AMMAN: Ten months of rebel encirclement are taking a toll on two Shiite-majority towns in Idlib province, where residents are calling on the Syrian regime to “work seriously” to break the sieges.

Stories of hunger, cold and scarcity permeate coverage of rebel-held towns and cities across Syria. But in al-Fuaa, held by the regime but entirely blockaded by the Jabhat a-Nusra-led Victory Army, residents tell Syria Direct that living conditions now more closely resemble those of rebel-held towns across Syria.

The encirclement of al-Fuaa and Kafariya began this past March, when Victory Army rebels led by Ahrar a-Sham and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra blockaded the neighboring towns during a broad offensive to take Idlib province.

Over the following months, Victory Army forces used the safety of the towns and the 20,000 residents in them to influence negotiations with the Syrian regime over the fate of rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani in West Ghouta, currently encircled by regime forces.

Adjacent to the Lebanese border, Zabadani is a gateway town into the Qalamoun Mountains, home to networks of trails used to smuggle goods in and out of Syria.

This past September, as early efforts for a ceasefire deal faltered and rebels bombarded al-Fuaa and Kafariya, hundreds of pro-regime Syrians demonstrated in Homs, Latakia, and Damascus, calling for an end to the “sectarian slaughter of the children of al-Fuaa and Kafariya.”

Some demonstrators criticized government forces for not doing more to save residents trapped in al-Fuaa and Kafariya.

Later in September, rebels and regime negotiators agreed to a six-month ceasefire. Each side agreed to ease its siege in exchange for concessions, including the evacuation of wounded fighters and civilians from all four encircled towns and at least one delivery of aid.

Keeping with the ceasefire, both sides allowed a single aid delivery into the Idlib and Outer Damascus towns last October.

No additional aid was delivered until two weeks ago, when, following reports of mass starvation and international condemnation, the Syrian regime allowed the first of three additional international aid convoys into Madaya, contingent on the simultaneous delivery of food, medicine and fuel to trapped civilians in al-Fuaa and Kafariya.

The deliveries arrived to the two Shiite towns, but residents say they are struggling with ongoing restricted access to food, medicine and fuel. 

Due to the difficulty of directly contacting al-Fuaa and Kafariya residents, Syria Direct worked with two pro-regime Syrian journalists for this story: Rida al-Basha, an Aleppo-based correspondent for the al-Mayadeen channel, and Deeb Sarhan, editor of the Syria Scope network. Sarhan and al-Basha relayed questions and answers to Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid.

The sole hospital in al-Fuaa “is almost shut down because of the lack of medicine and mazot,” diesel fuel used to power the generators that run the hospital, said Deeb Saleh, a nurse in al-Fuaa.

“My father was injured in his hand and foot, and he is in a terrible state because of the medicine shortage,” says Abu Jawad, a 31-year-old al-Fuaa resident.

Dozens of residents have died of heart attacks, kidney failure and other preventable causes due to a lack of specialists and medication, Saleh says. “There are also dozens of illnesses due to cold and malnutrition.”

“We have records,” the nurse said, adding, “the UN can verify this.”

A 16-month-old girl died in al-Fuaa earlier this month due to a lack of medical treatment, pro-regime al-Wehda News Network reported.

A UN delivery of 10,000 liters of mazot fuel last Wednesday has allowed the al-Fuaa hospital, which was forced to close earlier the same week due to a lack of fuel, to limp along, but done little for the 20,000 residents in both towns living without heat.

“Illness has become everyone’s wish, to go to the hospital and to get some of the warmth lost in the corners of these frigid rooms,” read a recent post on the NKF Facebook page reporting on events in al-Fuaa and Kafariya.

“Every day, our main concern is how to find wood for heating,” says al-Fuaa resident Abu Jawad. “There isn’t a scrap of wood in our houses that we haven’t put to use.”

 An al-Fuaa resident last week. Photo courtesy of N.Z.F.K.

Earlier this month, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid bin Ra’ad said that starvation anywhere by any party constitutes a war crime.

“Every such act deserves to be condemned, whether it’s in Madaya or Idlib,” bin Ra’ad said.

In al-Fuaa and Kafariya, starvation has not been reported on the scale of that in Madaya, largely because regime helicopters airdrop food and other supplies to the trapped residents, “but in very small quantities and it wasn’t enough for the residents,” Abu Yusuf, a student from Kafariya, told Britain’s The Independent earlier this month.

International aid officials have not yet been able to enter al-Fuaa and Kafariya to assess the humanitarian needs and living conditions of those inside, journalist Deeb Sarhan told Syria Direct.

“The UN delegation has been prevented and delayed by [rebel] fighters,” he said.

A statement from the delegation of aid officials from the UN, International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent said last week that they “had to postpone the mission” to visit the towns following reports “from armed groups that more time was needed to finalize security arrangements.”

Al-Fuaa residents criticized the “weakness” of UN efforts and alleged a double standard following the delay, local pro-regime NZFK news network posted on Facebook. Aid organizations are “giving all that is needed for the people of Madaya, with indifference for the people of al-Fuaa,” the page alleged.

One of the rebels now stationed near al-Fuaa, who declined to publicly disclose the brigade he is fighting with, said the blockades of the two towns are reciprocal. 

“Hunger and siege are among the ugliest weapons being used in Syria,” Abu Thabit told Syria Direct, “but the regime was the first to do so by blockading opposition cities.”

Those “ugly weapons” disproportionately harm civilians, who make up the majority of those trapped in Idlib and West Ghouta. Rebel fighters make up a small percentage of Madaya residents. An unknown number of those trapped in al-Fuaa and Kafariya fight for Hezbollah, pro-regime militias and the Syrian army.

“If we had not blockaded al-Fuaa, then food would not have entered Madaya,” Abu Thabit said. “Al-Fuaa is not the first city to witness blockade and hunger.”

The UN estimates that 400,000 Syrians are currently living under blockades across the country. The Siege Watch project, a joint initiative of PAX and The Syria Institute that gathers information about Syria’s blockaded communities from contacts on the ground, reports one million Syrians living under sieges.

“We call on the Syrian army and government to work seriously to break the siege,” al-Fuaa resident Abu Jawad said.

“We’re fed up.”