As the Syrian regime was about to launch its latest offensive on Aleppo, it sent people in the rebel-held east a text message with a stark warning.
“The idea of breaking the siege against you is finished. Your leaders are pushing you towards suicide and you think it is martyrdom while they withdraw and flee,” the text said.
Two days after the message was sent, the regime, backed by Russia, acted with lethal force, unleashing one of its most intense bombardments on the city. In what many analysts believe is president Bashar al-Assad's final push to recapture the rebels' last urban stronghold, the regime is relying on a tactic it has used to crush other rebellious communities: siege and bombard its opponents into submission.
Phone texts and leaflets – even graffiti – carrying messages of imminent onslaught mixed with promises of amnesty, often accompany the bombing. The opposition has termed the strategy “surrender or starve” and its consequences are devastating. Scores of people have been killed in Syria’s second city in the past week and the remaining hospitals in rebel-controlled districts have been forced to close.
“We want to tell the world two things: either stop pretending you care, or bomb us with nuclear weapons so we can all die and be done with this,” says Abdo Khudr, a member of one of the local councils administering the opposition-held part of Aleppo.
An estimated 275,000 people are trapped in the rebel-held east, exhausted and weak from lack of food. The scale of the onslaught makes it the biggest battle of Syria’s five-year civil war, analysts say. But it is not an isolated case – the UN said on Monday that the number of people living under siege across the country has doubled over the past year to about a million.
Stephen O'Brien, the UN's aid chief, told the Security Council: "There is nothing subtle or complicated about the practice of besiegement. Civilians are being isolated, starved, bombed and denied medical attention and humanitarian assistance in order to force them to submit or flee."
Siege Watch, a monitoring project run by the Syria Institute, a US-based non-profit research organisation, and Pax, a Dutch peace-building non-governmental agency, puts the figure higher, estimating that 1.25 million Syrians in up to 40 locations are under siege of varying degrees of severity.
On a smaller scale, rebel forces also lay siege to communities that support the government, depriving them of supplies, shelling their homes and preventing access to medical facilities. The Islamic State terror group is surrounding parts of the city of Deir Ezzor in the east.
Jamila Kurdi (22) was trapped for nearly a year in the village of Foua which has been besieged by Sunni Islamist groups, including an al-Qaeda affiliate, since early 2015. She was evacuated to Damascus in December under the "four towns agreement" between the government and armed groups that allowed sick and injured people to leave the village.
It came eight months after a missile fired by Islamists slammed into Ms Kurdi’s home, killing four relatives and leaving her blind.
“The doctors patched me up and removed one of my eyes with very little anaesthesia,” she says, sitting in a flat in Damascus with Gardenia, the child she was pregnant with when the missile struck. “It was very painful.”
The agreement made it possible for humanitarian supplies to enter Ms Kurdi’s village and a neighbouring village. It also applied to the rebel-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani near the Lebanese border – both under a blockade imposed by the government and Hizbullah, the allied Lebanese Shia militant group.
But in Madaya, a town of 40,000, the regime appears to be hoping to defeat rebels by using a similar strategy that it used with Daraya, a Damascus suburb where some of the first peaceful protests against Mr Assad erupted in 2011.
Hundreds of rebels and their families in Daraya accepted safe passage to Idlib in August after years of siege, hunger and fierce bombardment. Syrian officials call their "reconciliation policies" a success and the recapture of Daraya was a symbolic victory for the regime. But critics say the strategy is essentially one of forced surrender.
“We lived four years under mutual shelling, except for a three-month truce, after which it resumed,” says Khaled al Qarah, a former resident of Daraya, now living in a shelter in Damascus that provides meals and healthcare. “Barrel bombs were falling on us and it intensified towards the end. Some days 100 fell, some days 50.”
The concern among analysts and aid workers is that the government, feeling confident after making gains around Damascus, as well as the prospect of it regaining control over rebel-held parts of Aleppo, may now be less inclined to loosen its sieges around places such as Madaya.
"Starve and surrender has been working. Where it wasn't working well they have used Russian support to intensify bombing in order to push besieged communities to surrender," says Valerie Szybala, executive director of the Syria Institute.
( – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)