In Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, a population is being starved and bombed into surrender. It is happening in full view of the world.
The people of this ancient city have been besieged for more than 600 days. The regime has attacked them indiscriminately, using crude barrel bombs and artillery fire. People are desperate for basic necessities. According to Unicef, more than 1,000 children are still trapped in the Old City. Hundreds of thousands of residents have been displaced. There is a similar picture in Aleppo and other besieged areas.
This is the reality of the conflict in Syria. In the 21st century, starvation and hunger are being used as weapons of war. A regime that claims to be fighting terrorism is terrorising its own people. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says that these are crimes against humanity.
The situation in Syria has become shockingly familiar. The numbers shame us all. There are 9.3 million people in desperate need inside Syria. Nationwide, 242,000 people are under siege, the vast majority held hostage by the regime. Around 100,000 people are trapped in and around Yarmouk Camp in the suburbs of Damascus, at severe risk of starvation. There are more than two million refugees in neighbouring countries, including a staggering one million children, whose education and security have been stolen.
Some aid has now got into Homs, during a three-day ceasefire over the weekend. But it is a fraction of what is required. The regime had insisted that women, children and the elderly leave the city before the aid convoys get in. While any access for humanitarian relief is welcome, we should all be gravely concerned about the plight of those who have left the city and those who remain in Homs. Will the evacuees be protected, or will they be persecuted by the regime? Will those who remain be treated as fair game for even more devastating attacks by Assad’s security forces? The lessons of Srebrenica should haunt us all, when the deliberate separating out of women and children preceded the massacre of 8,000 men and boys.
We will soon mark the third anniversary of the Syria conflict, with no end in sight. If Assad continues to cling to power, the violence and suffering will only increase. The terrorism his brutality fuels will claim thousands more lives and increasingly threaten our own shores. We cannot stand and watch this humanitarian tragedy deepen.
In pictures: Syria's escalating refugee crisis
In pictures: Syria's escalating refugee crisis
1/20 Syria refugee crisis
A young Syrian refugee stands near jerry cans used to collect water at Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. The United Nations hopes that political talks between the warring sides in Syria will clinch local ceasefires to allow vital food and medicines to reach millions of civilians
2/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syrian refugees transport small stones for their tents at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria
3/20 Syria refugee crisis
Representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a deeply divided opposition, world powers and regional bodies started a long-delayed peace conference aimed at bringing an end to a nearly three-year civil war
4/20 Syria refugee crisis
A Syrian refugee family rests inside their shelter in Hatay, Turkey
5/20 Syria refugee crisis
A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo crosses the Bosphorus from Uskudar to the European side of Istanbul
6/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syria's air force struck rebel-held areas around Damascus and Aleppo as face-to-face peace talks tentatively began in Switzerland
7/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syrian refugees look out from an evacuated house in the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul. Syrians fill houses which have been evacuated for urban development projects. Destitute Syrian refugees who have fled the war in Syria and camps in Turkey are fighting for their lives in different parts of Istanbul
8/20 Syria refugee crisis
Refugees who moved into the houses in Kucukpazar neighbourhood near the historic Suleymaniye mosque, are struggling to live without water and heating
9/20 Syria refugee crisis
A Syrian woman and her child stand inside a building in the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul
10/20 Syria refugee crisis
A Syrian boy sits in debris in the Kucukpazar district of Istanbul
11/20 Syria refugee crisis
Damaged buildings line a street in the besieged area of Homs
12/20 Syria refugee crisis
People sit around a fire along a street lined with debris in the besieged area of Homs
13/20 Syria refugee crisis
Children cut wood pieces in the besieged area of Homs. Efforts to get food and medical aid into Homs have become a test case on whether peace talks in Switzerland can produce any practical results almost three years into the Syrian conflict
14/20 Syria refugee crisis
Boys walk along a street past damaged buildings and vehicles in the besieged area of Homs
15/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syrians stand in a destroyed street following a reported airstrike by government forces on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
16/20 Syria refugee crisis
Rescue teams search for survivors on the rubble of a building following Syrian government air raids in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
17/20 Syria refugee crisis
A graveyard in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
18/20 Syria refugee crisis
A view of destruction in Aleppo's ancient Umayyad mosque, in the UNESCO-listed northern Syrian city. The mosque's minaret was blown up during clashes between opposition and government forces
19/20 Syria refugee crisis
Syrians attend the funeral of victims who reportedly died of hunger in the besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus
20/20 Syria refugee crisis
A man holds the corpse of one-year old baby Adbul Jalil Mohamed Hamis wrapped in shrouds, who reportedly died of hunger in the besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus during a funeral ceremony
First, we must not give up on the search for a political solution, which is ultimately the only way of returning peace to Syria. The “Geneva II” process has resumed this week, and the regime should join the opposition Syrian National Coalition in committing itself to a political transition.
But people in need inside Syria cannot wait while the wheels of diplomacy turn. So second, we must all continue to support the UN-led humanitarian relief effort. The UK has now committed £600m – our biggest-ever contribution to a single crisis, and we have set up a scheme to help some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees find sanctuary in Britain. We will continue to lead the way. But other countries must increase their contributions, to help save the lives of countless desperate Syrians, and help neighbouring countries bear the burden.
Third, we must explore options for getting much more aid directly across Syria’s borders and conflict lines to all those who need it. It is unacceptable that the regime in Damascus is able to obstruct such desperately needed assistance. Access to aid is a right, not a gift from the regime, and the world cannot be party to their policy of starvation and repression.
Fourth, the United Nations Security Council must now act. It should set out clear demands of the regime and insist that they be implemented. Assad has largely ignored the Security Council’s demands so far. It is time to turn up the heat. The Security Council should require full and unimpeded humanitarian access, including to those areas being besieged by the regime. It should demand an immediate end to the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and to impunity for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. And it should call for the regime to stop using barrel bombs and other kinds of weaponry against innocent civilians.
There can be no justification for any country standing in the way of a new Security Council Resolution that insists on innocent civilians getting access to food and medical aid. The Council has often been divided on the issue of Syria. But now is the moment for all 15 members to come together behind a resolution to improve the appalling humanitarian situation. That is what the UK is proposing, and I call on other members of the Security Council to back this effort. Nothing would do more to support the work to find a political solution to the conflict than practical progress to improve the lives of the Syrian people. It is time for the Security Council to act, and to act unanimously.
William Hague is British Foreign Secretary and a former Leader of the Conservative Party.