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Hunger at Damascus’ door as Syrian government blocks aid

Officials decry Assad’s ‘surrender or starve’ strategy

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This photo provided on Monday, October 30, 2017 by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), shows a severely malnourished child at the al-Kahef hospital in Kafr Batna, Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, Syria. Humanitarian officials are warning that conditions outside Syria’s capital have reached crisis levels, as the government refuses to give up a siege against its opponents that has trapped close to 400,000 people without enough food, fuel or medicine for the winter.
This photo provided on Monday, October 30, 2017 by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), shows a severely malnourished child at the al-Kahef hospital in Kafr Batna, Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, Syria. Humanitarian officials are warning that conditions outside Syria’s capital have reached crisis levels, as the government refuses to give up a siege against its opponents that has trapped close to 400,000 people without enough food, fuel or medicine for the winter. (UN OCHA via AP) Photo Gallery

BEIRUT — At the doors of the Syrian capital, children with wrinkled faces and arms like sticks are going hungry because President Bashar Assad’s forces, supported by Russia and Iran, are blocking trucks filled with humanitarian relief.

As the government and its opponents wrap up another fruitless round of talks in Geneva, humanitarian officials warn that conditions outside Damascus have reached crisis levels, with the government maintaining a siege on the Eastern Ghouta suburbs that has trapped close to 400,000 people without enough food, fuel or medicine for the winter.

They say patients with empty stomachs and kidney failure are dying in their beds while waiting for evacuation to hospitals just minutes away.

The fighting in Syria’s nearly seven-year war has tapered off in many areas since local cease-fires took hold, but the suffering in Eastern Ghouta — Damascus’ once fertile hinterland, now cut off from the world — has only gotten worse.

According to the U.N., roughly one in eight children are malnourished in Eastern Ghouta — a shocking jump from one in 50 in May.

A top U.N. humanitarian official for Syria, Jan Egeland, said last week the government is refusing to allow convoys in. It has also refused to approve a list of nearly 500 people urgently needing medical evacuation.

“We have people here who are only eating a meal every two or three days,” Ismael Yasin, a member of Eastern Ghouta’s local council, told The Associated Press via Skype. “People’s faces are turning yellow from hunger.”

The siege cast a cloud over the eighth round of U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva, which concluded Thursday without any results. The head of the opposition’s delegation, Nasr Hariri, said the impasse on Eastern Ghouta reflected the international community’s “shame, impotence, and dereliction.”

“It’s shameful that we have to go into negotiations so that they (the government) give us some loaves of bread,” said Hariri.

The U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called the Eastern Ghouta blockade and others like it a “medieval” approach to war. Amnesty International said last month that the government’s use of sieges against civilians — a tactic it called “surrender or starve” — was a crime against humanity.

But the tactic has proven brutally effective for the government, which in the last two years has managed to recapture a constellation of towns around Damascus using the same playbook. In Zabadani and Daraya, the government executed its strategy so completely that it managed to completely depopulate the two towns, which had a combined population of about 100,000 people before the war.

The government has followed the same strategy to restore its authority over the cities of Aleppo and Homs. The government denies besieging opposition areas, saying the militants, whom it refers to as “terrorists,” withhold aid.

At least three rebel factions still claim a presence in Eastern Ghouta, and send shells whistling into the capital on a daily basis.

Shortages have gotten so dire that residents are eating out of the trash and parents are skipping meals so their children can eat, Jakob Kern, the World Food Program’s top official in Syria, told The Associated Press.

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