|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.