The Syrian people are starving. According to the United Nations, about 800,000 civilians are currently under siege. In areas around the cities of Homs, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor and in parts of the capital, Damascus, no food, medical supplies or humanitarian aid can get in, and people can’t get out. Many have already died under these “starvation sieges” and hundreds of thousands teeter on the brink, subsisting on grass and weeds. In Damascus, a cleric has ruled that under these conditions, Muslims are permitted to eat normally forbidden animals like cats, dogs and donkeys.
This is not a famine. Food is abundant just a few miles away from these besieged areas. Military forces — mainly the army of President Bashar al-Assad, but in some cases extremist anti-Assad militias — are preventing food and medicine from reaching trapped civilians. In addition to starving, many people in besieged areas have been stricken by diseases, including polio, but can’t get medical treatment because doctors can’t get through.
This moral obscenity demands action by the international community. Any armed group that prevents humanitarian access — whether the Syrian regime’s forces or rebel militias — should be subject to coercive measures.
France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has denounced the international community’s failure to prevent starvation as “absolutely scandalous” and is now calling for “much stronger action.”
The news that France may propose a strong Security Council resolution is welcome, but Mr. Fabius hasn’t made clear whether such a measure would invoke Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which allows the Security Council to enforce its directives through military action. If it doesn’t, the resolution will be inadequate.
The recent attacks on the convoys attempting to deliver humanitarian aid into the besieged city of Homs are a case in point: The lifting of the sieges can’t be left to the warring factions on the ground. An external, international force must be introduced to guarantee the safe passage of food and medicine to starving Syrian civilians.
The Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, remains a major obstacle. His government has vetoed three Security Council resolutions on Syria since October 2011 and Russia has said it would support measures on humanitarian issues only if Syria agrees to them. But Mr. Putin’s geostrategic calculations and Mr. Assad’s coldblooded recalcitrance cannot be allowed to stand in the way of thousands of Syrian civilians eating.
If Russia blocks meaningful international action, and if the Assad regime or any rebel group refuses to allow humanitarian aid into the besieged areas, the sieges must be broken by any means necessary.
We should invoke the Responsibility to Protect, the principle that if a state fails to protect its populations from mass atrocities — or is in fact the perpetrator of such crimes — the international community must step in to protect the victims, with the collective use of force authorized by the Security Council. And if a multinational force cannot be assembled, then at least some countries should step up and organize Syria’s democratically oriented rebel groups to provide the necessary force on the ground, with air cover from participating nations.
There are precedents to follow. The American-led and United Nations-approved multinational effort in Somalia between December 1992 and May 1993 was authorized to use “all necessary measures” to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid. In retrospect, this all-but-forgotten operation was largely successful in humanitarian terms. While public attention has focused on the “Black Hawk Down” battle of October 1993, a military failure, the strictly humanitarian goal of getting food to starving Somalis was in fact a success.
Before any such operation begins, however, Mr. Assad and the rebel groups should be put on notice that they have 48 hours to lift the sieges. There are reasons to believe that the mere threat of coercive action would produce results.
As we saw in September, the threat of force pushed the Assad regime to comply. Faced with President Obama’s threat of an imminent military strike last August, Mr. Assad, under Russian pressure, agreed to hand over his stockpile of chemical weapons (the same weapons he claimed he didn’t have). A similar threat of force could once again compel both Mr. Assad’s government and extremist rebels to make a choice: Allow humanitarian aid to flow or be subject to attack.
Invoking the responsibility to protect would also confront Russia with a choice: Convince Mr. Assad to lift the sieges or be left behind by an international community that is prepared to act.
Humanitarian interventions typically occur when moral principles overlap with political interests. As we approach the third anniversary of the Syrian conflict, this alignment is taking shape. Growing global outrage over the humanitarian nightmare in Syria — replete with refugee flows, sarin gas, barrel bombs, and “industrial-scale” killings and torture, as revealed last month in a collection of 55,000 gut-wrenching photographs — has horrified the world.
Using force to prevent starvation will not immediately resolve the crisis in Syria. It will, however, make a qualitative difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians. It will also send a clear message to the Syrian regime and the extremist militias: The international community, after three years of watching this moral and humanitarian catastrophe unfold from the sidelines, is finally prepared to act.
Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi, the associate director and director, respectively, of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, are co-editors of The Syria Dilemma.