In the towns of Madaya and Alfoua in Syria there are catastrophic events occurring. Besieged by militias and terrorist groups for months on end, the residents are at risk of starving or freezing to death
The most recent Iranian and Saudi dispute is not taking place in Riyadh or Tehran, for now it is flaring up in Madaya and Alfoua in Syria.
Madaya is a town predominantly inhabited by Sunnis. It is only half an hour northwest of Damascus in the mountains and was a popular destination for wealthy Gulf tourists. Alfoua, together with the Kafaria, are villages located in northwest Syria near the city of Idlib. Alfoua is populated mainly by SHiites.
80,000 at risk of dying from starvation
However, there are no picnics happening there anymore.
If you were to search the word Madaya on twitter, horrible images will show up; the skeletal frames of starving children, slaughtered cats to be eaten, the concave stomachs depicting desperate hunger and endless images of suffering. A resident offering his car for five kilos of milk or rice. It is unclear whether the reports are all authentic or whether there are forgeries and propaganda within. Sadly the situation got worse dramatically over the new year.
Nearly 370,000 tweets have been calling to save the little town, trying to draw attention to the fact that 40,000 people are being starved to death. Activists stated on Wednesday that 28 people died of hunger in the besieged village of Madaya. Attempts have been made to contact the United Nations, but in the last few days the activists recieved only automated email responses: Until 5 January all UN staff were on holiday.
On Thursday, the United Nations informed: “The United Nations received credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed while trying to leave”
Where a proxy war between the two great powers Saudi Arabia and Iran is being raged - Madaya and Alfoua are hostages in a cynical game.
The Syrian army and the Shiite Hezbollah militia are besieging the Sunni Madaya to exert pressure on their opponent. On the other hand, Syrian rebel groups and Jaish al-Fatah, an arm of the Sunni terrorist group Al Qaeda, have at the same time Jeish Alfatah have been attacking the Shiite village of Alfoua.These units are supported by both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The last food aid they let through to Alfoua was in September.
“People are looking at Iran and Saudi Arabia’s conflict as the biggest thing on the news, but we don’t care, we just need to be released, people here are dying of hunger,” said Amer Borhan, a manager of a civil hospital in Zabadani a neighboring town of Madaya.
Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi jihadi, recently released a snapchat video: Jaish al-Fatah suicide bombers and rockets will annihilate the Shiite Alfoua, if the siege on Madaya is not ended soon. Al-Muhaysini describes himself as the "High Judge" of the Sunni terrorist group; he called for a million dollars worth of donations in order to launch a 300 missile attack on the village. This is to produce 300 missiles to attack of the village. Saad al Sawas, a 24-year-old politics student from Damascus told Cicero: "We see a lot of photos on Facebook of the starving and many Syrians feel great compassion for them”.
Nevertheless, many people on twitter comment with a distinctly sectarian and political stance. It seems Syrians often choose one side or the other in this humanitarian crisis, sympathising with only half of those in need. The opponents of the regime side with the besieged people in Madaya while Assad supporters assist the starving in Alfoua.
This escalation of violence, was incited by the execution of the Shiite sheikhs Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia 2nd of January.The Syrian writer Rateb Shabo, who was detained as a political opponent for 16 years in Assad's prisons and now lives in France, has another theory: The time of the execution could have something to do with the talks over Syria, which began in Riyadh in December.
On January 25, the peace talks in Geneva will be continued. "But Saudi Arabia does not want the Syrian parties involved in them," says Shabo. Expectations of the conference over Syria are very low, very few people believe they will reach an agreement. "Most of the conflicting Syrian parties don’t even want to find a solution," says Shabo.
"For them, we are just a pawn in their game"
Saudi Arabia maintain that the deterioration of relations with Iran will not affect the Syrian peace talks. However, it will in fact do just that. The Iranian-American Middle East affairs analyst Holly Darges said in an interview with Cicero: "Coming to the table was already hard enough. Now Iran will further want to back Bashar Al-Assad in Syria and vice versa with Saudi Arabia and the rebels. Both countries will stick to their cards at the bargaining table in order to push forth their own agenda.”
But the Saudi-Iranian Hunger Games in Syria urgently require a solution. "We are here only a pawn in the game," said a young activist from Madaya who wishes to remain anonymous. “We can see the conflict here in front of us, on Syrian soil. Even senior officials in the Syrian army have said to us directly: Iran and Turkey have involved you here - and only they can release you from it".
A little milk and rice will relieve the besieged people for the time being, but it will take a lot longer to heal the deep wounds within Syrian society.
"The inhabitants of these two towns are humans. They need to be rescued. In this war, we are losing our humanity " Sawas explains, "..when did we become such a divided, sectarian and ugly nation".
Update at 16:20 clock: Meanwhile, the Assad’s government has agreed to allow the United Nations to access the besieged places of Madaya, Aloua and Kefraya.