Deliberate starvation: impact on peace and reconstruction in Syria

Inclusive Economy03 Jul 2014David Connolly, Agnese Macaluso

For the international community, realizing the magnitude of the challenges and the spiralling economic costs, that include ripple effects on stability and foreign investment in the region, may be what it takes.

After three years of civil war in Syria, there is clear evidence that both the government and rebel groups have deliberately starved civilian populations (as a weapon of war), among other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

By December 2013, the UN estimated that 250,000 Syrians had been “cut off from aid in besieged communities”, and Human Rights Watch reported that the “Syrian government and some opposition forces are preventing the delivery of humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of civilians in areas under siege”. As a more recent trend, the UN World Food Programconfirmed a mass exodus of Syrians into areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad, as a direct result of the counterinsurgency campaign to cut off food supplies in opposition-controlled areas.

This brief commentary focuses on how starvation, and in particular where it is deliberate, impacts profoundly across generations of individuals and communities, and the Syrian state. The analysis below highlights how hunger produces intractable cycles of vulnerability through the devastation of agriculture, forced displacement, deep societal divisions, and poverty.

We argue that the far-reaching implications for Syria and the region call for all the parties to recognize the long-term consequences of their behaviour and underline the need for international political will and economic support.

From a humanitarian perspective, the situation in Syria is particularly urgent because the blockades are resulting in malnutrition, starvation, an outbreak of polio, and poor health, particularly for children. In the Yarmouk camp, Damascus, 128 individuals are reported to have starved to death, between the tightening of the siege in July 2013 and February 2014. An outcome of this and other sieges is that approximately 80 per cent of Syrians report that their greatest fear is that their food stores will be exhausted, not that they will be violently killed.

The Geneva Convention(s) proscribe deliberate starvation as a tactic of combat, since it undermines the urgent and basic humanitarian need of access to food (and to medicines and blankets) and creates the reasonable and foreseeable risk that victims’ right to life will be threatened. Nevertheless, it is a common trend in war and armed conflict. For instance, in Ethiopia in the 1980s, the acting foreign minister admitted, “food is a major element in our strategy against the secessionists”. There are several further examples where the domestic budget for humanitarian aid and food distribution has been diverted to security and financing war, as seen in Sudan in 1990. Responsible parties can also include rebels, with 260,000 people starving to death in Somalia in 2011 in areas where Al-Shabab prohibited civilians from fleeing or aid organizations from accessing territory they controlled.

Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia demonstrate how deliberate starvation can trigger a cycle of hunger and compound other vulnerabilities. It can quickly become both an effect and cause of the violence that continues long into the ‘post-conflict’ phase, constraining the capacity for recovery and proving difficult and costly to unravel and resolve.

In Syria, the scarcity of food has already provoked a price increase for primary staples, with 1kg of rice costing between US$70 to US$100 by the end of 2013. The heightened demand for food and other necessities in other contexts can transform food shortage into famine, as identified in the aforementioned case of Ethiopia. Globally by 1994, armed conflict produced malnutrition, food shortage and poverty across 32 countries, and there were at least 10 more countries where hunger persisted in the aftermath of war, civil disorder, or as a result of conflict-related sanctions.

For individuals affected, forced starvation combines many psychological and contingent factors, with people losing their ability to produce food and over time becoming dependent on food assistance. It can in turn lead to even greater poverty by debilitating people’s ability to work and learn, inhibiting their skills, thus leading to even greater hunger especially for youth. Under-nutrition, particularly among children before five, impacts on the quality and cost of education because it undermines their ability to concentrate and learn.Evidence from Ethiopia demonstrated that stunted children are more likely to repeat grades at school. In Nepal, children were more likely to drop out of school and be sent to work when food became less accessible or prices increased. Overall, the desperate need for food over time can also undermine social cohesion and create violent disputes within communities.

Countries that are heavily dependent on agriculture, like Syria, are more likely to suffer the mid-to-long-term impact of starvation. Insufficient access to food is also an underlying cause of the initial outbreak of conflict in Syria, with 60 per cent of the land suffering from drought and crop failures between 2006 and 2011.

At the same time, the intentional disruption of agricultural production, through the destruction and devastation of the means to produce food, deforestation, and the killing of livestock, is one of the most common practices of deliberate starvation. Instability in agricultural production can have broader destabilizing effects, since the competition for scarce agricultural resources can trigger social, ethnic, and cultural tensions that lead to violence, as happened in Liberia in the 1990s, with food price riots creating a prolonged period of instability.

Starvation in Syria has forced many to leave their homes. Internally, people have been uprooted from rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo to the government-controlled western part of the city; whereas those in rebel-controlled Homs and rural Hama moved to government-controlled Hama City and Salamiya, where food is more accessible.

More than 2.8 million persons have fled to Lebanon, Jordan Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, which has created instances of violent conflict and wider regional instability, including pressures on basic health delivery, housing availability, job markets, and the socio-economic capacities of host communities. Over time, large-scale demographic changes and relocation – especially for the workforce – will weaken the supply of labour, which in turn increases pressure on scarce natural resources and existing infrastructure both within the conflict-affected state and among the neighbouring countries.

With the collapse of the peace talks in Geneva and the resignation of UN peace envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, there is certainly the need for fresh thinking, and to seize the opportunity to introduce new entry points for inclusive dialogue and cooperation.

Reaching agreement among all parties to uphold international humanitarian law should be an absolute priority. As a starting point, it needs to be realized that deliberate starvation, despite any short-lived military gains, is not in the respective interests of the Syrian government or the rebel groups.

The evidence so far and in learning lessons from other contexts, demonstrates that it will lead to a fragile or even collapsed state, propped up at best by a weak system of perpetual humanitarian relief. For the international community, realizing the magnitude of the challenges and the spiralling economic costs, that include ripple effects on stability and foreign investment in the region, may also be the necessary leverage to forge political consensus for peace making and support for reconstruction.

This expert opinion was published earlier on Open Democracy


Cited in M. Meredith (2005) The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (New York: Public Affairs, 2005), p.343.
D. Keen (1994) “The Functions of Famine in South-western Sudan: Implications for Relief”, in J. Macrae and A. Zwi, eds. War and Hunger. London: Zed Books, pp. 111-124.
M. Flores (2004) ‘Conflicts, Rural Development and Food Security in West Africa’, ESA Working Paper 04-02, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Agricultural and Development Economics Division, Rome.