National Security & Defense

Assad Is Deliberately Starving Sunni Muslims in Syria

Aftermath of airstrikes in Douma, Syria, January 10, 2016. (Sameer al-Doumy/AFP/Getty)

‘There is no food,” said Abu Omar, speaking to The Christian Science Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford about life in Madaya, Syria. “I have seen people eat leaves and hunt cats. There are no medicines, none of the things that people need for everyday life. We are living by miracles.”

The plight of the western Syrian town of Madaya is not unique. Far from it. Across Syria, hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering under Assad’s despotism. The photos and videos tell the tale: emaciated bodies and depleted souls. But the West’s response to this genocide also tells a tale. In December, activists in Madaya started a social-media campaign, #Respond. They hoped that by drawing attention to their starving children, they might at least encourage Western forces to deploy in their behalf. Unfortunately, the activists neglected the sacred rule of Western humanitarianism: To get a response, a hashtag must be catchy.

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And this reveals a deeper truth. In 2016, as the fifth anniversary of the Syrian civil war approaches, American efforts against Assad’s murderous regime amount to nothing more than crocodile tears, sad words, and empty protests. The starvation of residents in Madaya and other settlements in western Syria is not accidental. It’s the deliberate strategy of Assad and his backers: Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia. As I wrote in October, the Assad alliance is carving out a contiguous territory in western Syria populated by pro-Assad civilians. This excludes the Sunni populations of Madaya and, among other spots, its neighboring town of Al Zabadani. The Assad tactic is simple: Starve them to death.

The United States must act, which does not mean it must wage open war. Instead, it can take advantage of the fact that Iran’s reputation among some Muslims is suffering. While Putin’s foreign policy relies on brutal realpolitik, Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah (LH) claim to be moral actors in the region, defending oppressed minorities across the Middle East. But in Syria, they’ve been starving and massacring Sunni civilians rather than Israeli Jews; as a result, their brand has suffered a major blow in the Islamic world.

#share#LH’s credibility has been especially undermined by its alliance with Assad. This is one reason Syrian state media deny LH’s atrocities, casting them as lies spread by Saudi propaganda. Committing genocide against innocent Muslims doesn’t sell well with other Muslims. And herein lies an opportunity for America to condemn Iran and LH. By doing so, we would weaken the murderers’ international standing. Criticizing Iran and LH might also help persuade Turkey’s President Erdogan to join Western efforts to deter Iran and take action against ISIS, Assad, and Russia. Erdogan detests Assad and has strongly hinted he’d support America if we challenged Assad more openly. The specter of Turkey’s powerful military might convince the Assad alliance that it’s time for serious (rather than the currently absurd) peace negotiations.

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America has a responsibility to act: Starvation in Syria directly fuels the terrorist threat to the West. The Obama administration’s blindness on humanitarian issues now defines American foreign policy. But in December, manipulated by Putin, Obama abandoned his demand that Assad step aside. As I noted in my previous National Review column, Obama’s collapse has unleashed Saudi hostility toward Iran and made a regional war increasingly likely. The battle lines are hardening: Nuclear-armed Pakistan is now promising to support Saudi Arabia. To prevent Saudi escalation, the U.S. must pressure the Saudis but also Iran and LH. If they are not unconstrained, the Saudis will escalate their support for uncontrollable Sunni terrorist groups. And that will make attacks like those in Paris and San Bernardino far more likely.

#related#Madaya’s plight is thus a problem that is both humanitarian and strategic. With America standing by passively, Syria has descended into a slaughterhouse. Absent America’s tempering influence, the fear, hatred, and ensuing violence are metastasizing. Yet there is hope. Russia, if pushed by Turkish alignment with America, will settle for more limited gains in Syria: continued access to the Mediterranean and preserved arms contracts. Iran’s leaders also know that our capacity to hurt them is far greater than their capacity to hurt us. LH knows it is immolating its moral and political brand. But without American leadership, the region will descend into full-scale sectarian war, and its chaos will flow across international borders.

Facing this crisis, President Obama needs to drop his “let them eat cake” lassitude. Syria’s starvation is bound up inexorably with American security.

— Tom Rogan is a writer for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives, a panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets. His homepage is

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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