The Sieges of Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on March 2, 2016

Starving children in Madaya

A website,, has been set up that tracks the areas under siege in Syria. Siege Watch is a joint project of PAX, an organization that works in conflict zones to foster peace, and The Syria Institute, a non-partisan research centre directed by Valerie Szybala.

At the present time, according to Siege Watch, there are forty-six sieges operating in Syria, forty-three of them (93.5%) imposed by the Assad regime, two (4.5%) imposed by Jaysh al-Fatah, an insurgent coalition that includes Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria), and one (2%) by the Islamic State (IS).

Siege Watch also documents the severity of the sieges in three categories. Category one (C1) is the most severe: very little gets in even by smuggling and international aid deliveries are rare if at all; the risk of malnutrition is high. Category two (C2) sieges are porous enough for the black market and/or locals might have some access to locally-grown produce, but prices for basics are extremely high and residents are at “some risk of malnutrition/dehydration”. Category three (C3) sieges require smuggling to get food, but there is a consistent supply, even if home-grown. While risk of malnutrition is low in C3 zones, medical emergencies are likely because of attacks by besieging forces.

All six C1 sieges are imposed by the regime. Thirty category C2 sieges are operating: twenty-nine by the regime and one by IS. The regime is also operating eight C3 sieges and Jaysh al-Fatah is operating two C3 sieges.

Regime Sieges in Damascus

The densest concentration of sieges is in the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus, where the regime has twenty-nine separate sieges in operation.

Two of the regime’s sieges in eastern Damascus are C1: Jobar and Douma. Only Douma is recognized as being under siege by the United Nations.

Jobar is the rebel-held area closest to the centre of Damascus and is the only one of these sieges in the east that is formally outside the East Ghouta region. Jobar has been under siege since mid-2013 and six people have died from starvation. Jobar’s siege contains maybe 200 people (down from a pre-war population of 30,000). Faylaq ar-Rahman and Jaysh al-Islam are the armed groups present in Jobar.

Formally inside East Ghouta, Douma and its 200,000 people have been besieged ever-more-tightly since October 2013, with the siege completed by mid-2014. There have been more than 200 siege-related deaths in Douma. Douma is the heartland of Jaysh al-Islam, which is by far the most powerful armed opposition group in East Ghouta. Other rebel groups present in Douma are Faylaq ar-Rahman and al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad a-Sham—now merged under Faylaq ar-Rahman’s banner.

The other twenty-seven sieges in East Ghouta are C2. Some areas are recognized by the U.N. as being under siege but they tend to be—like Harasta (11,000 people), Arbeen (35,000), Zamalka (11,500), Jisreen, Ayn Tarma (6,500), Hamuriya (18,800), and Kafr Batna (11,000)—those closest to the regime-held zones of central Damascus. Last September, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) reported that for all of East Ghouta’s two million or so people “violence and deprivation of basic life necessities are the daily reality.” In December, the U.N. only recognized 181,200 people as under siege in East Ghouta.

Given that the current “ceasefire” allows Russia to continue bombing areas where IS and Nusra/Qaeda are present, it is important to note that Jaysh al-Islam’s long-standing, ferocious campaign to keep IS out of the East Ghouta has succeeded. And Nusra is only present in two of the besieged zones in East Ghouta: the small area of Hazeh (population: 7,000) in the west near Jobar and at the far-eastern edge, in the town of Nashabiya (40,000), and in both cases Nusra is a small component and Jaysh al-Islam is dominant.

To the south of Damascus, al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk are under a C2 and C1 siege respectively. Al-Hajar al-Aswad and its 8,000 residents are under IS rule, which has invited occasional shelling from the rebellion, which managed to push IS out of nearby Yelda. Al-Hajar al-Aswad is the base from which IS’s tentacles are spreading in the capital. IS no longer has an overt presence in Yarmouk, where it infamously went on a public offensive in the Palestinian refugee camp for two weeks in April 2015 until Jaysh al-Islam and Free Syrian Army (FSA)-branded moderate rebels halted and reversed IS.

Al-Hajar al-Aswad has lost ninety-five people to the regime’s starvation tactics. Yarmouk, which the U.N. recognizes as under siege, has seen 182 documented siege-related deaths since the regime completed the siege in October 2013. Some aid was allowed into Yarmouk in January 2014—after four months of none—and another batch of aid was allowed entry in May 2015; none has gone in since. Yarmouk has 12,000 people left.

The regime has four C3 sieges fastened on areas in Damascus’s south/south-east suburbs toward: Yelda, Babila, and Beit Sahm in the area to the east of al-Hajar al-Aswad, and al-Qadam (al-Kadam) to its west. The Yelda-Babila-Beit Sahm pocket contains about 40,000 people; al-Qadam has about 4,000 people remaining.

