Nearly 650,000 Syrians are living in besieged communities in the current crisis, more than three times the U.N. estimate, according to a new report that offers a graphic account of hundreds of deaths in areas the world has struggled for years to reach.
The report says Syria’s government is responsible for the overwhelming amount of siege tactics that have led to deaths by starvation, dehydration and the lack of medical care.
The “Slow Death” report is by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which supports medical workers in besieged areas. The organization presented its findings Thursday to U.N. officials and to a closed-door meeting sponsored by the United States, Britain, France and other states and organized by Qatar.
The U.N. estimates that 212,000 Syrians live in besieged areas beyond the reach of humanitarian aid.
But the new report, to be released next week, says the U.N. is too narrowly defining “besieged” and is inadvertently underplaying the crisis. It says more than 640,200 people are besieged. It also echoes claims by an increasing number of aid groups that the international response to the overall conflict, particularly by the deeply divided U.N. Security Council, has failed.
“We’re not talking about quote-unquote terrorists, we’re talking about families who have nothing to do with armed groups,” the president of the Syrian American Medical Society, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, told the AP. The group describes itself as being a neutral medical organization.
The new report says those tactics have had a devastating impact on dozens of communities trapped in the Syrian conflict, which this month enters its fifth year. It identifies 38 communities that it says should be considered besieged beyond the 11 areas that the United Nations recognizes.
While the U.N. and aid groups have struggled to get aid into Syria, the besieged areas are considered to be at the end of the line.
The report’s website, Syriaundersiege.org, lists 560 people who have died in besieged areas, including photos of 345 of them. To emphasize the civilian impact of the deaths, the organization says it did its best to keep out people with links to armed groups.
The report says all of the 560 deaths in that dataset “were in areas besieged by the Syrian government.”
Sahloul and others on Thursday presented diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison, with some of the images of the dead that accompany the report. The website’s photos of victims include emaciated children.
“A lot of people cried, It was kind of intense,” said Valerie Szybala, the author of the report, who attended the meeting. She said that Russia and China, who have vetoed resolutions attempting to take action on the Syrian crisis, did not attend.
Szybala said the medical organization knows well the politics that have brought the council to a near-standstill on Syria. “But we’re trying to find creative ways to address this, because it’s not acceptable to just sit around. People are dying,” she said.
The report argues that the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs should immediately reconsider the way it designates besieged areas and not be too quick to remove a community from its existing list, especially when the only access to a community is controlled by the “besieging party.”
It also calls on the U.N. to arrange for international monitors to make sure all parties uphold the terms of local cease-fires, which at times are a trigger to remove a community from the list of besieged.
Hisham Marwa, vice president of the Syrian Coalition, said the Assad regime, in his desperate attempt to crush the revolution, not only has used many weapons against rebel areas, but has also followed the policy of collective punishment against 100,000s of civilians by imposing crippling sieges on many areas across Syria. “The starvation of civilians besieged in the Yarmouk refugee camp, East Ghouta near Damascus, and Al Waer near Homs is a war crime and genocide against civilians in those areas.”
“The Assad regime continues to flagrantly violate the UN Security Council resolutions 2139 and 2165 which calls for lifting the siege imposed on all areas in Syria and the cross-border introduction of humanitarian aid without the consent of the Assad regime.” Moreover, Marwa stresses that the plight of civilians in the besieged areas has been further exacerbated by bitter cold and severe shortages of lifesaving necessities, which places greater responsibility on the international community to respond to the tragedy of the Syrian people.” (Source: Syrian Coalition + Al Nahar Newspaper)