This memorandum addresses the issue of starvation crimes committed during the war in Syria (2012-18) including the goals and methods of the perpetrators, the outcomes for the victims, and the possibilities for legal redress. It includes an overview of the use of starvation during the war and case studies of Eastern Ghouta (in the Damascus suburbs), Aleppo and Deir Alzor. Detailed legal analysis of starvation issues is addressed elsewhere.
Before the conflict, Syria was a middle-income, food-secure country. Given the techniques used by the regime in many areas, populations were reduced to starvation during the war.
Additionally, wartime economic destruction means that 6.5 million people are now acutely food insecure.
The Assad regime used a ‘kneel or starve’ strategy relentlessly during the war, as part of its strategy of attrition to reduce opposition-held urban enclaves to submission. It involved (a) sealing off besieged areas, denying access to food and other essentials including water, health care, electricity and gas, employment and money; along with (b) targeted attacks on bakeries, health facilities, markets, livelihoods and agriculture; and (c) restricting or blocking humanitarian relief and attacking relief workers.
While opposition forces, notably Da’esh/ISIL, also besieged areas (including using starvation as a method of war), as the only armed party with recourse to aerial bombardment, the regime had greater means and demonstrated a consistent will to enforce siege.
Moreover, numerous actions by commanders of the Syrian regime forces constitute serious and grave International Humanitarian Law (IHL) violations.
There are no reliable statistics of the numbers of deaths due to starvation and related diseases, despite strong evidence that starvation tactics are implicated in the overall excess mortality since 2012. The UN reports ‘hundreds of thousands’ of overall deaths due to conflict, without specifying cause, since the war in Syria began.