Syrian government forces must lift a brutal blockade on civilians in predominantly Kurdish areas in the northern Aleppo region that is obstructing residents’ access to fuel and other essential supplies, Amnesty International said today.
Since the government imposed the blockade in August 2022, tens of thousands of civilians, including internally displaced people, have faced severe shortages of fuel and aid. Medical supplies are now all but exhausted and people are burning household items and plastic to try and keep warm in freezing temperatures. The affected areas, including Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafieh in the north of the city of Aleppo, and more than 50 villages in the Shahba area, are under the control of the Kurdish civilian council, which is affiliated with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).
The Syrian government controls the entry of essential supplies, such as fuel, flour and humanitarian aid to these areas. Residents said that over the past year, the Syrian government forces have intermittently restricted the entry of fuel and flour to these neighbourhoods, with the last blockade lasting over a month in April 2022. Residents told Amnesty that the start of the August blockade coincided with the start of normalization talks between Türkiye and Syria, both staunch opponents of the AANES rule in north-east Syria.
“It is abhorrent to see the Syrian authorities depriving tens of thousands of residents in Aleppo of essential supplies for political considerations. Civilians are living in constant fear, deprivation and uncertainty, and are once again paying the highest price in this seemingly endless conflict,” said Diana Semaan, Syria researcher at Amnesty International’s Beirut Regional Office.
“The Syrian government must take immediate action to address the dire humanitarian crisis by allowing fuel and other essential supplies, as well as aid organizations, into the areas affected, without restriction. This crisis is not only a moral imperative but also a legal one. The Syrian government has an obligation under international law to ensure its population have access to adequate food, medicine and other essential supplies. By blocking such access, they are violating their rights.”
Amnesty International interviewed seven residents and IDPs and reviewed media reports. The organization also analysed satellite imagery which showed suspected checkpoints in eight locations around the main roads surrounding and leading to the Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafieh neighbourhoods. While it is difficult to establish when the checkpoints were first erected, satellite imagery shows that three of those checkpoints were scaled up in 2022.
Lack of fuel exacerbates suffering
People interviewed by the organization said that since the end of August last year, Syrian government army forces, including the Fourth Division, have restricted the entry of fuel into the affected areas. As a consequence, those neighbourhoods only have two hours of electricity per day as opposed to seven hours before the blockade.
Hospitals, bakeries and other essential facilities are running out of fuel, and risk imminent closure if the blockade is maintained. Four residents in the Sheikh Maqsoud and Shahba areas told Amnesty International that Fourth Division forces have opened a smuggling route, where small amounts of fuel are being sold at exorbitant prices.
A doctor working in a hospital in the Shahba area told Amnesty International: “We are very worried that we will run out of fuel to operate the hospital’s generator. The problem is that we can’t cut electricity to certain sections of the hospital like the ICU, surgical room or the emergency care centre, so we need 24 hours of electricity. We are turning off the lights, heaters and medical equipment that are not needed, but this only saves a small amount of fuel.”
Civilians are living in constant fear, deprivation and uncertainty, and are once again paying the highest price in this seemingly endless conflict.Diana Semaan, Amnesty International
Mustafa, a resident in Sheikh Maqsoud said: “The real struggle started when the weather worsened … smugglers, who are usually government forces at the checkpoints, are charging around 2,400,000 Syrian pounds [around US$350] for 220 litres…Before the blockade, we bought that amount for 75,000 Syrian pounds, which was affordable.”
Razan, a woman who lives in Sheikh Maqsoud with her husband and two children said: “If I have old stuff or old toys or anything I don’t need, we burn it. But the problem is that we are inhaling toxins, so I am constantly coughing and so are my children… Schools are open but there are no heaters there either so my children are always sick.”
Access to medication and aid
Residents in the affected areas told Amnesty International that they haven’t received food aid since the start of the blockade while supplies of essential medication in hospitals have dwindled.
Razan told Amnesty International that her husband ran out of blood pressure medication, but that hospitals have none and pharmacies are selling it at exorbitant prices.
Mustafa said that a humanitarian aid organization which was planning on providing support to a medical facility in Sheikh Maqsoud had to postpone the project pending approval by the Syrian authorities. He and other residents added that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), a government-affiliated humanitarian organization, has not delivered aid since the start of the blockade.
He said: “I also visited the SARC-run clinic here [in Sheikh Maqsoud] to obtain medication, pain killers only, and they told me that they had run out of supplies. I asked them when they expected to receive more stock and they said they did not know.”
Over the past decade, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations documented the unlawful sieges of civilian areas by Syrian government forces including in the Damascus countryside, Daraa, Aleppo and Homs. In 2017, Amnesty International’s research showed that the Syrian government has deprived civilians in besieged areas across the country of access to food, medicine and other basic necessities, and has subjected them to relentless unlawful attacks, as part of a calculated military strategy, and that these violations constituted crimes against humanity.
International humanitarian law prohibits the use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare. The parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian assistance to civilians in need.