The starving of Syria

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Images of starvation in Madaya are likely radicalizing some in Middle East
  • Suffering of individuals is fueling the rage that keeps this conflict burning and growing

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Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The killing of Syria is being photographed, tweeted and posted on Facebook. Perhaps you saw the latest images from the town of Madaya, which is being slowly, deliberately, strangled by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the help of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militia.

The people of Madaya, not far from the capital Damascus, are starving to death at the hands of their government. Activists and residents, who still communicate with the outside world, have sent out the alarm. Residents of Madaya, including children, say they have resorted to eating grass and leaves, cats and dogs, garbage. The pictures of emaciated boys and old men tell the story, a story that humanitarian workers say is an accurate one.
Frida Ghitis
The United Nations says 42,000 people in the area are at risk of starvation. And they make up only a fraction of the 400,000 in similar situations in other towns -- and millions more struggling in hard-to-reach areas -- because of the country's civil war, which is about to mark its five-year anniversary. Millions more Syrians have become refugees abroad.
    When a conflict lasts this long, when reports about the suffering it is inflicting become a relentless wave of depressing news, and when the forces at play are this complicated, many people are tempted to turn away.
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    Apathy, however, is a form of complicity.
    Under growing pressure from the international community, the Assad regime has now said it will allow aid to enter Madaya and other towns where people are starving. But the news, while welcome, has been greeted with skepticism among many Syrians.
    The truth is that this war is not about to end anytime soon. It is a conflict in which the various sides are fighting for power, for territory, for sectarian advantage, for religion and ideology, but one in which no one seems to be fighting for the interests of the Syrian people themselves.
    Killing civilians, starving them, is a now common military tactic in the Syrian war. But how did things get so bad in Madaya?
    CNN notes that observers think the siege of Madaya is "linked to the regime's strategy to put pressure on rebels in the north, who are blockading the towns of Kefraya and Foua." Certainly, Assad's forces have been grinding down Madaya and nearby Zabadani for six months, with the last food shipment reportedly having come in October.
    The United Nations says it wants "unimpeded humanitarian access" to reach everyone who needs help in Syria. The latest word from the Assad regime is that it will allow food convoys. But pressure must be exerted so he keeps his word, and prevents the crisis from reoccurring here or elsewhere. One convoy, as we have already seen, does not end the siege.
    Assad has laid siege to other places before, notably Yarmouk, a Palestinian camp, and Eastern Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus. Yet for some reason the plight of the residents never seemed to reach the level of international concern expressed over fighting in Gaza or the actions of ISIS.
    Of course, it is not just Assad and his backers who are deliberately targeting civilians. Rebels also do so. But nobody has perfected the tactic quite like Assad, who is strongly backed by Iran, which sees itself as a champion of the oppressed, and now also by Russia.
    Remember, it is Assad who has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs. And while ISIS has successfully raised its profile and is undoubtedly a global threat, Syrian government forces are responsible for the lion's share of the more than 250,000 people killed so far in this war. And any strategy to end the war that ignores that fact is doomed to fail. Worse, it would be a betrayal of the Syrian people, one they will not soon forget or likely forgive.
    Just like the videos of children choking on chlorine gas, or of desperate relatives trying to dig their families from the rubble of homes demolished by Assad's barrel bombs, the images of starvation in Madaya are making their way across Syria and the Middle East. Those images are likely radicalizing the population, firing up emotions and creating pressure on other regimes to take action. They also add to the enmity between (pro-Assad, Shiite) Iran and (anti-Assad, Sunni) Saudi Arabia, fueling the fury that makes young men want to join violent sectarian groups, which in turn helps expand the ranks of extremist groups like ISIS.
    Ultimately, when we talk about Syria, we should remember it's not all about military tactics, power politics or ideology. It is about human beings. And that's not a naïve point of view. The suffering of individuals -- of children, of the elderly -- is fueling the rage that keeps this conflict burning and growing. It is extreme human suffering that is helping to solidify a most extreme ideology, one filled with hatred and mistrust, one that is spilling out of Syria -- across the Middle East and into the streets of Paris and San Bernardino, California.
    You may want to keep all this in mind the next time you see these harrowing images in your Twitter or Facebook feeds.