An agreement to bring relief to 4 towns deteriorates as regime, rebels punish civilians in equal measure

AMMAN: Both rebel and pro-regime forces are perpetrating collective punishment against 60,000 civilians across four encircled towns as the two sides enter their eighth straight day of dual offensives on Wednesday.

The ongoing wave of attacks on Madaya and Zabadani—two regime-encircled towns 40km northwest of Damascus—and on al-Fuaa and Kafariya—two rebel-encircled towns in Idlib province—has killed at least six civilians since last Tuesday.

In the rebel-controlled sister cities of Madaya and Zabadani—two former mountain resort towns—residents told Syria Direct on Wednesday that pro-regime forces began “an intense military escalation” last week, which has killed at least two civilians and injured more than 12 others.

Before this recent acceleration in violence, “there were instances of civilians being sniped, but you only saw shelling and mortar fire on very rare occasions,” Abdul Wihab Ahmed, a civilian journalist in the 40,000-person rebel-held town of Madaya, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, however, “there were more than 50 mortars and artillery shells fired on Madaya and more than 25 on neighboring Zabadani.”  The offensive on Madaya was widely reported in the Syrian opposition media and independently corroborated by a second source inside the encircled town.

More than 250km north of Madaya, residents of the opposition-encircled towns of al-Fuaa and Kafariya in Idlib province report several deaths, daily injuries and possible chlorine gas use on the part of the rebel Victory Army, which surround the two towns.

 Madaya children brace for winter. Photo courtesy of the Local Revolutionary Council of Madaya.

On Monday, rebel shelling of al-Fuaa and Kafariya killed at least one child and injured five other civilians in what Syrian state media channel, SANA, called the latest in a wave of “terrorist aggression.”

Syrian state television showed footage from al-Fuaa and Kafariya of doctors treating victims of daily sniper fire and rebel bombing despite critical shortages of medical supplies. One doctor said, “I hope that all who hear our voices will do the right thing.”

While it was not immediately clear what sparked this recent surge in violence in and around the four towns, both rebel and pro-regime forces accuse the other side of instigating the attacks.

Last September, residents of the comparably sized towns signed on to the “Four Towns Agreement,” a deal which ushered in a six-month ceasefire period and ensured that all aid deliveries and medical evacuations had to occur simultaneously across the four towns. Medical evacuations—whether due to injuries from sniper fire or life-threatening illness—would not take place unless a similar evacuation took place from the other side.

Whatever its intentions, the agreement—one sharply criticized by the United Nations and numerous international relief organizations—has in fact resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians.

Across these four towns, nearly a dozen doctors and residents—both pro-regime and pro-opposition—tell stories of countless patients who went untreated as a result of the Four Towns Agreement.

At least four newborn children died in Madaya this month because the town lacked adequate neonatal intensive care. Stick-thin children suffer from intense malnutrition and spend the majority of their days in bunkers underground whenever the pace of bombings pick up, which today is an all-too-frequent-reality.

Earlier this month, a Madaya resident died of malnutrition-related kidney failure after the Assad regime denied the patient’s potentially life-saving medical evacuation, Syria Direct reported. Madaya’s three remaining medical professionals—two dentists and a veterinarian—did not have the means to treat the dying civilian.

 Protest sign reads: “What will be the fate of al-Fuaa and Kafariya? Will it be death by hunger or slaughter at the hands of the opposition?” Photo courtesy of the al-Fuaa and Kafariya News Network.

Another Madaya resident, Mohammad al-Mowwil, died last month after a sniper’s bullet pierced his abdomen as he was walking home. The 30-year-old father died two days later, unable to get the necessary medical treatment. At least 20 Madaya residents have been killed by snipers and landmines throughout the siege that has been in place since July 2015, according to a July 2016 report by Physicians for Human Rights.

In al-Fuaa and Kafariya, doctors told Syria Direct this week that amputations have become commonplace in the two towns because they are one of the few options for the injured, given the intense medical shortages.

“Doctors are forced to make decisions that no other person would envy having to make,” Ahmed Shahada, an al-Fuaa doctor and former head of the medical evacuation committee, told Syria Direct.

When residents in Madaya and Zabadani hear that someone has been critically injured in al-Fuaa or Kafariya, “people here in Madaya take precautions and wait for Hezbollah to start targeting them,” Abu Hassan, head of the Madaya Local Council media office, told Syria Direct.

Likewise, to the north, al-Fuaa and Kafariya residents accuse the rebel-led Victory Army of “intentionally delaying” evacuations from the regime-controlled twin cities in order to provide leverage to Madaya and Zabadani. While both rebels and pro-regime forces deny engaging in intentionally “using violence to create cases for evacuations,” both sides readily accuse the other of engaging in this practice.

At least one UN aid worker in Damascus says the Four Towns Agreement has resulted in the “death and suffering of innocent lives.”

“Medical evacuations should not be a question of politics or military advantage, but of basic humanity,” the aid worker told Syria Direct in a recent interview on condition of anonymity.

The Four Towns Agreement “is not the answer.”

On Monday, the United Nations reported that the number of besieged Syrians now totals nearly one million people—974,080 to be exact. That figure has more than doubled in the last six months, and is up from 393,000 Syrians who were living under siege exactly one year ago.

“Horror is now usual,” UN Emergency Relief coordinator Stephen O'Brien said in the Monday statement. “It is a level of violence and destruction that the world appears to consider normal for Syria and normal for the Syrian people.”

In terms of the Four Towns Agreement, O’Brien said that more civilians “will die soon in each of the four towns if this travesty is not resolved.” 

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.