BEIRUT: Residents and fighters fear they may be starved out of the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk as the siege of the Palestinian area approaches its fifth month, mirroring the increasingly desperate humanitarian situation in many of the capital’s suburbs. The relatively new practice of blockading neighborhoods reflects a shifting strategy among rebel and government forces, analysts say, as both sides hunker down for what is expected to be a long war of attrition.
Yarmouk was originally a camp for Syria’s Palestinian refugees but has since expanded into a sprawling neighborhood in Damascus’ rebel-held southern belt. It has been encircled by troops loyal to President Bashar Assad since February.
On the second day of Ramadan, July 10, government forces tightened their grip on the area and sealed off a checkpoint that was the area’s only gateway to the capital, which was previously only sporadically open to allow through aid and fleeing residents.
The movement of food, medicine and people came to a complete halt.
“Civilians are totally forbidden from going out of the camp. At the same time, no food is coming in. They [the soldiers] have refused to let in vaccines for polio, measles, chickenpox and flu,” said Abdullah, an activist who has been stuck inside the neighborhood for over a year.
“We are surviving day by day.”
Thousands of people fled the neighborhood before the siege began, but activists estimate that around 20,000 remain trapped, subsisting mostly on one meal a day. But with stocks of dry food like rice and bulgur running dangerously low, even those meals often consist of grass and leaves.
Abdullah denied, however, that residents have resorted to eating cats – something widely reported last month after a Yarmouk sheikh issued a fatwa saying the animals could be sacrificed for their meat.
Nonetheless the chronic food shortages are leading to widespread malnutrition among the population.
Housam, a medical co-coordinator in Yarmouk, said the area’s only hospital was seeing increasing numbers of patients displaying symptoms of extreme hunger.
“The signs are obvious in people’s bodies: yellow skin, feeble limbs, protruding ribs,” the 24-year-old said.
He said four children had died because of complications related to malnutrition. The death toll could not be independently verified by The Daily Star. One of the dead was a 2-month-old baby whose mother was too frail to produce milk. Stocks of formula had already run dry. “The situation is increasingly desperate,” he said.
There are no qualified doctors in the area, and a former medical student heads up the hospital team. He is supported by people like Housam, whose medical experience amounts to no more than a couple of training days with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
Basic operations take place without anesthetic and many more serious injuries cannot be treated at all. Residents who are hit by shellfire are sometimes forced to have their limbs crudely amputated.
The pro-opposition Violations and Documentation Center warned Thursday that such siege tactics were putting thousands of lives at risk.
“Hundreds of thousands of civilians, especially children, [across the country] are facing death out of extreme hunger in a bitter experience that is very similar to in Moadamieh in Damascus suburbs ... at the top of which are Yarmouk Camp and [neighboring] Hajar al-Aswad,” the report said.
Moadamieh, a southwest suburb of the capital, was besieged for 10 months until rare coordination between the government and rebels last week allowed over 1,000 starving civilians to escape.
The scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk has prompted activists to push for a truce similar to the one in Moadamieh, a move that would signify a victory for the regime’s strategy to root rebels out of residential areas.
Basma, a local civil society organization, has been trying to organize such a cease-fire for several weeks, but is having little luck finding consensus between the two sides.
“We want to broker truce in order to get the civilians out, or to disarm the camp to make it a safe area. Armed groups inside the camp declared that they were ready to give up weapons but the regime refused that ... it wants them to surrender themselves,” said Abdullah, one of the group’s leaders.
“People here are nearly starving. So we have to create a neutral area or we have to find them a corridor out,” he added. “We are running out of time.”
A fighter in Yarmouk, who asked not to be identified, said his mainstream Free Syrian Army rebel brigade – Al-Ahda al-Amrieh, one of the camp’s biggest – and its affiliates had withdrawn to a small area of Yarmouk to try to limit civilian causalities. However, he was adamant that they would not surrender to regime troops.
“Our main job now is to protect Yarmouk. If we give in to them [the army] we will have failed,” he said via Skype. “But the big problem is that we are running low on ammunition and, of course, food. We still have some weapons, but it is running out.”
Cutting off weapons to besieged areas is a strategy that appears to be reaping success for the regime. The southern Damascus town of Sbeineh was taken over by government troops and allies Thursday, following a one-year blockade and a weeklong campaign to sever supply lines.
Its recapture by regime forces was mirrored several weeks earlier in the rural towns of Husseinieh, Dhiabieh and Bweida. Meanwhile, civilians in the capital’s suburbs of Douma, Hajar al-Aswad, Yalda and Jobar remain choked by sieges.
The use of starvation as a tactic reflects the changing nature of the Syrian battlefield as each side looks to grind the other down instead of aiming for an outright win, said Joshua Landis, associate professor and director at the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies.
“At the beginning of the conflict, both sides thought they could win this easily, but this is clearly becoming a war of attrition and it is going to go on for years,” he said. “A year or two ago, the suggestion to starve neighborhoods would have looked like cowardice, now it doesn’t seem like such a preposterous idea.”
Such plans are built upon cold strategic calculations; starving off neighborhoods is cheap, does not waste weaponry and doesn’t risk troop’s lives.
“At the end of the day, you still get what you want: the submission of people,” he said. “That’s what happened in Moadamieh. The people gave up.”
These strategies are employed by rebel groups as well as Assad’s forces. In August, rebels closed off a major supply route government-held areas of Aleppo. The regime was forced to airlift emergency food supplies by plane.
“Cutting off the supply of areas and slowly starving them is a universal tactic and it is very effective," Landis said. The bottom line is eventually people will give in, they don’t want to die.”