On June 30, 2016, the United Nations announced that after having accessed two blockaded towns near Damascus, it had finally delivered aid to all areas under siege in Syria. For the starving populations of Zamalka and Irbin, a single aid convoy was little consolation. Since the fall of 2012, as many as one million Syrians have been victims of one of counter-insurgency’s most brutal tactics: siege warfare. The military and economic benefits afforded by siege warfare have alleviated the Assad regime’s significant manpower and financial troubles, and may also explain why siege tactics have been employed in other conflicts, including Yemen and Iraq.
The stream of images of emaciated civilians coming out of Syria has made it impossible to ignore the horrifying humanitarian consequences of siege warfare, but their role in the Syrian regime’s survival strategy is less well known. Why did the Syrian regime first adopt these tactics? Why have some sieges endured for so long? And what might siege tactics in Syria indicate about the future of modern authoritarian counter-insurgency?
The first siege in the Syrian conflict was imposed just a month into the uprising. On April 25, 2011, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) surrounded the southern city of Dera’a and besieged it as part of a ten-day operation that would leave over 500 Syrians dead and 2,500 detained.
The Dera’a offensive mirrored tactics that Bashar al-Assad’s father used to quash dissent in Hama nearly 30 years before. In February 1982, after several days of street battles, Hafez al-Assad imposed a hermetic siege on the restive city, and then razed whole neighborhoods to the ground with indiscriminate shelling, killing between 10,000 to 40,000 civilians.
Hama set a precedent. The SAA had shown that it would stop at nothing to wipe out those who opposed the regime, regardless of the human toll. Ultimately, the regime considered the massacre a success, as no other rebellion arose on the same scale for nearly 30 years. Because some of the junior officers involved in quashing the Hama uprising in 1982 rose through the ranks of the SAA and assumed command positions during the current conflict, it is unsurprising that they would turn to siege warfare once again.
The military and economic benefits afforded by siege warfare have alleviated the Assad regime’s significant manpower and financial troubles, and may also explain why siege tactics have been employed in other conflicts, including Yemen and Iraq.
Unable to locate insurgents in populated areas, the SAA imposed sieges to restrict insurgents’ movement by sealing off areas thought to be harboring fighters, preventing their escape. By terrorizing the besieged population with indiscriminate shelling, the regime sought to turn civilians against the rebel fighters. Therefore, unlike ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns of counter-insurgency, which seek to provide security, protection, and services to civilians living in the areas in which insurgents operate, these siege tactics imposed punitive measures on the entire population living in rebels’ zones of operation.
Sieges have helped the Syrian regime weather its problems of manpower. With the uprising spreading across the country and growing numbers of defections and casualties, the SAA lacked the manpower to launch multiple ground assaults across the country in 2012. Besieging an area requires limited forces, and yet effectively limits the spread of opposition. Additionally, as conscription is a common feature of siege tactics, sieges also provide opportunities for detaining and forcibly drafting men into the army at the checkpoints on the sieges’ perimeter.
In 2012, the regime imposed multiple sieges to protect areas of strategic importance. It laid siege to a number of areas in Damascus’ suburbs, preventing the spread of dissent into the capital and cutting rebels off from external support. Indeed, sieges have also been used to protect the city of Homs, which occupies an important central location between Damascus and Aleppo, and areas near the Lebanese border, to protect supply routes. This strategy has proven successful, as the regime maintains control over these key areas today.
But as the rebellion continued and besieged opposition forces refused to surrender, preventing the movement of goods and people was no longer sufficient to eradicate the opposition. Instead, the SAA shifted to a systematic campaign of ‘urbicide,’ the destruction of vital sites of civilian infrastructure, in an attempt to render the means of modern life impossible. Electricity, water, and sanitation networks were targeted, as well as medical facilities and schools.
Destroying civilian infrastructure aimed to prevent the emergence of rival systems of administration. Throughout the conflict, the Syrian regime has attempted to portray itself as the sole actor capable of providing stability and services to the Syrian people, and this has been key to its continued support from a segment of Syrian society. As such, destroying infrastructure in alternative administrative centers, such as the rebel-held city of Douma to the east of Damascus, has been a central aim of siege warfare and crucial to its legitimization strategy.
[T]hese siege tactics imposed punitive measures on the entire population living in rebels’ zones of operation.
But even in spite of the horrific humanitarian conditions in besieged areas, many opposition forces refused to surrender and so stalemates endured. As the spread of the war economy entrenched networks of profiteering in these areas, they became an important element of the regime’s economic survival strategy. Soldiers have been sent to man checkpoints as a reward for having served on the frontline and are encouraged to exploit their position by taking bribes in place of receiving a salary from the regime. Although it is difficult to estimate the total profits generated from sieges, one checkpoint to the east of Damascus has become known as the ‘one million crossing,’ as the soldiers reportedly make one million Syrian pounds (roughly $5,000) an hour from bribes to let goods pass. Businessmen allied to the regime also take huge cuts of the profit, and they buy contracts from the top levels of the regime for permission to trade goods. As a result, prices of basic goods inside besieged areas are often extortionate. During the winter of 2013-14, a bag of rice cost $0.66 in central Damascus, but as much as $21 in besieged areas just miles away. Therefore, the regime has been incentivized to prolong sieges for financial reasons, making the economic payoffs at least as vital as sieges’ military objectives.
Therefore, siege warfare’s military and economic benefits help explain why as many as a million Syrians live under blockade today. Authoritarian regimes, and even some democratic governments, have no qualms about employing these tactics of collective punishment, and the international community has seemingly grown numb to the scale of human rights abuses. Although its scale in Syria is extraordinary, we have seen similar tactics elsewhere: the siege of Taiz in Yemen has now lasted for 15 months, and during the Iraqi government’s siege of Fallujah this year, at least 140 residents of the Islamic State-held city died from lack of food and medicine. Actors conducting counter-insurgency operations feel less constrained by the necessity to attempt to isolate insurgents in a civilian population, even as modern warfare is increasingly shifting into urban spaces.
Unless there is considerably more international condemnation of those responsible for inflicting collective punishment on populated areas and starving civilian populations as a tactic of war, supported by punitive measures, it seems likely that military actors will increasingly turn to siege warfare. Once thought of as having been consigned to medieval times, brutal sieges are, once again, becoming a common feature of war.