Friday Puzzler: Why Would Assad Starve Thousands of Syrians To Death?

By Erica Chenoweth

Aleppo, 2012. Screencap from Voice of America News report, via Wikimedia.
Aleppo bread line, 2012. Screencap from Voice of America News report, via Wikimedia.

There is harrowing news out of Moadamiya, Syria in the last few weeks. There are still an estimated 8,000 people in this town southeast of Damascus, which has been reportedly under siege since October 2012. Dozens of people have apparently died of starvation in this town, and as winter comes, there is fear of many more deaths. One local leader, Qusai Zakarya, has been on hunger strike since November 26 to pressure domestic and international groups to deliver food to starving civilians in Moadamiya and elsewhere.

The story of this place is echoed around Syria, where we have been hearing reports for months of Syrians resorting to desperate measures to eat. But there have also been some cases where locals have negotiated ceasefires between rebels groups and the regime so that food aid could come in.

Today’s puzzler is therefore twofold: why deny food aid into areas under siege? And — perhaps even more importantly — why allow food into some besieged towns but not others?

  1. The question asks about Bashar Assad rather than the Syrian army. I doubt that Assad is making most of these decisions, that he has as much control over his military as many would have us believe and is implied in the question. Either way, the fog of war makes for arbitrary decisions and random outcomes, from the distribution of food and determination of who will starve to the distribution of hostile fire and fatalities.

  2. For a country which has been in turmoil, even if not that one but those around have been unstable for quite a long time! Didn’t the population had any clue that life is not secure where they are and that sooner or later they would have been oblidged to face adversity with strength but they did not! All they want is to wait for help from the West! War does not happen overnight!

  3. Good point. I recall the hope surrounding Bashar’s assumption of his father’s office, and we all watched as Assad-the-Younger found himself bound (it was thought) by his father’s old guard. At this level, he’s indirectly complicit to some extent. Depends on the inner workings of his government which is something I cannot speak to.

  4. There is every reason to believe the blockade strategy is calculated and managed from somewhere in the inner circle. Moreover, there is every reason to believe this strategy will intensify in the coming months as the regime works to re-consolidate its power. Why starve the population? Collective punishment has been an unhappy hallmark of this Baathist regime, the last and the one that used to be in Iraq. There are no innocent civilians in the eyes of the regime – only confirmed supporters, confirmed rebels and suspects. However, from a strategic perspective the interesting (and in my opinion telling) question is why let some food in in some locations. I believe the answer lies with Axelrod: tit for tat with occasional forgiveness, a sub-optimal but useful strategy if you seek to gradually reassert control. I would predict that more evidence of magnanimity on the part of the regime indicates increasing confidence they will resume power. Authoritarian regimes, even the most brutal, rely on coalitions of supporters to stay in power. In letting food into select areas Assad (or his regime if you prefer) is signalling that cooperation will be rewarded and forgiveness is possible. Given the abject failure of the FSA, more and more Syrians are likely to take up this offer. Waiting to long, risks becoming an example when the definitive sea change occurs.

    Dismal, brutal, utterly logical and rational

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