Across Syria towns and districts are under siege. In the north, the Syrian army and its Shia allies from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, assisted by Russian air power, have surrounded the opposition enclave of East Aleppo, where a quarter of a million civilians are under attack. If East Aleppo falls, one of the last big urban centres held by the opposition will have been eliminated. In Damascus, government forces are bringing to an end a series of long sieges, most of which began in 2012, and look close to taking full control of the capital. The administrative heart of the state, home to one third of the population, Damascus is the key to political power in Syria, and once Assad holds all of it, he will have little reason to step down or share power with his enemies.
According to the UN there are 17 separate sieges underway in Syria, with nearly 600,000 people surrounded in towns or cities and often cut off from basic supplies. The degree of deprivation differs markedly from siege to siege and may change from week to week. A woman from the town of Madaya, thirty miles west of Damascus, where 43,000 people are under siege from Hezbollah, told me she had been reduced to boiling up thistle-like plants she had picked by the roadside in order to feed her family. There were no vegetables, fruit or biscuits available in the town, but there was some meat: sheep had been slaughtered because they could no longer be fed, though most people couldn’t afford the mutton. The woman, who like many others I spoke to didn’t want her name published, had been lucky enough to get out of Madaya under the terms of an international agreement: one of her daughters had had her leg shattered by a bullet when she went to fetch water and needed emergency surgery in Damascus to save it from amputation.
On the outskirts of Damascus is the biggest besieged rebel enclave in Syria, Eastern Ghouta, with a population of 270,000. Here, people are managing to survive without malnutrition. It is a substantial urban and agricultural area and the land is fertile; people grow their own food. Goods are smuggled in, sometimes by issuing bribes at government checkpoints, though the Syrian army is gradually advancing into the area and has reduced the extent of rebel-held territory by a third over the last year. A recent visitor described ‘booths selling vegetables including potatoes, cucumbers, cauliflowers and lettuce as well as peaches and Syrian cherries, though these are expensive’. The worst shortages are of seeds, spare parts for agricultural machinery, surgical kits, medicines and educational materials for the schools. So the exact circumstances of each of these sieges differ, but the actions of government and armed opposition forces are in most cases similar. Government units carry out the cruel but traditional counterinsurgency strategy of separating fighters from their civilian supporters by bombing and shelling indiscriminately until the civilians flee. Those who remain are treated as committed rebels. This was the approach of the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria and Americans in Vietnam. (In the Middle East, it’s a strategy that has been employed by the Turkish army in its fight against Kurdish guerrillas: an estimated 3000 Kurdish villages have been destroyed since 1984 and two million people have been driven into shantytowns or forced to migrate to other parts of Turkey. Over the last 18 months large parts of the Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir and Cizre have been turned into ruins and flattened by the Turkish armed forces, in a series of actions that have failed to provoke an international outcry or even attract the attention of a Western media that expresses outrage when similar methods are used by the Syrian army.)
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