On Jan. 12, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were finally allowed to deliver aid to Madaya, the Syrian town that has been besieged by president Bashar al-Assad’s government forces and his allies for the last six months. The U.N. says an estimated 300 to 400 severely malnourished people in Madaya and two northern towns hemmed in by rebels are living in “horrifying conditions.”
However, there’s a global movement calling out the international community’s ongoing efforts as mere Band-Aids. Almost one million people have signed onto a campaign organized by the global civic organization Avaaz to end the siege. Little can alleviate the deteriorating humanitarian suffering in Syria as long as the blockade, which gave rise to this horror, is allowed to continue. The U.N. is empowered to intervene and help end the siege, instead of simply delivering food and medicine to the victims.
Madaya’s 42,000 besieged residents are being starved. Bombs, checkpoints and snipers from the Assad regime and its proxy Hezbollah fighters encircle the town. People have been forced to eat insects, tree leaves and even cats. There is virtually no escape from Madaya. Desperate families must make a terrible choice: starve to death or run the gauntlet of the minefields that surrounds the town. A few days ago, a mine explosion and militia fire killed a pregnant mother and her young daughter as they tried to flee.
We’ve been here before. In October, after months of blockade led to similar tragedies, Madaya received temporary food deliveries. This postponed a real solution — enforcing the cease-fire agreements to lift the siege — indefinitely. The convoys’ arrival did not improve living conditions in Madaya. In fact, some of the supplies were expired and even moldy and the food only lasted a few weeks.
In September, Iran and Turkey, two of the sponsors of the war in Syria, negotiated truces between their proxy forces on the ground. The agreement led to ceasefires in Madaya and other towns blockaded by rebel forces. The U.N. then helped broker another agreement which stopped the barrage of airstrikes, barrel bombs and shelling and allowed the safe passage of the wounded. The terms of those ceasefires required not only that the fighting end, but also that the blockades be lifted. Many Syrians saw this as a sign of hope for resolving the five-year-long conflict.
But the agreements have yet to be fully enforced. Madaya and the besieged Syrian towns need freedom, not just food. How long before the hundreds of thousands of people currently trapped in Madaya, Foua and Kefraya are starved to death?
The conflict in Syria is complicated. But global responsibility to prevent mass starvation is not. Forced transfer and starvation is illegal under international law. With public outrage focused on the horrifying images of emaciated children, Avaaz is calling on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura to take urgent action to ensure that all parties respect the ceasefires and lift the sieges.
Ban Ki-moon must ramp up diplomacy to help save thousands of lives and lift sieges and protect civilians across Syria. This would be key to building confidence ahead of peace talks slated for later this month.
But it won’t be enough. At least a dozen countries are militarily engaged in the Syrian conflict, which has caused an unprecedented refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East. As such, the resolution of the Syrian crisis demands the involvement of all stakeholders.
Hunger and hopelessness in Madaya are no longer a secret. The starvation is likely to persist as long the siege is upheld. And the siege will last as long as the world remains silent. It would be a grand betrayal of Syrian civilians if the international attention turns away once the U.N. aid is delivered. In his last year in office, the world is looking to Ban Ki-moon to show what the U.N. can be at its best.
When children are being deliberately starved to death, when pregnant mothers are leading their children into minefields, the world must do more than offer food handouts. Still, enforcing the ceasefire agreements and lifting the siege won’t end the Syrian war. But allowing the blockades to continue will make lasting peace in Syria harder to find than food on the streets of Madaya.