Starve to rule: How Russia and Assad weaponise aid
Starve to rule: How Russia and Assad weaponise aid
Following Russia’s vetoing of a UN aid to Idlib, Sam Hamad argues that the Russian government and Assad regime use the tactic of preventing besieged Syrians from accessing urgent aid in order to better control them, and the UN system enables them.
A few months ago, the Matros Pozynich, a Russian-flagged cargo vessel, sailed through the Bosporus on its way to Latakia to transfer thousands of tonnes of grain stolen from Ukraine to the Assad regime. Surely even the worst apologists of contemporary Russian imperialism must find this difficult to publicly defend.
Russia’s neo-colonialism is as brazen as it is monstrous – it steals grain, over 100,00 tonnes according to the Ukrainian government, from one part of the world it has colonised by force, to transfer to one of its puppet regimes that it has maintained by the same methods of militaristic brutality.
And make no mistake about it, the stolen Ukrainian grain is no kind of ‘humanitarian’ gift from Putin to the Syrian people, millions of whom face the prospect of starvation and live in absolute poverty.
Just over a month after the delivery of the Ukrainian grain to Assad, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have extended the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid into the north-western Idlib province of the country for one year. Instead, the UN, true to form, caved to Russian demands and renewed the aid for only 6 months. This, of course, is better than the cutting of aid altogether, but it is yet another capitulation of the UN Security Council. Not to mention, it also means that the much-needed aid, including food, fuel and medicines, will now be cut right in the middle of winter.
''This perpetual instability is precisely what Russia wants – it officially oversees a tenuous ‘ceasefire’ in Idlib, but it wages war by other means. The reason it vetoed the original year-long extension was part of the same tactics that have reduced large parts of Idlib to rubble and left it in constant need of humanitarian aid. ''
The very fact that this aid must be negotiated over is an evil in itself. Its delivery is about survival, not politics – the aid provides the only lifeline to at least 2.4 million people trapped in the last rebel-held area of Syria, surrounded by hostile forces that openly wish to cleanse and conquer the province. The people of Idlib have faced years of Russia and Assad’s targeted bombing of civilian infrastructure, particularly hospitals, food farms and water storage facilities, leading to a perpetual state of humanitarian crisis, where extreme conditions of hunger, illness and squalor are daily realities.
The humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Idlib with the aid delivered from Bab al-Hawa – if that aid is cut or limited, the reality is that people would die. What is already a humanitarian crisis would turn into a humanitarian catastrophe.
This perpetual instability is precisely what Russia wants – it officially oversees a tenuous ‘ceasefire’ in Idlib, but it wages war by other means. The reason it vetoed the original year-long extension was part of the same tactics that have reduced large parts of Idlib to rubble and left it in constant need of humanitarian aid.
Russia and Assad have consistently weaponised aid to further exert control over the Syrian people.
In Eastern Ghouta, Aleppo, Darayya, Zabadani and Madaya (to name but a few places), Russia and Assad have viciously but successfully used the tactic informally known as ‘kneel or starve’ to cut off aid and besiege civilian populations outside of their control, all the better to eventually cleanse and conquer those areas.
Now, quite remarkably given the besiegement of civilians and weaponisation of humanitarian aid is a war crime, Russia is free to employ ‘kneel or starve’ tactics on Idlib through the UN Security Council. The current UN system actually benefits forces like Russia and their neo-colonial endeavours. It’s not as if Russia attempts to conceal this – it openly states that the veto is about bringing all aid under the control of Damascus, all the better for it to fulfil the twin functions of hoarding aid among elites and gaining a better capacity to besiege Idlib and force the province into submission.
With its actions at the UN, Russia wields its veto power over humanitarian aid to the people of Idlib like an axe above the head of a condemned man.
Those who thought that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine mean that it might deprioritise Syria are sadly mistaken. Its interests in Syria are long-term and instead of letting the people of Idlib try to rebuild their shattered lives, Russia does what it can to make life unliveable for them. By keeping the area on the brink of catastrophe, unable to function normally, Russia paves the way for the eventual conquest of the province by military force, the results of which will be mass murder, cleansing and a new ‘refugee crisis’ (one the West, unlike Ukraine, won’t welcome).
The best way to analyse Russia’s current global activities, and particularly its activities in Syria and Ukraine, is not as a series of separate aspects of a normal foreign policy, but as an imperial force acting to police, bolster and exploit its colonial possessions.
The stolen grain from Ukraine will almost certainly be used, much like a portion of the aid that Russia wants to run through Damascus, to pacify Assad-friendly populations and to bolster his flagging kleptocracy. With the current dismal microeconomic state of Assad’s rump state, it is not just Idlib that needs aid – 60% of Syria’s population suffer from food insecurity and live in conditions of poverty, while the costs of necessary goods, whether food, electricity water or fuel, are increasing exponentially.
The Ukrainian grain will not be used for the betterment of ordinary Syrians, whether in Idlib or Assad’s rump state – it will be used for the interests of Russia and its Baathist puppet regime.
This ought to be the lesson for the world; the wages of ‘peace’, ‘negotiation’ and ‘ceasefires’ with the Russian Empire are perpetual suffering and exploitation – the daily horrors, whether by bomb or by siege, visited upon the people of Syria and Ukraine are a testament to that.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.