The United Nations remains as ineffective as ever on Syria, and perhaps it could not be otherwise. Even though supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are a small minority, his allies in Russia and China have been able to use their veto power to water down any proposal that even hints at coercive measures.
To get around the veto problem, there have been attempts to directly address the humanitarian situation without getting caught up in the divisive politics over Assad’s future. But these attempts have so far made little progress because the conduct of the war is nearly indistinguishable from its politics.
On October 2, 2013, the UN Security Council acted on an initiative by Australia and Luxembourg to issue a presidential statement on humanitarian access. This nonbinding text called for “immediate action to facilitate safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance in the whole country,” urging “in particular the Syrian authorities” to allow aid convoy access “across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighbouring countries.”
The statement reflected long-standing international irritation over the Syrian government’s refusal to allow aid convoys to cross into Syria from Turkey. The UN is an organization of states and Syria is a member, meaning that all UN organs need permission from the Syrian government to move in and out of the country—including across borders that are currently under de facto rebel control. Almost without exception, Assad has refused this, eager to aggravate the humanitarian crisis in areas outside of his control. And since the presidential statement was nonbinding, it changed nothing.
On February 22, 2014, the Security Council took a step further by adopting Resolution 2139. It was co-sponsored by Australia, France, Jordan, Korea, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and it passed unanimously after amendments that satisfied even Russia and China. It followed the UN’s evacuation of civilians under siege in the old city of Homs. Even politicians in Moscow and Beijing had appeared slightly queasy over the Syrian government’s refusal to allow food and medicine into these areas and annoyed at being implicated in Assad’s attempts to starve civilian communities into submission.
Resolution 2139 therefore expressed regret that the October 2013 presidential statement had “not yet translated into meaningful progress on the ground, and that humanitarian aid delivery continues to be impeded throughout Syria,” while recalling “that starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited by international humanitarian law.” It also demanded that “all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and across borders.”
To nail down the problem, the resolution listed those areas where siege and starvation tactics were known to be in effect at the time, including the old city of Homs, the western Damascene suburbs of Moadhamiya and Darayya, the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the south of the capital, and the eastern Ghouta suburbs. In all of these areas, the government had prevented food from reaching civilians, threatening some 200,000 people, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. But the resolution didn’t only single out Assad for criticism: it also noted that some 45,000 civilians were under similar siege by rebels, most of them in the Shia enclaves of Nubl and Zahraa, northwest of Aleppo.
As a necessary concession to Russia and China, Resolution 2139 had no enforcement mechanism. However, it did request monthly reports to the Security Council and decided that the UN should remain involved with the matter.
The first such report has just been delivered, by the UN’s human rights chief, Valerie Amos, on March 28. As expected, it contains very little positive news. The number of civilians under government siege has dropped slightly to 175,000, but the number starved by rebels remains the same at 45,000. Meanwhile, one single convoy has been able to enter Syria across the northern border, passing through the Nusaybin–Qamishli crossing from Turkey in late March. This single shipment carried food for 50,000 Syrians, as well as medicine, blankets, and clothing for some 60,000 people, giving an indication of how many Syrians could receive help if Assad would only give permission for more cross-border operations.
The reason that the number of people starved by the government has dropped from 200,000 to 175,000 has little to do with Resolution 2139. Rather, it reflects the establishment of local ceasefires in areas under siege, where rebels have handed over heavy weapons and the government has in turn relaxed its control over the transfer of goods.
In practice, most of these agreements are hard to distinguish from capitulations by rebels embedded in a civilian community that has been exhausted by war and starvation. “People have limits, and we reached ours,” a rebel commander from Moadhamiya recently told the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher. “We were ready to cling on to anything to get food for us and the children.”
In other words, hunger has worked as intended. Several Damascus suburbs have now been brought to their knees. While the truces remain shaky, this still-expanding process represents one of the most significant government advances during the entire war. It is extremely unlikely that the regime will voluntarily give up such an effective tool, particularly as it is now slowly closing in on new areas, like the Rastan pocket north of Homs—and perhaps in the future even eastern Aleppo.
On the rebel side, the situation is more complex, given the divisions among the hundreds of rebel groups. Exile politicians attuned to international sensitivities will breezily condemn such sieges even as their rebel allies implement them on the ground. But regardless of contradictory rhetoric and weak strategic consistency, the consequences for the civilians under siege in Nubl and Zahraa are just as disastrous.
Imposing starvation on civilian populations is a war crime, yet like most war crimes it is also very effective. UN Resolution 2139 has brought attention to this cruel aspect of Syria’s war and increased the involvement of the Security Council, but unless the international community is somehow able to change the calculus for both Assad and his enemies, Syrians will continue to die from hunger.
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