Michael Weiss

Assad’s terror-famine

After bombing and gassing the people of Moadamiyah, the regime is now starving them to death.

Syrian refugee children stand near their makeshift tents in central Ankara on October 12, 2013.

Children in Syria are now eating leaves for nutrition. Residents of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp are baking flatbreads made from “stale lentils.” A group of Muslim clerics has issued an Eid al-Adha fatwa allowing the hungry to consume cats, dogs and donkeys to survive. In Moadamiyah, one of the suburbs south of Damascus known as western Ghouta, gassed with sarin by the regime on August 21, residents subsist on a meager diet of olives, mint, grapevine leaves and figs. This is Assad’s terror-famine. It’s getting worse every day.


According to Qusai Zakarya, a rebel spokesman in the town, the regime cut all humanitarian supplies to Moadamiyah ten or eleventh months ago, and local stores ran out in March. So the people have had to rely mainly on the largesse of Syrians living in the countryside who ran basic staples into the town – and by “ran,” I mean they drove by it on the Damascus-Quneitra highway and tossed grocery bags from their moving cars in the general direction of Moadamiyah, which then had to be retrieved by the inhabitants, sometimes at great risk. “This was rice, olives and makdous [cured eggplants], which lasts one to two years,” Zakarya told me via Skype, with clear sounds of artillery fire in the background. “But three months ago, all this food ran out too.”  Water pipes into Moadamiyah, he said, had also been “blocked” or destroyed by the regime, leaving residents to rely on a single unreliable source of hydration.  “Within the  past month, we lost over 11 women and children from malnutrition. There are about 100 more suffering from malnutrition.” Images and videos of starving children in the Damascus region, collected, verified, and mapped by my colleague James Miller, show a proliferation of tiny and emaciated corpses, starting in August and continuing to today.


With 12,000 civilians left, Moadamiyah is unique among opposition-friendly towns in Syria in that it’s completely surrounded by the regime’s praetorian divisions. To the east lies Mezze military airport; to the north, the headquarters of the Fourth Armored Division, which is headed by Bashar’s even more psychotic brother Maher al-Assad, who was maimed in an assassination attempt two summers ago; to the west, the Republican Guard; and to the south, Deraya, a former rebel hotspot,  much of which has been retaken by the regime. Moadamiyah was also one of the first districts in Damascus Governorate to protest against the arrest of children in Deraa in March 2011, making it not only a longstanding revolutionary town but also one of the direst targets for Assad’s vengeance. 


“Even before there was a Free Syrian Army,” Zakarya told me, “the Assad army had killed over 600 people with knives – many were also burnt. Ninety-five percent of the rebels here are young people who took up arms using their own money. Some sold their cars or houses to buy AK-47s and light weapons. Hamdullah [‘praise God’], the regime could not invade us.” The FSA says it’s happy to live on olives and water rather than let the town fall.


So first the regime asphyxiated everyone. Zakarya says that about 85 Moadamiyah residents were killed by the sarin gas attack almost two months ago, and another 500 (including himself) were exposed to the deadly nerve agent. Shortly thereafter regime forces concocted a plan to try and invade Moadamiyah yet again, using a dozen Russian-made T-72 and T-82 tanks – the latter are “brand new,” Zakarya said – as well as soldiers dressed in “full chemical gear.” “Thanks to God, the plan failed.” And while Assad now busies himself by acting as the West’s newly re-legitimate partner in chemical disarmament, both his elite military units and his sectarian militias have taken to systematic starvation as their preferred counterinsurgency tactic. What’s more, they admit it. “We won’t allow them to be nourished in order to kill us,” a 24 year-old member of the National Defense Force, the Alawite-Shia paramilitary group trained and funded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as the Syrian answer to the Basij, told the Wall Street Journal on October 2. “Let them starve for a bit, surrender and then be put on trial.” Of course, this guerrilla claims to be only shooting fighting-age men, not women and children, though he gave no account to the Journal of how a starvation effort can distinguish between rebels and civilians. Moreover, the Fourth Armored Division openly describes all residents left in Moadamiyah as “terrorists and those embracing them.” 


Not that Damascus also isn’t trying to offer its own patented brand of humanitarian relief.