IS is also engaged in besieging—in combination with the regime—Yelda and al-Qadam. Iraqi Shi’a militias controlled by Iran are involved in the sieges against Babila and Beit Sahm.

In all areas except Al-Hajar al-Aswad the local councils continue to function. Nusra is present in al-Qadam and is dominant in Yarmouk. Ahrar a-Sham is present in Yelda, Babila, and Beit Sahm.

Further over, in the south-west, Daraya (population: 6,500) is under a devastating C1 siege that has been in place since November 2012, and further again to the west Maadamiya is under a C2 siege that has been in place since August 2012 and killed at least sixteen people. The U.N. does at least recognize Daraya as being under siege, but between November 2014 and January 2016, Maadamiya was removed from the list. Supposedly subject to a truce between the regime and the opposition that does not exist in practice, Maadamiya has seen little benefit: the last humanitarian relief to reach the town was in July 2014.

Maadamiya has a measure of notoriety. It was the one area of Western Ghouta that the regime hit with chemical weapons on August 21, 2013, and it is the hometown of Kassem Eid, then known as Qusai Zakarya, an activist who was himself gassed during the attack and then used his blog, YouTube, and journalists paying attention to document the slow-motion imposition of a terror-famine on Maadamiya in late 2013. When Eid fled in March 2014, the town had about 8,000 residents; that is now at 44,000. Eid also wrote of the way the regime salami-sliced its way into control after the truce of October 2013, using the threat of re-establishing a full-fledged siege to disarm and humble a population in return for food it had already agreed to allow in as part of the truce.

(Notably, it was also in Maadamiya that the unassailable proof was furnished that Mother Agnes Mariam was an agent of the Assad tyranny, working in tandem with the regime’s intelligence apparatus to empty the rebellious suburb of inhabitants and deliver its young men into the hands of the regime’s secret police.)

About thirty miles to the north-west of Damascus, the regime has horrific C1 sieges locked on Zabadani and Madaya, the latter of which appeared in the news in January after pictures of emaciated children circulated from the town. Both towns were besieged completely in July 2015. At least twenty-three people had died of starvation in Madaya by early January 2016, six of them babies; other estimates say thirty-one and five more at a minimum have died since. Oddly, given the publicity for Madaya and its larger size—between 20,000 and 40,000 residents compared with Zabadani, which has about 500 people now (Zabadani’s displaced, indeed, are in Madaya)—Zabadani has been recognized by the U.N. as being under siege since November 2015; Madaya was recognized as under siege in late January 2016.

Zabadani is an old outpost of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a key link to their proxy militia/global terrorist asset Hizballah in Lebanon. Both regime forces and Hizballah have Zabadani and Madaya surrounded. There are five Americans trapped in Madaya. After Iran released the U.S. hostages in January, the ten U.S. sailors it kidnapped, and the three Americans it took in Baghdad, Iran still holds seven U.S. citizens and one permanent resident: five in Madaya plus Siamak Namazi, Nizar Zakka, and Robert Levinson.

Siege Watch has Khan al-Sheh, a town south-west of Damascus that contains a Palestinian refugee camp, on its watch-list, which means there are either open points in an attempted siege or the area has been besieged for less than six months. Two areas in the north-west near al-Qusaya and al-Hameh, and al-Tal to the north are also on the watch-list. Within the city there are two watch-zones to the east: Marj as-Sultan and al-Bilaliyeh.

Formerly besieged areas within Damscus are Mleiha in the south-east, just north of Set Zaynab, and Maydaa to the far-east.

In total, the regime is currently running thirty-nine sieges (six C1, twenty-nine C2, and four C3) in Damascus. There are also six areas on the watch-list and two areas that the regime previously had besieged that are now free.

Regime Sieges in Homs

There regime also has four sieges in place in Homs (all C3): al-Houla region (population: 75,000), ar-Rastan (105,000), Talbiseh (60,000), and al-Waer (125,000), just north-west of Homs City. Al-Wael was besieged in November 2013; all the others have been under sieges of one kind or another since 2012.

Both the Syrian Arab Army and the National Defence Forces (NDF) are involved in imposing these sieges, and foreign Shi’a jihadists are involved in al-Wael.

The local councils continue to exercise civil control in all these areas and FSA-branded rebels are the dominant force in all cases. Only in al-Houla is a non-FSA/local group present, and it is Ahrar a-Sham, which is not included among the groups Russia and the regime are allowed to target during this “ceasefire”.

The U.N. does not recognize any of these sieges. Talbiseh has suffered siege-related deaths, though the numbers are uncertain; data are unavailable on this point for the other zones. The last time these four areas had deliveries of humanitarian aid was 2015: February in Talbiseh, April in al-Wael and ar-Rastan, and October in al-Houla.

