This is the first of a two-part post, in which I return (at last!) to a promissory note I issued last year about siege warfare in Syria. My return is prompted by a series of reports about the catastrophic situation in Eastern Ghouta (a suburb of Damascus) and Idlib.
First, Eastern Ghouta, which has been under siege by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies since April 2013. Most of Eastern Ghoutta was designated as one of four ‘de-escalation zones’ (see map above) under an agreement reached in May 2017, in which aerial violence and all other hostilities would be suspended for six months and humanitarian aid would be allowed across the siege lines.
But the agreement turned out to be primarily a way of killing time. Aron Lund writes:
In September, just as the Eastern Ghouta’s de-escalation zone was finalized, the situation abruptly worsened. After ordering a halt to the already heavily restricted commercial traffic through the Wafideen crossing [see map below: more here and here], the Syrian government refused to permit any more UN aid missions.
It was a transparent attempt to stoke the humanitarian emergency in Eastern Ghouta, but this time the effect was more severe than during previous rounds of food cuts. With the rebel trading tunnels out of commission for half a year, smuggling could no longer compensate for the shortfall or bring in medicine or basic necessities like fuel, which has not entered the Ghouta since February.
Food stockpiles dwindled quickly and triggered a scramble for whatever remained available on the market, the panicky mood inflamed by suspicions that rebel-connected businessmen were hoarding goods for speculation purposes. From August to October, the already high prices inside Eastern Ghouta increased fivefold, far beyond any other region of Syria.
Air strikes (above) and artillery bombardment resumed in November and have continued, and urgent medical evacuations were denied. Here is UN Senior Adviser Jan Egelan in December 2017:
Six months ago a very detailed evacuation plan was delivered to the government for needy cases of evacuation, on medical grounds from eastern Ghouta. Since then, names have been added regularly and it is now, we now have a revised list of 494 names. There are among them 282 cases that need] specialized surgery, specialized treatment, specialized investigations that [they] cannot get inside. There are 73 severe cancer cases, 25 kidney failure cases and 97 heart disease cases [that are] very concerning, five acutely malnourished children that need to be evacuated, six acute mental health cases etc.
The list had to be revised because 12 patients had died while waiting for ‘a half an hour drive to hospitals in Damascus and elsewhere that stand ready to help and save lives.’ Egelan explained that ‘231 of the cases are female, 137 are children, 61 are over 65 years old. So these are civilians, in the midst of this horrific war.’
He added: ‘Civilians, children, no one can be a bargaining chip in some kind of tug of war, where many things are negotiated at the same time. These have a right to be evacuated and we have an obligation to evacuate them.’
Siege warfare involves not only closure of movement across the lines for those inside; it also involves opening the zone to violence from the outside. The assault on Eastern Ghouta has provided ample evidence, but the second case is even more instructive.
And so, second, what was supposed to be the ‘de-escalation’ zone of Idlib has been converted into a ‘kill box’ (for a discussion of the term in relation to remote warfare, see here and here). Here is Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen writing in the Guardian:
Russian and Syrian jets bombed towns and villages across north-west Syria on Monday, devastating civilian areas and forcing fresh waves of refugees to flee to open ground in the biggest aerial blitz on opposition-held areas since the fall of Aleppo more than a year ago. Monitoring groups said as many as 150 airstrikes were recorded in Idlib province by Monday, with dozens more pounding up to 18 towns across the region by nightfall. Residential areas bore the brunt of the strikes, which severely damaged at least two major hospitals, and levelled dozens of buildings in which panicked locals had taken shelter.
Refugees and locals say they fear that Idlib has been transformed into a kill box, with the international community paying scant regard to their fate, as regional powers, Russia, Turkey and Iran all vie for influence in a vital corner of the country.
These strikes were in retaliation for the downing of a Russian aircraft – in this spectacularly asymmetric war, only air-to-ground attacks are acceptable – but aerial violence against civilian infrastructure in Idlib precedes that incident. Owdai (al Hisan) hospital in Saraqab City was hit by air strikes on 21 and 29 January, for example, and has now closed indefinitely MSF reports that the loss of the hospital is all the more devastating because ‘medical needs in the area are expected to increase due to the massive displacement of Syrians fleeing fresh violence in Idlib’s eastern countryside and northeast Hama.’
Since then, the strikes intensified:
“The Russians are on a frenzy. They’re going mad. The shelling is ongoing throughout the day and night. The warplanes are hitting residential areas,” Hadi Abdullah, a local journalist, told Al Jazeera by phone from the town of Kafr Nabl in the northwestern Syrian province bordering Turkey…
The main hospital in Maaret al-Numan [above: this was the largest hospital in Idlib], east of Kafr Nabl, has stopped working after it was hit by air strikes, according to the civil defence – also known as the White Helmets. “About 10 air raids hit the hospital. It was a disaster,” said Hadi, who had rushed to the scene.”The most difficult and heartbreaking scene was when the volunteers were quickly pulling the babies out of the hospital. I can’t get the image out of my head,” he recalled with a trembling voice.
‘De-escalation’ has become a prelude to its inverse. “There is a misperception that the de-escalation areas have resulted in peace and stability,’ UN assistant secretary-general Panos Moumtsiz said today. “If anything, these have been serious escalation areas.”
With all these horrors in mind, in my second post I’ll turn to the back-story. You can find other dimensions to the critique of siege warfare in Susan Power, ‘Siege warfare in Syria: prosecuting the starvation of civilians’, Amsterdam Law Forum 8: 2 (2016) 1-22 here or Will Todman, ‘Isolating dissent, punishing the masses: siege warfare as counterinsurgency’, Syria Studies 9 (1) (2017) 1-32.
There’s also a series of important quarterly reports from Siege Watch; these started in February 2016, and the most recent covers August-September 2017 and includes a detailed analysis of both Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.
I plan to approach the issue through one of my favourite books, Steve Graham‘s Cities under siege. Steve’s object was what he called ‘the new military urbanism’ but the situation in Syria – and elsewhere: think Mosul in Iraq (see, for example, here: scroll down) or Israel’s endless sieges of Gaza (see, for example, here) – demonstrate the extraordinary capacity of later modern war to combine cutting-edge technology (never has that adjective been more dismally appropriate) with medieval cruelty. There is another difference; for all Steve’s analytical passion – and empathy – the voices of those inside the cities under siege are largely silent, yet in Syria (again: and elsewhere) digital media allow us to listen to them and to witness their suffering. More soon.