The Resurgence of Siege Warfare

MAAS Alum Will Todman explains how the Assad Regime has benefited from bringing back an ancient tactic of war.

by Will Todman

This article is from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies’ Newsmagazine, Fall/Winter 2017, available here.

As many as one million Syrians have been victims of one of the most brutal tactics of counter-insurgency: siege warfare. By surrounding a given area with armed forces and cutting off its supplies, sieges aim to force a population into submission. Why did the Syrian regime adopt this tactic on such a scale? Why have some sieges endured for so long? And what might siege tactics in Syria indicate about the future of modern authoritarian counter-insurgency elsewhere?

In 2012, the Syrian regime, unable to locate insurgents in populated areas, imposed sieges across the country to seal off areas thought to be harboring fighters, ensuring that they could not threaten key areas of strategic importance. Unlike “hearts and minds” campaigns of counter-insurgency, which seek to provide security, protection, and services to civilians living in insurgents’ areas of operation, these siege tactics imposed punitive measures on the entire population living in rebel-held zones. The regime indiscriminately shelled besieged areas, targeting key infrastructure such as hospitals and electricity networks, and cut off supplies of food and medicine.

These tactics helped prevent opposition forces from reaching the city of Damascus and forced them out of Homs and Aleppo. However, they also helped the Syrian regime weather its problems of manpower. As early as 2012, the regime—facing growing numbers of defections and casualties—lacked the manpower to launch multiple ground assaults across the country. Besieging an area requires fewer forces than launching a ground assault and also provides opportunities for detaining and forcibly drafting men into the army at the checkpoints on the siege’s perimeter.

But in spite of the horrific humanitarian conditions in besieged areas, many opposition forces refused to surrender, and so stalemates endured. As the spread of the war economy entrenched networks of profiteering in these areas, the use of sieges became an important element of the regime’s economic survival strategy. The regime sends soldiers to man checkpoints as a reward for having served on the frontline, encouraging them to exploit their position by taking bribes instead of receiving a salary. Businessmen allied to the regime also take huge cuts of the profit, and they effectively buy contracts from the top levels of the regime for permission to trade goods. As a result, prices of basic goods inside besieged areas are often extortionate. During the winter of 2013-14, a bag of rice cost $0.66 in central Damascus but as much as $21 in besieged areas just miles away. Therefore, the regime has been incentivized to prolong sieges for financial reasons, making the economic payoffs of sieges as vital as their military objectives.

Siege warfare’s military and economic benefits help explain why so many Syrians live under blockade today. Authoritarian regimes do not hesitate to employ these tactics of collective punishment, and the international community seems to have grown numb to the scale of human rights violations. Although the scale of siege warfare in Syria is extraordinary, we have seen similar tactics elsewhere: the siege of Taiz in Yemen, which has now lasted two years, and during the Iraqi government’s siege of Fallujah last year, where at least 140 residents of the Islamic State-held city died from lack of food and medicine. Actors conducting counter-insurgency operations feel less constrained by the necessity to isolate insurgents in a civilian population, even as modern warfare is increasingly shifting into urban spaces.

Unless there is considerably more international condemnation of those responsible for inflicting collective punishment on populated areas and starving civilian populations as a tactic of war, it seems likely that military actors will increasingly turn to siege warfare. Once thought of as having been consigned to medieval times, brutal sieges are, once again, becoming a common feature of war.

Will Todman (MAAS ‘16) is an associate fellow in the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs (CSIS). He wrote his MA thesis on the subject of siege warfare in Syria, and has since published articles on the subject with the Middle East Institute and the Brookings Institution’s Lawfare blog, and has a forthcoming article on the topic with the journal Syria Studies.