Throughout history, the political strategy of laying siege on cities has been practiced on a wide scale in many regions across the world, the most famous examples in our recent history being that of Sarajevo in the 1990s (blocked off by the Serbian army), the siege of Grozny imposed by Russian forces, and the blockade of Gaza by the Israeli army, which has been imposed since many years and until now.
The Syrian regime has used this strategy since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011 as a form of collective punishment on cities which rose against the regime, considering that this punishment has the least effect on international public opinion, in parallel with its wide scale impact on the population.
The strategy of laying siege on cities began from the second month of the Syrian revolution when- on 4/5/2011- the Fourth Division of the Syrian army began a complete siege on the province of Daraa. Entering or leaving the province was prohibited; all nutritional and medical supplies were cut off, as well as electricity, water and phone supplies. The siege continued until the end of the next month, at which point the army began to lessen the blockade in stages.
The siege of Daraa led to a large backlash in public opinion, both domestically and globally, as it was the first time in which this practice was used by the Syrian regime. A campaign was launched by some artists and intellectuals called, “Milk for the children of Daraa”.
In parallel to the siege on Daraa, the city of Banyas was also subjected to a siege which lasted for approximately ten days, and which started on 3/5/2011. At the end of the same month, a siege was imposed on Al-Rastan and Talbiseh on 29/5/2011.
Currently, more than 25 cities and districts in Syria- which were home to over a million inhabitants- are under complete siege, whilst large areas are under partial siege.
The Strategy of Wide-scale Siege
By the sixth month of the revolution, the use of siege and blockades by the Syrian army had expanded and moved from partial blockades lasting weeks to long drawn out sieges. This was a result of the lack of international reaction towards the former application, the impact caused by pressure on civilians, the weakening of their resistance to regime troops, and leaving negative attitudes and positions towards the opposition.
And on 14/8/2011, the siege on the city of Latakkia began, in which electricity and water was cut off from the city, as well as entering and leaving the city. A military campaign targeted Ar-Raml Al-Janoubi district in particular, with the use of air and sea forces. Although the military attack on the district ended, the siege continued for a number of months.
By mid January 2012, regime forces began their complete siege on the district of Baba Amr in Homs, prohibiting the arrival of any services or goods to the district. This was accompanied with intense and violent bombing of the district which it had not been subjected to before, and which transformed the district into areas of total ruin. This siege was in parallel with a wider siege which was imposed on most of the other districts in Homs.
The siege on Baba Amr lasted until 1/3/2012, whereas the general siege on Homs continued.
By mid August 2012 and until now, all electricity, water and phone services were cut off from all areas not under the control of the regime in Aleppo, such as the districts of Salahidin, Tareeq al-Bab, Al-Shi’aar, Al-Maghayir, Al-Salihiah, and others. However, the families managed to access some ports which allowed them to smuggle goods far away from the eyes of the snipers who were imposing the blockade.
However, the most prominent of all blockades in Syria are those of Homs and rural Damascus, which we will discuss in greater detail in this report.
The Siege on Homs
The siege on the old districts of Homs is one of the longest periods of collective punishment witnessed during the revolution. The siege on Northern rural Homs began on 25/5/2012, and on the city of Homs on 7/6/2012, and the siege on western rural Homs was imposed on 9/7/2013. The siege remains in place, as we prepare this report.
The old districts of Homs are those which have been harmed the most due to the lack of ports (secret openings through which goods can be smuggled), as well as the large number of inhabitants living there and the absence of its own resources (such as agriculture); whereas this is less so in the northern and western rural areas.
The Al-Wa’ar district – also known as “The New Homs”- is counted as one of the districts most affected by the siege. It is known to have a high population, with 400,000 inhabitants before the siege began.
As with other areas, the siege has prohibited the entering of any nutritional goods, medication and other products, as well as cutting off electricity, water and calls. Such circumstances have made the possibilities of life in the area decrease with the passage of time, and have led to a huge displacement and migration among the inhabitants of these districts to other areas.
The siege on Rural Damascus
The siege on rural Damascus is also one of the widest collective punishments witnessed by the Syrian revolution, especially considering the wide geographical area covered by the blockade and the large number of the populations in these areas.