The kindness of the regime


Five days ago, locals were able to get around 600 women, children and seniors out of Moadamiyah after a cease-fire was brokered with the regime. They were taken to Qusaya, a Damascus town completely controlled by Assadist forces where the inevitable happened, according to Zakarya: 10 children were kidnapped by intelligence agents and beaten into confessing information about the whereabouts of FSA fighters and activists inside Moadamiyah. “Four of these kids were released after 10 hours and told us the story,” Zakarya said. “Another six are still missing.” Power outages mean communicating with those outside the town is difficult. Zakarya said that to fuel his cellphone, which he was using to talk to me, car and scooter batteries were rigged up as homemade generators.


More troubling is the regime’s designated point-person for coordinating the civilian evacuations: Mother Agnes Mariam, the 61-year-old Lebanese-born Catholic nun who has earned international notoriety as an Assad agent posing as a Christian missionary in Syria. Agnes blamed the gruesome Houla massacre last year on the rebels in spite of the U.N. report which found that shabiha were responsible. Lately she’s gained a higher media profile by claiming that the Ghouta attacks were “staged” and that the many victims documented in videos and photographs on August 21 were actually Alawites brought into Damascus by rebels who abducted them from villages over 150 miles away. The Russian government, which continues to deny the regime’s culpability, has relied heavily on Mother Agnes’ conspiracy theory – even though it doesn’t withstand even superficial methodological scrutiny, even though it contradicts another Moscow-blessed allegation which has the rebels gassing themselves with Saudi-bought sarin, and even though the Carmelite nun was nowhere near Ghouta when the chemical atrocities took place.


Zakarya, who initially praised Agnes to the New York Times as a “brave woman” for at least traveling to an active war zone ostensibly to witness starvation and misery first hand, now calls her a “manipulative liar.” 


“The first day, when she entered Moadamiyah, we welcomed her and we talked with her. She said a lot of good things, that we were fighting for a good cause, fighting for our freedom and we must get the civilians out. But went she got out, she spoke to the media and said she saw terrorists and Islamic extremists in Moadamiyah.”


Nevertheless, civilians had little choice but to try again the following day when they apparently got 1,000 more civilians out of the town as well as 300 from Daraya.  “Our people would rather die on a full stomach than on an empty one,” Zakarya said when I asked him why residents even bothered another migration after the first. The third day of evacuations saw no civilians leave Moadamiyah, but then yesterday, a fourth attempt was violently interrupted. Zakarya told me that a deal was reached with Mother Agnes to allow 2,000 civilians to exit the town. They were gathered on the western side where a convoy of buses was stationed just beyond the regime’s checkpoint to receive them. But before the civilians could reach the buses, mortars, cannons and artillery struck within five to ten meters of their position. Some were wounded. All incoming fire, Zakarya said, was from the Fourth Armored Division in the north, though of course the Syrian Army blamed the rebels for provoking retaliatory fire. 


Charitable contributions


Zakarya was full of scorn for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which he believes was working directly with both the regime and Mother Agnes in the refugee evacuation effort. Once the shelling started, he said, trucks belonging to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent - technically the ICRC’s affiliate on the ground - turned around and left Moadamiyah’s civilians behind. Syrians have leveled similar charges against the NGO since the siege of Baba Amr in early 2012 when ICRC spokespeople would not confirm publicly which party or parties were responsible for blocking humanitarian aid from reaching the pummeled district of Homs, even though the answer was quite obviously the regime.


The problem the ICRC faces in Syria is that there is little to no top-down control of the Red Crescent at either the national or international level. (In this respect, it rather resembles the FSA.) Volunteers are answerable to their own branches and sub-branches, which are geographically determined and thus susceptible to accusations or suspicions of partisan bias. There are 14 branches and 84 sub-branches throughout all of Syria. Whichever side in the conflict the Red Crescent helps automatically makes the other side angry, and it scarcely matters that Red Crescent volunteers have been killed by both rebel and regime weapons since the conflict started. Earlier this month, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant kidnapped six ICRC staffers and a Red Crescent volunteer in Idlib province. Only four have been released.


The New York Times’ Anne Barnard – the same reporter who quoted Zakarya on Mother Agnes – covered this reputational problem well in June, noting that while the “Damascus branch [of the Red Crescent], headed by a businessman close to Mr. Assad, is widely viewed by the opposition as a tool of the state, accused of delivering humanitarian aid disproportionately to pro-Assad areas,” the influx of newer, younger volunteers was altering both the composition and perception of the capital’s Red Crescent operation, with “some Damascus crews...[pursuing] neutrality with surprising vigor.”


