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Save the Syrian Peace Talks, End the Starvation

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Never again. We hear those words in reaction to atrocities committed against mankind. But we have to put actions behind those words.

Syrian civilians under siege from a civil war are trying to survive by eating leaves and grass. They are pleading for the international community to help. But the war and hunger go on.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died. Over 13 million need humanitarian aid. The five-year conflict is considered the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II.

[CROPPING OF THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS NOT PERMITTED] On 14 January 2016, a child is screened for malnutrition at a make-shift hospital in Madaya. The UNICEF team and staff of the World Health Organisation were able to screen 25 children under five for malnutrition using the Mid-Upper Arm Circumference measurement. Twenty-two (22) of the children showed signs of moderate to severe malnutrition. All of these children are now receiving treatment at the health facility using specialized medical and nutrition supplies that the UN and ICRC delivered on Monday. The team screened another 10 children aged from 6 to 18. Six of them showed signs of severe malnutrition. UNICEF Representative in Syria Hanaa Singer said “UNICEF welcomes the access granted to trapped children this week and can confirm that cases of severe malnutrition were found among children in the besieged Syrian town of Madaya following our participation in the second joint UN/Syrian Arab Red Crescent/ICRC humanitarian mission to the area on Thursday”. As part of the convoy on 14 January, 24 UNICEF trucks delivered blankets, children’s winter clothes, diarrheal disease kits, midwifery kits, and emergency health kits for 10,000 people. Additional supplies included school bags for 12,000 children, hygiene supplies including washing powder, soap, shampoo, water purification tablets. A previous delivery on Monday 11 January included therapeutic and other nutrition supplies that included multiple micronutrients, high energy biscuits and therapeutic food and medication for the treatment of severe and acute malnutrition.

 On 14 January 2016, a child is screened for malnutrition at a make-shift hospital in Madaya, Syria. The UNICEF team and staff of the World Health Organisation were able to screen 25 children under five for malnutrition using the Mid-Upper Arm Circumference measurement. Twenty-two (22) of the children showed signs of moderate to severe malnutrition. (UNICEF/UN07564/Singer)

Peace talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and the opposition have stalled, while military offensives and starvation have escalated. Russian airstrikes are supporting the Syrian regime and its offensives. The Russian bombings are devastating opposition-held areas, including Aleppo.

The fighting is displacing more civilians and preventing others from receiving humanitarian aid. David Evans of Mercy Corps pleads, “We are cut off from Aleppo City…Innocent civilians are running for their lives. Right now, we are seeing tens of thousands of people make their way to the border with Turkey.”

Over four million Syrians have fled, some on to Europe. The refugee outflow is a crisis within a crisis. The refugees are suffering and the host nations are overburdened.

Humanitarian organizations do not have enough funding to help the war victims. Syrian refugees, because of reduced food aid, have been forced to withdraw children from school and send them to work or to beg. Only ending the civil war can ultimately stop the refugee emergency.

But Russia enabling the Syrian government to think there is a military solution to the conflict is wrong. For there is none. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says, “the intense Russian airstrikes, mainly targeting opposition troops in Syria, is undermining the efforts to find a political solution to the conflict.”

Every bomb dropped or gun fired in Syria’s war is simply going to plant the seeds for more war and chaos. Eventually there will be nothing left of the country.

Syrian children stand in the entryway of their tent shelter in the Bab Al Salame camp for internally displaced persons in Aleppo Governate. (Photo: UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti)

Syrian children stand in the entryway of their tent shelter in the Bab Al Salame camp for internally displaced persons in Aleppo Governate. (Photo: UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti)

More war and chaos also strengthen ISIS (Daesh) in Syria, and that threatens every nation. A peace settlement to Syria’s civil war would devastate this terrorist group. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explains, “Nothing would do more to cut the legs out from under Daesh than a negotiated political solution in Syria that would allow all sides, all parties, all countries, to focus on defeating the terrorist group Daesh once and for all.”

But there is also another powerful enemy facing the Syrian people. It is hunger. Since the start of the civil war, farming, food production, and distribution have been destroyed in Syria. So civilians rely entirely on humanitarian agencies like the UN World Food Programme, Syrian Red Crescent, UNICEF, Save the Children, and Catholic Relief Services.

But people are starving to death every day in Syria because the warring sides routinely block humanitarian aid from getting through. There are about 500,000 Syrians living in besieged areas with little or no food. Ertharin Cousin, the director of the World Food Programme (WFP), says, “Every day, we receive alarming reports of lack of food, of lack of water, of acute malnutrition, and of death.”

The sieges of civilians have to end. The Syrian government and the opposition have to get to the peace table. The United States, Russia, and other nations have to encourage this in words and actions.  As Secretary Kerry states, “the world needs to push in one direction – toward stopping the oppression and suffering of the Syrian people and ending, not prolonging, this conflict.”

A nationwide ceasefire between the government and the opposition must be put in place right away. This will allow humanitarian aid to get through. It would end the starvation of civilians by granting regular access to humanitarian agencies. It would create the conditions where a lasting peace settlement could occur.

