Starving Syrians “Starvation is a different level of abhorrence because it is a slow, gruesome death”. -Dr. Leah Carmichael

The Syrian Civil War seems more and more hopeless as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his regime gain more power over insurgents and civilians by intentionally starving them and using biological and chemical warfare. With Russian support, Assad has been able to avoid punishment for his war crimes and consequently gain more power.

The Syrian refugee crisis is probably the most notorious aspect of this ongoing war. As per UNHCR, there are 13.1 million people in need of humanitarian aid in Syria. More than five million Syrians have fled the country; however, there are still more than six million that have left their homes and are homeless within their country.

Further, the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that there are 6.5 million starving Syrians.

Despite Syria’s seemingly grim future, non-governmental agencies like Mercy Corps have stepped up to help in addition to governmental programs. Mercy Corps helps feed hundreds of thousands of people each month by donating flour to local bakeries and ensuring that people in need are able to get bread from the bakeries.

Nonetheless, Mercy Corps has faced some setbacks, as the Assad regime does not want it to assist starving Syrians. Dr. Leah Carmichael stated that “one of the main roles of the government is to ensure a food supply”.

Dr. Carmichael is a respected professor at the University of Georgia and a food insecurity expert. She has been researching the puzzle of Assad’s starvation war tool to determine why governments starve their people to gain power and later want their people’s support. She is also interested in the role of Mercy Corps in replenishing food for the Syrian people. The Borgen Project had the privilege of interviewing her on March 2, 2018, to gain more insight into the current situation and Mercy Corps.

“Food is really one of those things where if you’re hungry and you weren’t before, it catalyzes that kind of protest [referencing the Arab Spring, the start of the Syrian Civil War],” Carmichael stated in the interview. “Understanding that food is a major provision of welfare for a government and then understanding that the tactic of taking food away and making people hungry is either unintentionally or intentionally a way which governments lose their authority to rule”.

As for Mercy Corps shaping the outcome of the Syrian civil war, Carmichael says it is unintentional yet powerful in helping starving Syrians because “as much as you are keeping civilians alive, you are shaping the future legacy of this war as not just being one where the international community turned a blind eye as mass genocide occurred…as in this case, Mercy Corps is shaping the human side of it.”

However, Carmichael mentioned that Mercy Corps’ role is still a “drop in the bucket” in comparison to what a government could do. She said that everyday people can help this situation by determining “what active role if any should the U.S. play abroad”.

She also mentioned that a growing norm is starting to emerge in the international community called the responsibility to protect, “the idea is that pure sovereignty matters for states, but in the cases where you see sovereignty being used to promote genocide, the international community has a responsibility to step in to protect those people against their government”.

Thus, public pressure to take action could lead the U.S. to possibly intervene. However, public support is withering in terms of U.S. global intervention. As Carmichael stated in a 2017 TEDx Talk, “the abject horror of war is our indifference to it”. Doing good and helping people in need is very much “something that we as Americans like on paper.”

Suzy Hansen from the Washington Post shares a similar view in that Americans under President Trump are beginning to dislike more intervention as an “America First” ideal grows. Further, Americans are learning more about the “darker” parts of American history that have resulted from U.S. intervention, such as U.S.-backed coups. This suggests that many Americans are re-thinking the global role of the U.S., as intervention has the potential to cause more harm than good and can negatively impact relations and foreign policy.

To help starving Syrians, it seems that the international system needs to intervene, as Russian-led peace talks may only prolong suffering. However, “what to do” will prove to be a difficult and methodological decision to make.

– Mary McCarthy

Photo: Flickr