BEIRUT, Lebanon – Starving civilians into submission is a war crime. Yet siege warfare has become a widespread tactic in the Syrian conflict, especially with government and pro-government forces, for one simple reason: It works.
But while sieges are a brutally cost-effective way to win back territory with minimal cost, there’s another, even uglier reason they’ve become so popular in the Syrian conflict. As some of the country’s longstanding sieges enter their fifth year, starvation itself has evolved from a military tactic into a profitable underground economy.
Besieged civilians are a captive and extremely lucrative market. Today, at least 590,200 people are officially under siege in Syria, according to the United Nations; the independent watchdog group Siege Watch estimates that over 1 million people are being deliberately starved, most of them by the government. The traders and businesspeople who control the flow of black-market goods into besieged areas reap enormous profits. “It’s not only money that people are gaining from this, but also goods,” says Will Todman, who wrote a recent report for the Middle East Institute on siege profiteering. “And even winning loyalty comes into it.”
Todman spoke to Syria Deeply about the war economy that has grown up around sieges inside Syria, how traders and profiteers manipulate prices, and some of the dilemmas for humanitarian groups trying to bring aid into besieged areas.
Syria Deeply: Your report was a portrait of what I would call the “siege sector.” Did you get a sense of the overall size of this sector?
Will Todman: It’s difficult, because these things fluctuate so much. The prices are constantly going up and down. The traders will lower their prices to meet whatever they think demand is, or whatever they think people can pay.
One indication is the Wafideen crossing, out of Eastern Ghouta, near Douma. It’s nicknamed the Million Checkpoint [Hajez al-Milyon]. The soldiers on the checkpoint are taking a million Syrian pounds [about $4,600] an hour from bribes. That’s just a fraction of the whole thing.
Syria Deeply: Everyone I’ve talked to in besieged areas has described a similar pattern of selectively banning certain goods: One week you can’t bring in bread, the next you can’t bring in chickpeas. At first everyone thought this was a form of psychological warfare. After reading your report, I’m beginning to wonder if those running the checkpoints are banning certain goods in order to manipulate prices.
Todman: I’m sure psychological warfare plays a role in it. But the overwhelming thing, which I hadn’t really appreciated when I started looking at this, was the economic side.
I think sieges did start as a military tactic, and they’re pretty effective. From a counterinsurgency military perspective, early on they achieved their aim: Look at the very first siege, of Daraa, which went on for about 10 days and made things settle down again. Elsewhere, on a bigger scale, ultimately you could say that they worked.
But now it’s become about making money. Traders get agreements from very high up, often from connections in the regime, to be allowed to import a certain good. Because there’s so few goods getting in in the first place, it’s really difficult to try and nurture alternative economic networks that could form some kind of competition. They’re free to exploit as much as they want. Eastern Ghouta is the prime example of this economic exploitation.
So I wouldn’t be surprised if this tactic of allowing a certain product in one day, and then not, might be to try and make the most profits. To let the demand increase, and then suddenly allow them in, and take lots of money when everyone’s desperate for something – for cooking oil, fuel or whatever it might be.
I tried to trace the evolution of corruption, really both in the Syrian army and also with pro-regime militias. I think that might help explain how the profiteering aspect of this came about. There are a few examples that show just how important that is.
Hezbollah took over the checkpoints at Madaya in late 2015. That’s when those horrific, horrific images of emaciated children and civilians came out. It was so stark that this was after Hezbollah had taken over, because I think they’re much less corrupt than either the Syrian forces or pro-regime militias. So, soon after a change in the actor enforcing the siege, you can suddenly see that impact. That was an indication to me just how much corruption was going on.
Syria Deeply: So the lack of corruption actually caused people to starve more? There’s an interesting point there about the role of smuggling and bribery and profiteering – that perhaps they also help people to survive.
Todman: I spoke to someone with good contacts in the regime who said that soldiers are sent to sieges as a reward. They’ll get sent to wherever the front lines are at the moment; and then, almost like a vacation, they’ll get posted to a checkpoint by a siege, and effectively given the green light to exploit as much as they can. Because they don’t know how long they’re going to be deployed there, or when they’ll next be paid their salary.
Syria Deeply: Did you hear of any examples of that happening with anti-government or pro-opposition militias as well?
Todman: I didn’t speak to anyone living inside an opposition group siege, but I heard anecdotally that these things are happening there as well. I got the impression that it’s almost as though they’d learned from what the regime was doing and were trying to mimic it, as a means of making money, and also as a means of revenge.
I’m not trying to ignore the sieges that aren’t imposed by the regime. But they’re so overwhelmingly imposed by regime or pro-regime forces that I do think it’s appropriate to focus on that. Often the armed groups who are being besieged find ways of benefiting from this as well. But it’s always the civilians who end up right on the bottom.
Syria Deeply: What about sieges by ISIS or Nusra?
Todman: I heard from people in Deir Ezzor that it’s much more difficult to get goods in through ISIS checkpoints. There’s not the same levels of smuggling at all. There doesn’t have to be, because the regime can still fly all that stuff in. This is why I would define Deir Ezzor as being besieged by the regime and ISIS at the same time. Because the ways in which goods are distributed once they’ve been flown in through the military airport, I would say, are very similar to sieges elsewhere. It’s not physically going through a checkpoint, but the quantities are still designed in a way to increase the amount they can make civilians there pay.
Syria Deeply: Sieges are by definition hard to break. But do you see any viable ways to alleviate the human suffering of people inside besieged areas?
Todman: U.N. convoys are incredibly problematic. Yes, we’re seeing a few more now, but it’s still meeting a fraction of the need, and not sustainable at all. The things that are being sent in are not really the things that people need to be able to restart their lives.
But if you’re looking purely at the war economy, I do think that convoys are probably one of the best ways of breaking the hold that some of these actors have over the whole system. It’s far from perfect, and I wouldn’t say that’s what we’ve got to do, but I think they are one of the ways of helping. Obviously the best thing is to stop the sieges.