Siege Weapons

Assad Walls Off the Besieged Damascus Suburb He Gassed in 2013

The Syrian regime seems to be able to get away with anything. Now it’s ignoring a UN-endorsed truce in order to starve out its opponents.

08.12.15 8:35 PM ET

They’ve been gassed, starved, and shelled. Now they’re being walled in.

For years, the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyah has seen the worst of Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes. Not only was it hit with sarin gas in the infamous August 2013 attack, its people also were subjected to a year-long terror-famine—a policy of “starvation or submission,” as one Assad regime official put it at the time.

A “truce” was supposed to allow food, medical equipment, and people to come and go from Moadamiyah, but after serial violations the regime has now quietly constructed a 4-meter earthen wall to block off the last remaining point of entry and exit. For five nights straight, the town has faced artillery bombardment and today there have been reports of daytime shelling as well. Six are dead and dozens more injured, according to residents.

“People are prevented to go in or out, even the urgent cases,” Dani Qappani, a pseudonymous activist inside the town, tells The Daily Beast, after posting a photo to his Facebook page of the tall dirt barrier. “Assad’s checkpoints prevent the ill or those who suffer from malnutrition to be hospitalized out of the city. Two weeks ago, a baby died at one of the checkpoints after the regime prevented his mother from taking him to a hospital in Damascus. The only hospital in Moadamiyah lacks everything.”

Having their entire community enclosed and isolated is just the latest atrocity the 44,000 inhabitants of Moadamiyah have been forced to suffer. Beginning in 2012, the regime cut off all humanitarian resupplies to the town and waited until local stocks slowly ran out.

Even after the chemical weapon attack, residents were forced to subsist on a diet of olives and leaves and, in some instances, slaughtered dogs, cats, and donkeys, animals which are not allowed to be consumed in Islam under ordinary circumstances but which local religious authorities decreed permissible in light of the food scarcity.

A series of civilian “evacuations” started in October 2013 ended in fiasco. They had been observed by aid workers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and overseen by Mother Agnes Mariam, a Lebanese-born Carmelite nun loyal to the regime (she’s claimed that the chemical attacks were “staged” by the opposition). Thousands of civilians were removed from Moadamiyah. But according to former Free Syrian Army (FSA) spokesman Kassam Eid (at the time known by his nom de guerre Qusai Zakarya) many, including children, were arrested by Syrian intelligence agents and interrogated and beaten at detention facilities before being released.

In a recorded phone call Mother Agnes had with Eid following one of these evacuations, she acknowledged the arrest of one boy and said: “It is better if unarmed civilians surrender and turn themselves in.”

In late December 2013, the regime and FSA signed a “truce,” one which has subsequently been held up by the UN’s Special Envoy to Syria Steffan de Mistura as an example of how localized moratoria on fighting might be achieved elsewhere.

The Baathist flag had to be raised at the highest point in the town, atop a water tower, and authority over Moadamiyah to be transferred back to the regime; the FSA had to surrender its weapons and turn over local activists for interrogation; then food and medicine would be allowed in. But even this was conditional. “They allowed it only for a couple months,” Qappani says. “After that, they prevented all people to bring in no more than what a family needs daily to make sure people don’t store food.”

In November 2014, remarkably, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) removed Moadamiyah from the list of “besieged” towns in Syria, arguing that the truce had effectively ended the town’s isolation. This even though a report subsequently released by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) made it clear “the Syrian government has failed to uphold its part of the agreement: the town remains ringed by checkpoints, without water or utilities, and the amount of aid that has been allowed in is not sufficient to support the population.”

The report, titled “Slow Death: Life and Death in Syrian Communities Under Siege,” (PDF) also found that as of February 2015 the only checkpoint in Moadamiyah was closed off and “the district had once again been isolated under strict siege. Egregiously, the government has also resumed bombing the town, following peaceful protests in February to release detainees.”

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When informed about the 4-meter wall now cutting off Moadamiyah from the rest of Damascus, Amanda Pitt, a spokesperson for OCHA, emailed The Daily Beast: “We’re also hearing worrying reports and have asked for more clarification from our colleagues in the field. As often is the case in volatile conflict situations, conditions on the ground can change without much warning, affecting the humanitarian situation of the people caught in the middle of fighting parties, and assistance for the people. As we have noted previously, the term ‘besieged’ is applied to a place where nothing is going in or coming out. Despite a cease-fire agreement between the parties last year, enabling some goods to go into Moadamiyeh, and people to leave, the people remain extremely hard to reach with humanitarian assistance.”

“It’s not a surprise that Assad thugs finally built that wall,” says Kassam Eid, who nearly died after exposure to the sarin nerve agent two years ago and now lives in the United States, where he has briefed the U.N. Security Council on the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in his country. “In fact I think it’s better they built it to make the siege look more clear for all the blind eyes who thought the siege on Moadamiyah was lifted after the fake cease-fire.”

In June, residents of the town protested against what they called “UN inaction” when Moadamiyah was visited by delegates of de Mistura’s team. They brought neither food nor medicine with them and, according to Qappani, “we called de Mistura’s office two days ago. We told them how the situation look like here. One of them said they can do nothing. Another said they will talk to the regime to stop shelling, which didn’t stop.”

“Let’s be clear about what the Assad regime is doing [in] Moadamiyah,” said Chris Harmer, a Syria analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War. “They are besieging and starving to death tens of thousands of innocent civilians. This is just the latest example that when it comes to U.S. policy toward Syria there are no actual red lines that the Assad regime can cross. With the rise of the Islamic State American policy in action has essentially said the Assad regime can do whatever it wants without any consequences whatsoever.”