Besiege, Assault, Evacuate: The “Kneel or Starve” Strategy
Syria’s cities have been one of Assad’s greatest challenges. It was in the cities that his opponents, often untrained and lightly armed, were best able to challenge the regime; but, allowing Syria’s largest cities to fall posed a grave strategic risk to his rule. Once the initial crackdown failed to break the opposition’s resistance, the regime turned to siege tactics.
Throughout the conflict, more than forty localities have been besieged, most in the suburbs of Damascus and Homs. Following Russia’s military intervention in 2015, and particularly from the summer of 2016, key sieges were intensified into air and ground assaults. This ultimately forced the opposition to accept evacuation or “reconciliation” deals, which left the shattered shells of their former strongholds once more in government hands.
The siege that broke Aleppo followed this pattern. It began in July with cutting off Castello Road, the crucial approach road leading into the northeast of the city. It was contested by the opposition, and then progressively tightened by the regime, through the fall, before a heavy military offensive forced the residents into an evacuation deal in midwinter.
Aleppo was the largest and most strategically important city to fall to this strategy, but it was not the first; nor, given the success of the campaign, is it likely to be the last. As such, it is vital to situate Aleppo within the broader strategy of “kneel or starve” employed across Syria, and to understand the policies and tactics used.
Each High Contracting Party shall allow the free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores and objects necessary for religious worship intended only for civilians of another High Contracting Party, even if the latter is its adversary. It shall likewise permit the free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs, clothing and tonics intended for children under fifteen, expectant mothers and maternity cases.
Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 23
Besiege, Assault, Evacuate
Sieges were characteristic of this conflict from its early days. In late 2012, Assad’s forces laid siege to Darayya and Moadamiya, close to Damascus. Further sieges were imposed on Old Homs in 2012 and east Ghouta and elsewhere throughout 2013 and 2014. Additional sieges were imposed on Madaya, Zabadani, and elsewhere in 2015. As early as 2013, graffiti scrawled by pro-government fighters characterized the sieges with the motto, “Kneel or starve.”
Not all of the sieges were imposed by Assad’s forces: Kafrya and Foua, two Shia towns in the Idlib countryside, have been besieged by opposition forces since 2015, and Deir Ezzour has been besieged by ISIS since 2015.
Across Syria, residents of at least thirty-nine different areas have been subject to siege warfare at different times throughout the conflict. While not all have been recognized as sieges by the UN, they have been exhaustively monitored by the advocacy group Siege Watch.
Of the thirty-nine, only three were besieged by opposition groups. Siege Watch counted over 1.3 million people living under siege, and an additional 1.1 million people facing the threat of siege. In August 2016, the UN’s reporting identified 590,200 people as being under siege, a number that was revised to 974,080 as of November 1, after extensive pressure by Siege Watch.
Wherever the sieges were imposed, they brought mass suffering. Unable to travel freely in and out of the siege areas, residents suffered restrictions on food and essential medical equipment. In January 2016, the UN entered Madaya for the first time since the siege began, to find children starving to death. The reports they had heard about children eating grass or making “stone soup” were true.
— Zaher Sahloul (@sahloul) January 25, 2016
The starvation appears to have been premeditated and systematic. The Syrian government’s control over the dissemination of aid ensured that sieges, once begun, were difficult to penetrate, even for humanitarian organizations.
According to Jan Egeland, the chair of the UN International Syria Support Group’s Humanitarian Task Force, humanitarian aid met a monthly average of just 21 percent of the needs of people in besieged areas in 2016. Despite repeated UN Security Council resolutions, aid never flowed freely. Each month, the UN asked the Syrian government permission to access these areas; each month, it was denied in the majority of cases. When convoys were allowed to enter, medical supplies and equipment were often removed by government forces. Food and nutritional items were often not allowed on the convoy in the first place.
The Syrian government steadily increased its stranglehold on the country’s besieged areas. Speaking on January 3, 2017, Egeland said: “In December , we had only one convoy going to one place, one place only, Khan Elshih, and it became our worst month in that respect since the task force was created.” Khan Elshih had not previously been described as besieged by the UN.
In some cases, local forces used the siege to line their pockets. Local businessmen both inside and outside the sieges used them to gain status and wealth. This power play was strategically advantageous to the government, which gained and maintained allies through its ability to channel and control the flow of aid. Hezbollah forces were even harsher in their application of siege strategy in Madaya and Zabadani.
However, sieges can be cumbersome and slow. In August 2016, a change of strategy by the government ended the four-year siege of Darayya when the starvation policy gave way to a decisive, “scorched earth” offensive that pressured residents into accepting an evacuation deal. The victory appeared to embolden the pro-government forces to try the same technique in other areas.
Aleppo Under Seige
Aleppo itself was not fully besieged until mid-2016. On July 27, the SAA and allied forces finally took control of Castello Road, the coveted and beleaguered approach road into the northeast of the city. Opposition forces retaliated on August 6 by taking Ramousah Road in the southwest, though their hold was shaky and the road was constantly shelled. This effectively besieged the government-held west of the city, illustrating the no-win situation presented to civilians on both sides.
On August 26—the same day that Darayya fell— the government launched a campaign to retake Ramousah. On September 4, the assault succeeded. From then on, east Aleppo was cut off.
Due to the constant threat of siege, humanitarian agencies had stockpiled three months’ worth of food in east Aleppo by mid-July. These supplies were rationed out until December. The reprieve in August, under a temporary ceasefire, saw a limited number of small aid shipments from NGOs enter the city, but the road was under constant shelling, so only a limited amount of supplies got in. Despite repeated requests for access, UN aid was blocked entirely.
The cost of goods in east Aleppo rose exponentially as the siege went on. Market data collected by the international NGO, MercyCorps, tracked the cost of essential household items in east Aleppo through the last nine months of 2016. As the siege dragged on, toward the end of 2016, the items doubled in cost, and sometimes increased in price by as much as eight times.
But Aleppo was not destined to endure the long, drawn-out suffering of a siege: its agony was to be shorter and sharper. The methods used to break Darayya, and before that Old Homs, were repeated on a larger scale. Encirclement was followed by a sustained bombardment that struck civilian facilities, including hospitals, repeatedly. Indiscriminate air attacks multiplied, including the documented use of chlorine gas, cluster munitions, and incendiaries. The nature and scale of these attacks is documented elsewhere in this report.
Two months after the circle of siege was in place, the final ground offensive began. It was brutal and decisive. Government forces advanced rapidly. Many residents fled; those who did not think they were safe with the government bunched up into the remaining, ever-decreasing space. Families sought shelter wherever they could find it. As the temperature dropped, conditions for those remaining dropped along with them.
As in Darayya, the pressure brought to bear on the civilian population ultimately broke the resistance. In the final weeks of the siege, and especially after the hospitals had been bombarded, the civilians of east Aleppo demanded an end to their suffering. According to a report by the NGO Violations Documentation Center (VDC) that documents casualties in Syria: “Civilians in the city clearly demanded the leaders of armed groups to initiate the negotiations with the government forces in order to reach a ceasefire and give civilians the chance to evacuate the Eastern neighborhoods.”
A further chapter will detail east Aleppo’s final days, and the evacuation and suffering that followed. Here, it need only be said that by the time residents finally made it to safety through the evacuation operation, their general condition was described as “exhausted and traumatized by the journey, danger, [and] emotions of having to leave everything behind.”
Aleppo was broken. The strategy of besiege, assault, evacuate had worked.