The human rights group Amnesty International has published yet another terrifying report stating that the Syrian regime has been using starvation as a weapon of war. 128 civilians have been killed in the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, forced to forage for food in the streets and risking their lives in the process. Yarmouk camp has been targeted for some of the worst fighting within the capital, with snipers posing the highest danger to wandering civilians. Once a place of protection for 180,000 Palestinians fleeing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it has become a trap of slow torture for Syria’s residents, who have been living without electricity since April 2013 and cannot access medical care, as most hospitals in Damascus have run out of fundamental supplies.
Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East director, stated that “Syrian forces are committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war… The harrowing accounts of families having to resort to eating cats and dogs and civilians attacked by snipers as they forage for food, have become all too familiar details of the horror story that has materialised in Yarmouk”. It is clear that any regime starving its own people for political gain should not find itself within the comity of nations and yet the Bashar Al Assad regime continues paint itself as a saviour of the Syrian people. The Syrian government claimed in November 2013 that the comments of John Kerry, the US secretary of state, could be central to the failure of peace talks due to their ‘aggressive nature’ “against the Syrian people’s right to decide their future”. Following this, Mr Assad told Agence France Presse he would not share power with the opposition and would run for presidency again later this year, should the public support his candidacy.
Mr Luther called on the Syrian government to allow humanitarian aid groups access to Yarmouk, and their reports were disturbing: Amnesty found that 60 per cent of camp refugees were suffering from malnutrition. The UN Security Council agreed to a resolution that mandates all parties involved in the conflict to immediately stop besieging the camp, though it has yet to take concrete effect in improving the lives of the refugees. What little aid could be given to the refugees was brought to an end when a truce between rebels and pro-government Palestinian militants within the camp collapsed. The UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) secured access to Yarmouk on 18 January 2014. Limited amounts of food and medicine have been distributed intermittently through a delicate agreement between Syrian rebel groups and the Assad government forces, which allowed Palestinian allies of the Assad regime to supplant rebel groups in the camp.
The BBC reported that approximately 60 food parcels had been handed out to residents – a meagre attempt to appease international concern. This exemplifies Assad’s power play: he attempts to present himself to the West as invaluable to Syrian development, and continues to struggle against Western attempts at interference. Assad’s recalcitrance was one of the primary obstacles to the expedient extraction of chemical weapons from, agreed upon in September 2013. The Syrian president also wants to persuade the West of his central role in fighting fundamentalist Muslim groups in and around Syria, claiming that religious extremists are regarded as a ‘common enemy’.
His regime and its supporters claim that the rebels are at fault for the pervasive starvation. Had the rebels not used the besieged areas as a base, the government would have not been ‘forced’ to abuse civilians. Gulf News reported that “such attempted justifications are yet more naked admissions of responsibility, which the regime and its henchmen feel no qualms about admitting to”. Arguably, it is the knowledge and perpetuation of these atrocities which makes the Syrian regime “beyond redemption”. The twisted rationale behind which the Syrian government and its supporters are hiding – a perversion of the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ – is perhaps the most frustrating part of the entire conflict. It makes a diplomatic solution difficult and unlikely, meaning more innocent suffering is due for the Syrian population.