Khaled Erksoussi, the Red Crescent’s director of operations in Syria, could not be reached for comment in time for this story. But Ewan Watson, the ICRC’s Asia and Pacific communications officer, categorically denied that any Red Crescent personnel are coordinating with the regime or with Assad’s favorite Catholic missionary. “There is no link whatsoever between the ICRC and this person,” he told me, referring to Mother Agnes, whom he later said, in a follow-up call, none of his field agents had seen or interacted with at Moadamiyah. Watson was extremely concerned about such rumors. The ICRC, he insisted, was not even involved in the evacuations themselves, only in petitioning the government to allow Red Crescent personnel access to blighted areas and offering food and medicine and other supplies to civilians in extremity once such access was granted. He wouldn’t comment as to which specific groups or individuals did arrange the Moadamiyah evacuations. After the shelling started on Wednesday, the aid group’s trucks were forced to turn back to avoid being hit. 


As to what happens to civilians in Syria once the Red Crescent dispenses its aid and they’re taken to regime-controlled territory, he said: “We don’t have information at this stage as to where the civilians go. It’s not clear to us and we’re not involved in that.”


Embarrassing comparisons


When the Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman tried to paint a fictional pen-portrait of the Holodomor, or the Stalinist terror-tamine perpetrated in Ukraine from 1932-1933, it was a low-level Party official responsible for implementing the mass starvation of the “kulak” class whom he tasked with explaining what had happened:


“There was nothing people didn’t eat. They caught mice; they caught rats, jackdaws, sparrows, and ants; they dug up earthworms. They ground up old bones to make flour. They cut up leather, the soles of shoes, stinking old animal hides to make something like noodles; they oiled the noodles up to make a kind of gummy paste. When plants and grasses began to sprout, they started digging up roots and boiling leaves and buds. There was nothing they didn’t use; dandelions, burdock, bluebells, willow herb, goutweed, cow parsnip, nettles, stonecrop... They dried linden leaves and ground them into flour, but we only had a few lindens. The flatbreads made from linden leaves were green, worse than the ones made from acorns.”  


This mirrors almost exactly what civilians are now resorting to in Syria for basic sustenance. This state-perpetrated hunger atrocity, albeit nowhere near the scale of Stalin’s, is still distinguished by the embarrassing fact that the regime responsible for it had previously deployed chemical weapons against the starving and is now earning plaudits from respected international actors including the recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, for its professionalism in helping to disarm itself of chemical weapons.


So long as Assad is allowed to remain in power – and the terms of the U.S.-Russian agreement on WMD more or less allow him another year – no one should expect the Syrian terror-famine to let up.

Hunger is a terrible weapon. (AFP Photo/Adem Altan)

"This state-perpetrated hunger atrocity, albeit nowhere near the scale of Stalin’s, is still distinguished by the embarrassing fact that the regime responsible for it had previously deployed chemical weapons against the starving and is now earning plaudits from respected international actors."

  • fattyjay.althani

    Elizabeth O'Bagy School of Journalism?

    October 26, 2013

  • Beiruti

    The Chemical Weapons tool has been used most effectively by the Assad Regime. I do not mean by its kenitic use at Ghouta, but as a diplomatic tool. It is the pentultimate strategic move of the "arsonist and fireman" survival techniques of the Assad era. Assad is the arsonist because he has used CW on his people and could do so again. But then, he has made himself the essential fireman in cooperating with the OPCW to find and destroy the CW. Without Assad, the job of the OPCW would be almost impossible to perform, so Assad has moved his Regime from being escorted out the door, to warmly invited back in. And more than this, because the US Red Line was ONLY crossed by the use of CW, Assad has won a pass on anything he may wish to do to his people in order to subdue them short of shooting them with Serin Gas. Starving them is shameful, but for the US, that is not likely to cross the border and so it is not an international concern. So much for R2P which justified saving the Libyians from the wrath of Ghadaffi. When one has friends, as does Mr. Assad, one has a license to kill in order to survive by all means necessary, except the use of Serin Gas, and of course we must survive so that we can help you destroy our stockpile. The US policy in this matter is completely incoherent in that this result has obtained.

    October 21, 2013