria are characterized by utterly exceptional circumstances. In an environment where people resort to cooking grass to survive on the soup: Where are mothers to take breast milk from? The official UN recommendation states that breastfeeding should definitely be encouraged – and yet, there is no mention of physically supporting it, for example by delivering extra supplies to the mothers of infants. The entire burden of their infants’ survival rests on the shoulders of mothers, who themselves are offered barely any support. “We’ve lost one child every three days since the beginning of 2016…and I have nothing to give a panicked mother but herbs and sugary water,” a doctor from Moadamiyeh is quoted. When aid deliveries reach them, mothers do their best to pull their young children through with water drained from cooked rice.
Negotiations in Geneva are set to be resumed on March 14 – without any improvements having been achieved in the struggle for the essential unrestricted humanitarian access demanded by Syrians and the international community alike.
During the preparation period for Geneva II, a poster from Syria was circulated, reading that those who are incapable of bringing even a bottle of milk to a child in the besieged city of Ghouta will not achieve anything in Geneva. This is the opportunity to reverse that thought, as it were: If it is possible to protect civilians from air strikes, why should it not be possible to also drastically improve their living situation by ensuring unrestricted humanitarian access and the lifting of hunger blockades?
* This article first appeared on Heinrich Boell Stiftung