The beginnings of the imposition of the siege in districts of Damascus and cities of rural Damascus varied, as did the grades of the siege and its effects on the population. The blockade began in Kafrbatna on 1/6/2012, and in Harasta, Douma, Daraya and Moadamiyat al-Sham in mid November 2012, and in the area of the Yarmouk Camp on 26/12/2012, whereas the siege was imposed on the districts of al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Asaali on 15/7/2012.
The blockade was greatly intensified on the Southern area in Ramadan 2013 (11/7/2013), so that checkpoints no longer allowed any food to be entered. Previously, it had allowed small amounts to enter the areas of the blockade. The blockade also intensified on the Eastern Ghouta area on 3/10/2013, prohibiting the entering and leaving of individuals and products from all areas of the Ghouta.
The effects of the blockade vary across rural Damascus, as in Homs, due to two reasons: the first is the ports available in each area which affects the severity of the siege and the possibility of smuggling of goods from other regions. The second reason is the existence of agricultural resources in the region, which enables the population to resist the siege, and eases the pressure on them. The agricultural areas in rural Damascus such as Al-Maliha, Kafrbatna, Harasta, Douma, Daraya, al-Buwaida and al-Hajira, have been able to resist the siege more than areas of high populations such as al-Moadamiya, al-Hajar al-Aswad and Arbeen.
The effects of the siege on families and communities
The sieges imposed by the Syrian regime and other aiding external forces, lead to a large number of dangerous violations of human rights against the civilians, including:
- The significant shortage of food has lead to a dramatic increase in prices. This is in light of an 80% unemployment rate among the population.
- The lack of food, medicine and healthy drinkable water has lead to an increase in diseases, particularly among the children and elderly. High numbers of deaths have been recorded due to lack of food as well as due to the lack of medicine for those who are ill and the lack of medical services which they are in need of. This is in particular for those who are ill with kidney disease and cancer, as well as newborn babies and children under five who are in need of milk and certain medicines.
- The lack of medical services has led to a halt inside the medical institutions in the areas under siege. Many have not been able to offer medical services due to a sharp lack of medical supplies and medicines, which has exacerbated the suffering of the population even in normal health problems such as dental problems.
- Disrupting the daily life of the population, so that daily concerns of civilians is that of food, medicine or heating, which drives them to displacement or migration once safe corridors to exit are provided.
- The siege has led to many social crises due to families being cut off from one another. Many families have members outside of their areas due to the siege being imposed whilst they were outside of their cities, and they are unable to return to their homes. In some cases, they cannot even reassure their families of where they are.
- The sieges are accompanied by constant bombardment, doubling the suffering of those under siege, especially due to people getting injured, lack of medical services and the lack of water and electricity.
- The siege has led to great environmental problems. This is due to the targeting of sanitation services on one hand, as well as the disruption of waste collection services which has led to a great accumulation of waste and brought about rodents and insects, leading to the spread of diseases and epidemics.
The International Response to the Siege
No international positions of condemnation on the siege have been reported, except references made in a statement by the British Foreign Secretary, as well as another by the American Secretary of State. No statement has been issued by any foreign ministry or international organisation to condemn the siege and the human suffering it has led to.
This international silence has strengthened the Syrian regime’s insistence in imposing blockades on cities in Syria. Its use of blockades has increased during 2013, when compared to 2011 and 2012.
The Legal Perspective on Sieges
Imposing a siege or blockade on a city is considered a crime of genocide according to international law, due to the broad impact this crime has on the populations: causing great physical and mental harm to civilians, and intentionally subjecting them to a life which will kill them partially, or completely.
This crime, and its widespread abuse on the lives of civilians, is more serious than the use of chemical and incendiary weapons (which have been used to bombard besieged areas already!). This crime is also characterised by the slow death it causes to civilians through its effects, thus explaining the limited responses to sieges as opposed to the killing of hundreds altogether through the use of scud missiles, air strikes, forbidden weapons and white weapons.
The Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) holds the international community responsible for the human suffering and daily human rights violations which are taking place due to the sieges. Their silence has encouraged the Syrian regime to impose sieges on cities in Syria in a larger and wider manner and with greater strength. In the time in which the international community focused on the use of chemical weapons which the besieged areas were bombarded with, it neglected the use of more lethal weapons.
SHRC also calls upon all political bodies to fulfill their responsibilities towards stopping these crimes, and to end the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of besieged Syrians and Palestinians.
Syrian Human Rights Committee