Russia and the Regime’s War on Civilians in Deir Ezzor

The Syrian regime and its Russian ally are waging war against civilians, not only with light, heavy, and indiscriminate munitions, but also with economic weapons, as they demonstrated in Deir Ezzor these past two months.

On Friday, January 15 Russian planes airdropped six crates containing humanitarian aid over the al-Joura and al-Qusoor neighborhoods in Deir Ezzor. These areas are under the control of the Syrian regime’s forces and the Islamic State (ISIS) has had them under siege for more than a year. Russia airdropped six more crates on the January 19, seven on January 20, and four on January 25. The success of the drop proves that the regime can airdrop aid and break the ISIS siege at will.

The Russia Today network broadcast Sergei Rudskoy’s, the Russian military staff chief, statement at a press conference called by the Defense Ministry. He stated that he had sent an IL-78 plane loaded with pallets carrying 22 tons of humanitarian aid to Deir Ezzor, and that the local besieged population will distribute it.

In contrast to his statement, a forces from the Syrian Army’s 137th Brigade immediately headed to the crates’ drop site and moved them to the provincial palace in al-Joura. According to regime statements, this was so the aid could be sorted and before distributing it to civilians. Yet after they had finished sorting the materials, the regime’s forces hurriedly moved them to al-Wadi Street and began selling the foods at exorbitant prices. Among the provisions they sold: sardines, 200 grams for 1,200 Syrian pounds or roughly $4; sugar, one kilogram for 7,000 Syrian pounds or roughly $20; and chicken cold cuts, 150 grams for 1,600 pounds or roughly $5.

The United Nations decided to airdrop 21 tons of food aid to the city in February for the Syrian Red Crescent’s Deir Ezzor office to distribute, despite the fact that the United Nations considers the operation risky and has warned that the aid might be damaged during the drop or land in places the Red Crescent cannot reach. The Red Crescent confirmed via Twitter that the crates had arrived without damage. The Justice for Life Observatory in Deir Ezzor, however, said that of the 21 crates dropped by the U.N., four had been heavily damaged, seven fell in places the Red Crescent could not reach, and the remaining 10 are unaccounted for. “We have never done high-altitude drops in Syria,” said Bettina Luescher of the World Food Program. “There were high winds, some parachutes did not open.” The contradictions between the Red Crescent’s and United Nation’s statements were not lost on Syrians, many who believe the Red Crescent is beholden to the regime.

It is clear that the regime is using starvation as a highly indiscriminate weapon against the opposition and civilians living in areas under opposition control, regardless of who they support or whether or not they bear arms. A statement by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry describes this tactic: “…the tragedy in Madaya is far from the only case. Overall, since the beginning of last year, the Syrian regime has received 113 requests from the United Nations to deliver humanitarian aid. Astonishingly, just 13 of these requests have been approved and implemented. Meanwhile, people are dying; children are suffering not as a result of an accident of war, but as the consequence of an intentional tactic – surrender or starve. And that tactic is directly contrary to the law of war.”

The Islamic State, meanwhile, is using a sandstorm as cover from joint Syrian-Russian bombings of their positions. The assault began on the ISIS-held areas in the city, including al-Hawiqa, al-Rashidiya, al-Muwathafeen, and al-Jabeela fronts. In the eastern countryside, the group began an aggressive push against the southern front of the Jibal Tharda airbase. This coincided with attacks in the western countryside on the village of al-Baghaliyeh, focused on the Furat al-Sham hotel, and on ammunition caches in the village of Ayash. ISIS hit the 137th Brigade with car bombs first, followed by an attempt to storm the brigade’s positions. The speed of the ISIS advance and the number killed—which sources in Deir Ezzor say reached 135 dead within a week—led to the collapse of regime soldiers’ morale and their mass flight from the fronts. Most who fled were recent conscripts in the security forces’ latest campaign, which saw 400 young men arrested on charges of evading military service in areas under siege by the Islamic State, al-Joura and al-Qusoor.

The 183,000 residents of al-Joura and al-Qusoor, the Deir Ezzor areas ISIS is trying to wrest from regime forces have been suffering from the group’s suffocating siege since January 15, 2015. The siege has prevented the entry of food supplies, while ISIS has issued rulings describing the residents as apostates.  Herein lies the fear for the residents’ lives: the group could carry out a massacre against them in the event it manages to advance and take the area.

The Syrian regime and Russian responded viciously as soon as their planes were able took off, carrying out several attacks on Deir Ezzor and its hinterland, including the village of Khasham, east of Deir Ezzor, on January 22; al-Bulail, east of Deir Ezzor, on January 19; the towns and villages of al-Husseiniya, al-Janina, and Shaqra in the western countryside on January 23; and the neighborhoods of the city itself (al-Jabeela, al-Hamidiya, Sheikh Yaseen, al-Takaya Street, and Kanamat). The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented that the regime and Russia killed 249 civilians in Deir Ezzor in January, with 226 of them by Russian air strikes.

What I noted while writing this article, is that it is difficult to distinguish between the Syrian regime and Russia. They have become the same party, bombing the enemies of the regime and using the same tactics—targeting civilians. During January, the Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented the killing of 1,382 civilians. Of these the regime killed 516 and Russia 679, meaning they are responsible for 86% of the civilian deaths. In comparison, ISIS bears responsibility for killing 98 civilians (7% of the total in January). Even before the ceasefire went into effect, the Syrian regime stated that it was not applying the agreement to some cities, such as Darayya, because of the Nusra Front’s presence there. For Deir Ezzor, the cessation of hostilities does not apply, since the regime is fighting ISIS. But if the regime continues its indiscriminate tactics, civilians will continue to suffer.

Fikram is a civil activist from Deir Ezzor. He has worked in emergency response, as a journalist for Alwan, and in human rights for SAMA.  He writes for “Good Morning Syria.”

Image: Photo: Bloodstains are seen at a site hit by what activists said were three consecutive air strikes carried out by the Russian air force, the last which hit an ambulance, in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria January 12, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi