[Published here May 23, 2016]
Beirut (AFP) – Under international pressure, Syria’s government has agreed to partial aid access for thousands of civilians living under regime siege but one town near Damascus remains a “thorn in its side”: Daraya.
The town was one of the first to erupt in demonstrations against the government — and one of the first to be placed under a strict regime siege in late 2012.
Despite appeals from its residents, the United Nations and rights groups, Syria’s government has steadfastly refused to allow aid convoys into the town, most recently in a dramatic 11th-hour rejection earlier this month.
Since a partial truce began in February, aid groups have made modest strides in reaching some besieged areas with assistance.
But Daraya remains without a drop of aid.
“The regime is using its ‘submit or starve’ policy to try and take back the town,” said Bissan Fakih, spokeswoman for The Syria Campaign, an advocacy group focused on the conflict.
“Daraya is on the capital’s doorstep, so the regime won’t give it up.”
The town lies a mere 15-minute drive southwest of central Damascus and is even closer to the regime’s prized Mazzeh air base, which hosts the feared air force intelligence services and their notorious prison.
A source close to the government said: “Daraya has a special place in the government’s mind.
“The state wants to take Daraya — it doesn’t want a truce there. The location is too strategic.”
Clashes on the town’s edges have intensified as pro-government news website Al-Masdar said the army would “kick off a major military operation” to capture Daraya in the coming days.
– ‘The forgotten siege’ –
Daraya was once known for its sprawling grape vines and factories producing delicate embroidered tablecloths sold throughout the capital.
When Syria’s uprising began in 2011, the town’s protesters became renowned for handing out flowers and water to government soldiers.
But daily death tolls grew as sniper fire turned to shelling and residents began to take up arms against the regime.
In November 2012, government forces began “setting up checkpoints at all the entrances to the town”, said local activist Shadi Matar.
“By December, there were no safe ways to come into or leave Daraya.”
The siege shrivelled the town’s thriving pre-war population of 80,000 down by nearly 90 percent.
“Daraya is like the forgotten siege. It’s one of the first places that was besieged, but even after the truce, no food or medical assistance came in,” Matar said from inside the town.
Hosam Khshini, a doctor in one of Daraya’s clinics, said residents lack basic amenities and have resorted to eating wild grass.
“Electricity? We don’t even know what that is anymore. Water? It’s all from the wells and it’s not potable anyway. Food and milk for children — none.”
Testimonies from the town echo the stories of more than 400,000 Syrians that the UN estimates live in towns besieged by the regime or by rebels.
– ‘A conundrum for the regime’ –
On May 12, Khshini and others waited with bated breath as a five-truck Red Cross convoy paused on the town’s outskirts for final permission to distribute baby milk and medical and school supplies.
But at the last minute, the trucks were refused entry, dashing residents’ hopes.
“Daraya is still a conundrum for the regime,” Khshini told AFP.
“The UN really tries to get inside but the regime refuses, giving flimsy excuses every time to block aid deliveries.”
Aside from Daraya’s strategic location, government sources and opposition activists have different theories for why the regime is so unforgiving when it comes to the town.
“Daraya is known as the school of the non-violent uprising,” said Fakih of The Syria Campaign.
She said the government resented that Daraya continued to defy “the dictatorship down the road”.
“Those peaceful days may be long gone, but the survival of this town is a thorn in the side of (President) Bashar al-Assad’s plan to stamp out the uprising.”
But regime sources insist the particularly tough stance stems from the presence of extremist combatants.
“Daraya is a red line for the regime because of the fighters there, most of whom are from hardline groups,” the source close to the government said.
“The groups in Daraya are some of the most religious. This is why the state believes that the humanitarian aid wouldn’t even go to the civilians.”
Already before its truce with non-jihadist rebels began in late February, Syria’s army insisted Daraya would not be included in the deal because the town hosted “terrorists”.
A government soldier said: “The fighters look very healthy while the civilians look poor and miserable… because someone is stealing everything that enters the town.”