Besieging civilians—cutting them off from food, supplies, and fuel—is a war crime. It is also a strategy that several parties to the conflict in Syria use, chief among them the Syrian government. Estimates of the number of Syrians currently living under siege vary widely, according to who is doing the reporting. For example, last December, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Damascus communicated back to the UN secretary-general’s office that 393,700 civilians were besieged. For the same period, Siege Watch estimated that the real figure was more than one million.
The disparity seems related to OCHA’s desire to stay in Damascus, which requires that it stay in the good graces of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That pandering to the Assad regime can also be seen in changes OCHA made to its 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan after a review by the Syrian government. Presumably based on Syrian objections, Yacoub El Hillo, OCHA’s resident coordinator, and Kevin Kennedy, OCHA’s regional coordinator, deleted every single reference to “siege” or “besieged” populations. From its base at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, OCHA decided that an area is merely “hard to reach” rather than besieged if it has received an aid convoy in the last three months, regardless of whether the supplies are sufficient for one month, let alone three.
One doesn’t need to travel far from Damascus to see how little a distinction there often is between a “hard to reach” and a “besieged” area. Madaya, a small town of 42,000 civilians, is less than an hour’s drive northeast from the Four Seasons. Once known to Syrians as a holiday resort, it is now synonymous with the suffering and starvation inflicted by the Syrian army and its militia allies. The severe malnutrition facing the people of Madaya—23 had died by January 7, according to Médecins Sans Frontières—won the city intense international focus, but OCHA did not list
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