Insurgent sieges

In Idlib, there are two C3 sieges, which were imposed by Jaysh al-Fateh, the insurgent coalition that includes Jabhat an-Nusra, when it swept the regime from the provincial capital and ultimately much of Idlib Province in 2015. The two towns, al-Fua and Kafraya, contain an estimated 12,500 people. Both are recognized as besieged by the United Nations. There are no reported siege-related fatalities

In Deir Ezzor City, areas including al-Jorah, Qusoor, and Harabesh—amounting to some 200,000 people—are under a C2 siege by IS. IS initially imposed its siege on January 5, 2015. Deir Ezzor is the only area to have received an aid drop from the U.N. program.

It should be noted that the line between IS control and the regime’s—specifically the NDF’s—is a bit hazy in Deir Ezzor. As Siege Watch points out: “The regime uses the airport to resupply its troops with food and ammunition but not the population.” Water is provided only every few days and electricity was cut on March 25, 2015. “The regime has been threatening to not return the electricity unless men from local families join the army.”

Moreover, the regime has instituted mechanisms to profit from its own loyalists trapped by IS: “regime officials jack up prices for food and fuel and sell international aid at a profit, forcing civilians to pay for goods donated by relief organizations such as the Red Cross or the United Nations,” and when these “exorbitant prices … drive people to leave” the regime profits “by charging ever more exorbitant fees to those who exit,” who can buy their way out on helicopters. Whether this is a centralized scheme or a localized one is unclear, but there is widespread suspicion that “ISIS or its hangers-on are collaborating with and profiting alongside the regime in the trade of supplies into the area.”

In Aleppo, Nubl and Zahra are former siege sites. The rebellion had maintained loose sieges on the two Shi’a villages since Aleppo erupted in revolt in the summer of 2012, but both were removed from OCHA’s siege list in November 2015, meaning the U.N. had had regular access for three consecutive months. Iranian-led ground forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, lifted the incomplete encirclement of Nubl and Zahra decisively on February 3 as part of the offensive that cut off the Azaz corridor, the final Aleppine supply line from Turkey for the rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo City.

Eastern Aleppo City has been on Siege Watch’s watch-list since February 9 when it became clear the pro-Assad coalition was trying to encircle it.


Currently in Syria, the Assad regime and its allies are imposing the overwhelming majority of the sieges, forty-three out of forty-six, and the pro-Assad coalition is responsible for all six C1 sieges—Jobar, Douma, Yarmouk, Daraya, Zabadani, and Madaya—which are all located in Damascus and its countryside province (Rif Dimashq).

The area most affected by sieges is eastern Damascus, where twenty-nine (63%) are in place, all imposed by the regime.

Damascus more generally is the most affected area, with thirty-nine sieges in total (85%)—again, all imposed by the regime against the opposition or opposition-sympathetic populations, with the slight exceptions of al-Hajar al-Aswad (where IS is lording it over the residents) and Yelda and al-Qadam (where IS is helping the regime maintain the sieges). The regime has four more sieges imposed in Homs (8.5%).

In areas besieged by the regime, IS is present in one (al-Hajar al-Aswad) and al-Qaeda is present in three (Hazeh, Nashabiya, and al-Qadam) and dominant in one (Yarmouk). IS is imposing one siege (in Deir Ezzor), albeit with a degree of regime complicity, and al-Qaeda is involved in imposing two (al-Fua and Kafraya). Thus, IS and al-Qaeda are present—as besiegers or besieged—in seven of the sieges (15%).

Of the seven areas threatened with siege, six are in Damascus and one is in Aleppo; all are threatened by the regime.

The four zones freed from siege include two in Damascus freed from the regime (Mleiha and Maydaa) and two in Aleppo freed from insurgents (Nubl and Zahra).



Update: By late May, the sieges imposed by the Assad regime on Maadamiya in West Ghouta and al-Waer in Homs had been upgraded to C1 sieges. Maadamiya has had aid shipments in February, March, and the first week of June 2016, but continues—despite a renewal of the “ceasefire” agreement signed in December 2013 in May 2016—to be shelled and attacked with barrel bombs, while being denied access to basic foodstuffs, leaving the enclave on the brink of mass-starvation. Al-Waer was officially added to the U.N.’s besieged list at the end of May 2016 but the Secretary General’s report does not mention al-Waer and its population of 100,000 people has been subjected to an ever-more aggressive deprivation of food and medicine since the ceasefire was abrogated earlier this year—the last aid shipment was March 3, 2016—while being shelled, hit with airstrikes, and denied the ability to dispose of waste, leading to spreading disease.

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