Government forces recently upped the ante, erecting more checkpoints on all roads leading into the city, in an attempt to catch anyone associated with the opposition.
In October, a Syrian official referred to the government’s actions there as “starvation or submission,” cutting off all aid and supplies in an attempt to bring Moadamiyeh’s opposition to its knees. But it is yielding results: on Dec. 26, the town’s rebel-aligned citizens agreed to the first, tentative stage of a truce with the regime.
A video released by activists and published on YouTube showed the two-star Syrian flag, which the opposition calls the “regime flag,” waving over the town’s water tank, the highest point in this rebel-controlled area. (The original opposition flag, often flown in opposition areas, has three stars.)
Over the last few months, a series of small-scale bargains has been reached between rebel-controlled towns and the regime, similar to a deal in the fall of 2013 that allowed some 5,000 residents to evacuate Moadamiyeh.
The crux of the Moadamiyeh truce is the government’s demand that the rebels hand over heavy weapons in exchange for the opening of aid channels. It’s the first time such a demand has been (tentatively) accepted.
Strategy of Starvation
For the past two years, seeking to tighten its grip on the outskirts of its capital stronghold, the regime has been pushing to regain control of rebellious Damascus suburbs like Moadamiyeh. Three years into the war, the tactic of laying crippling sieges to densely populated areas has proven the most effective.
Following months of negotiations, Moadamiyeh residents and government representatives finally reached their truce. The government-sponsored National Reconciliation Committee, which was the mediator, raised the two-star Syrian flag in the center of town as a “goodwill gesture” to announce the truce is now in effect.
Hakim, the head of the Moadamiyeh Media Center, said that, according to the truce, regime forces would allow the entry of food and medical aid into the town. In exchange, residents are to push opposition fighters to give up their heavy artillery as well as cease firing on the nearby Arbaeen highway: a key military supply route that links the western countryside and capital. Residents have dubbed the highway the “road of death” due to the heavy sniper activity.
“There is nothing more difficult than watching a child die in front of you, his bones protruding due to malnutrition, while you can’t offer anything to save his life,” Hakim said, explaining why the town finally agreed to a deal with the government.
The Free Syrian Army has been unable to get food and medical aid into the town, finally compelling them to accept the truce. With 8,500 civilians trapped, many were suffering from malnutrition while others’ health had deteriorated in the absence of medicine and medical equipment.
According to Hakim, opposition fighters plan to stay inside the town, but as part of the deal, they will turn over the two armored vehicles they had previously seized from regime forces.
Nation Under Siege
The siege strategy is not limited to Moadamiyeh. It’s also in effect in outlying towns like Daraya to the southwest of the capital, and eastern Ghouta to the east of Damascus. The longest-running blockade is in Homs, where 14 neighborhoods have been cut off from all supplies for over 18 months.
It also includes the 20,000 residents of the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp in Damascus, where starvation is setting in. Five people there died of starvation last Friday, and 18 since the camp came under siege six months ago. There is no agricultural land to cultivate there, further impacting their situation.
Filippo Grandi, commissioner-general of UNRWA (U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), said that his agency has been unable to enter the Yarmouk camp since September 2013 to deliver aid. Negotiations for a Moadamiyeh-like truce have thus far been unsuccessful in Yarmouk.
Meanwhile, the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition in exile, has condemned the use of “systematic starvation” as a war tactic against the Syrian people.
“We deplore this despicable act that has been criminalized by International Law. We fear this has become a legitimate means of warfare used by the Assad regime in light of the silence of the international community,” it said in a statement following the Moadamiyeh truce in late December.