On 11 January 2016 in Madaya, Rural Damascus, a girl eats bread, as she and other children and their families wait for permissions to leave the besieged town. “Children were waiting for us for a long time but few remained on the streets when the convoy made it inside Madaya after dark,” added Ismail. “The few children who did stay out to receive the convoys were cold and stormed to the team to ask for biscuits or bread or anything that they could eat immediately.” (UNICEF/UN07224/Al Saleh, WFP)

On 11 January 2016 in Madaya, Rural Damascus, a girl eats bread delivered by relief agencies including  UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP). “Children were waiting for us for a long time but few remained on the streets when the convoy made it inside Madaya after dark,” says Isam Ismail of WFP. “The few children who did stay out to receive the convoys were cold and stormed to the team to ask for biscuits or bread or anything that they could eat immediately.” But now Madaya is again blocked by the Syrian government from receiving aid.   (UNICEF/UN07224/Al Saleh, WFP)

Relief agencies have to be allowed to move freely with consistent access. In the town of Madaya they were allowed into the town during October, but then were blocked for several months until regaining entry in January. Now the government is preventing aid from reaching Madaya again, while people starve.

Dr. Rajia Sharhan of UNICEF, who treats severely malnourished children in Syria, says that “war has no mercy.” She and other humanitarians can only stand by and wait for the Syrian government to approve their passage, knowing that every minute someone’s life rests in the balance.

The starving Syrians need action now. As UN Syria Envoy Staffan De Mistura says, “every day lost is a day lost for a ceasefire and for humanitarian aid.”

Every day a child in Syria lies near death because the world cannot put a stop to a senseless war. But millions can still be saved if the guns are put down, food convoys start moving into besieged areas, and the peace process begins.


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About William Lambers

William Lambers is the author of several books including Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World. This book features over 50 interviews with officials from the UN World Food Programme and other charities discussing school feeding programs that fight child hunger. He is also the author of Nuclear Weapons, The Road to Peace: From the Disarming of the Great Lakes to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Open Skies for Peace, The Spirit of the Marshall Plan: Taking Action Against World Hunger, School Lunches for Kids Around the World, The Roadmap to End Global Hunger, From War to Peace and the Battle of Britain. He is also a writer for the History News Service. His articles have been published by newspapers including the Cincinnati Enquirer, Des Moines Register, the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Buffalo News, San Diego Union Tribune, the Providence Journal, Free Lance-Star (VA), the Bakersfield Californian, the Washington Post, Miami Herald (FL), Chicago Sun-Times, the Patriot Ledger (MA), Charleston Sunday Gazette Mail (WV), the Cincinnati Post, Salt Lake Tribune (UT), North Adams Transcript (MA), Wichita Eagle (KS), Monterey Herald (CA), Athens Banner-Herald (GA) and the Duluth News Journal. His articles also appear on History News Network (HNN) and Think Africa Press. Mr. Lambers is a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio with degrees in Liberal Arts (BA) and Organizational Leadership (MS). He is also a member of the Feeding America Blogger Council.
  • Dr Joseph S Maresca

    A ceasefire is needed in order for food distribution efforts to be effective maximally.
    At some point, airlifts of food can be considered, as well as, home gardens and other methodologies discussed in “Food First – Beyond The Myth of Scarcity” by Lappe’.

    Link: http://www.amazon.com/Food-first-Beyond-myth-scarcity/dp/0395253470/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1455902485&sr=1-1&keywords=Food+First+by+Lappe

    Currently, Putin is seeking to support the Assad government and the US may let that government stay in place until a viable alternative can be considered. The preferable alternative is to have Assad step down now but that option may be difficult to implement in the near future. The first consideration has to be – who replaces him and how is this accomplished?

    The situation is worse than a civil war because the conflict is internal between Assad forces, various rebel subgroups and external nation states.. The subgroups include ISIS. So, the idea of who could govern ultimately is remote. The involvement of outside parties like Russia, Iran, possibly Saudi Arabia and others complicates matters further.

    On its face, ISIS needs to be defeated or marginalized significantly before any meaningful negotiation can proceed into actual implementation. The defeat of ISIS is progressing with the killing of top ISIS leaders. The short term consequence is that the ISIS organization really has no command structure – so chaos rules. In fact, ISIS may never be defeated per se. At some point, the organization may just cease to exist or its influence will be drastically reduced through attrition.

    In the interim, airlifts seem to be the best route for delivering food to the Syrian
    citizenry-as long as Russia and the rebels cooperate in allowing this effort to proceed.
    Even if the parties at the negotiating table allow the humanitarian efforts to proceed unobstructed – a robust security force will be needed to fend off any attempts by ISIS to interfere with this humanitarian effort.

    The other option is to have Syrians immigrate to the West and the USA. This option has begun in earnest with Germany and other European nations accepting Syrian refugees. The US will accept some immigrants but the argument centers on how many, as well as, effective screening processes.

    The US actually needs immigrants because the birth rate in this country has been on the decline since the early 60s and this decline has been made worse by the Great Recession of 2008. Compare this against the record retirements of the baby boomer generation (1000+/day) and the replacement problem is much more obvious. If there are fewer births over time, this decline impacts our education system because fewer school age children will be attending the public and private schools.