In October, photos of severely malnourished children in Eastern Ghouta brought renewed international attention to the plight of an estimated 400,000 civilians trapped in the Damascus suburb. Residents have been pushed to the brink of famine after the government tightened its siege in March – blocking all trade and smuggling routes into the region and regularly barring United Nations aid convoys from delivering essential goods and services to civilians. The UN has clearly prescribed rules of siege warfare, and its continued refusal to act in the face of blatant violations and an urgent humanitarian crisis is putting hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians at imminent risk of death.
Since the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian government has used sieges to effectively isolate, contain, and drain rebel militias into submission without exhausting its diminishing military manpower, notably in the governorates of Homs and Damascus. Seeking a decisive victory this March over Eastern Ghouta – the last rebel-held enclave in the Damascus suburbs – government forces seized the network of smuggling tunnels connecting Ghouta to Damascus City and the al Wafideen crossing. These crossings were the main supply routes for Ghouta’s food and basic goods, and the resulting shortage has caused dramatic price surges on remaining supplies.
The government likewise continues to routinely block UN aid convoys access to Eastern Ghouta, despite a July de-escalation agreement between rebels and Moscow providing for the distribution of food and humanitarian assistance. Syrian forces allowed only 26 percent of requested UN aid to be to delivered in the area between January and September. This move further dwindled supplies and triggered inflation. Reports indicate residents have been forced to eat plants and grass to survive, while cases of malnutrition among children have nearly doubled in some areas. Residents have reportedly begun looting remaining food warehouses – a possible sign of growing desperation. In late October, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called the situation a humanitarian emergency and reminded all parties that deliberate starvation of civilians is a crime under international law. Briefing the Security Council, the UN Special Envoy to Syria likewise highlighted the lack of de-escalation and humanitarian access in Eastern Ghouta, stating that “those with influence” must work to enable the UN and its partners to deliver assistance by whatever modalities are available.
The critical situation in Eastern Ghouta today comes after years of systematic and often collusive civilian exploitation by government and rebel forces as a means of funding military operations. Select businessmen like Muheddine al-Manfoush were permitted by government forces to monopolize trade in exchange for a cut of profits. As the sole trader with access to the al-Wafideen crossing – reportedly gained through connections to the Assad family – al-Manfoush could manipulate prices unchecked and became a millionaire in the process. At peak pricing in 2013, the dairy farmer was charging $19 for a kilo of sugar, which would cost less than $1 in Damascus. Al-Manfoush was nevertheless popular in Ghouta before the total siege ended his wartime business because, despite his government dealings, he provided goods otherwise unavailable during the government siege.
In response to the government’s tightened siege in 2013, rebel groups dug a network of tunnels between Eastern Ghouta and Damascus in order to smuggle goods and people in and out. These tunnels allowed militias to control their own trading routes, check points, and price regimes. These groups placed taxes or royalties on goods and money passing through their respective tunnels to help finance military operations, which drove up already exorbitant prices on supplies. Supplies for armed groups, however, were generally given free passage. In one video, former Jaish al-Islam commander Zahran Alloush is shown arguing with members of a competing faction about some $12 million being transporting through the tunnels, arguing that these funds are for military – as opposed to civilian – purposes and therefore Jaish al-Islam should not be taxed. The militias also dictated whether, and at what price, people were permitted to cross into Damascus. Young men of fighting age, for example, were forbidden to exit Ghouta. Some did, in exchange for a hefty fee (over $400 USD, according to one report). Civilians who could not afford to flee or pay high prices for food were at risk of death by starvation and malnutrition, while rebels retained considerable food reserves for their own fighters.
What was once a situation of intense exploitation in Eastern Ghouta has transformed into a near total siege on the beleaguered civilian population. This type of unconventional combat strategy is prohibited in contemporary international law. Siege warfare is only lawful when exclusively directed at combatants and those directly participating in hostilities – in compliance with other provisions of international law. Customary international law likewise mandates all parties to a conflict facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian assistance to civilians in need, allow civilians in besieged areas to leave, grant freedom of movement to authorized humanitarian personnel, and enable treatment for the wounded and sick. The collective punishment of civilians by depriving them of items indispensable to their survival constitutes a clear war crime.
While the UN Special Envoy to Syria notes Eastern Ghouta’s current anguish in speeches, his work has failed to effectively address the urgent humanitarian crisis taking place. The Syrian government has for years contributed to food shortages and price manipulation in the region while taking a profit, and the recent siege tightening has intensified civilian starvation and malnutrition. Residents of Eastern Ghouta have long suffered injustices at the hands of the government and rebel groups alike, but the government’s closure of trading routes and blockade of adequate UN assistance has caused the situation to reach and surpass a critical juncture – where UN action is imperative for the immediate preservation of human life. As the arbiter of international human rights and humanitarian law, it is imperative that the UN respond to the Syrian government’s egregious violations to the rights of civilians in Eastern Ghouta.
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