BEIRUT – Syrian opposition groups and international relief organizations are warning of the risk of mass starvation across the country, especially in the besieged Damascus suburbs where a gas attack killed hundreds last month.
With the world's attention focused on the regime's chemical weapons, activists said six people — including an 18-month girl — have died for lack of food in one of the stricken suburbs in recent weeks.
Save the Children said in an appeal Monday that more than 4 million Syrians, more than half of them children, do not have enough to eat. Food shortages have been compounded by an explosion in prices.
"The world has stood and watched as the children of Syria have been shot, shelled and traumatized by the horror of war," said Roger Hearn, Save the Children's regional director for the Middle East. "The conflict has already left thousands of children dead, and is now threatening their means of staying alive."
Thousands of people are believed trapped in suburbs east and west of the capital that have been held for months by rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. Regime troops are besieging the areas, and residents say food is increasingly had to find. Rebels say they are trying to break the blockade.
The suburbs were the site of the Aug. 21 attack that a U.N. report found included the use of the nerve gas sarin. They were home to more than 2 million people before the war, but it is unclear how many are there now.
In some hard-hit areas such as the western suburb of Moadamiyeh, people are running out of food and are mostly relying on lentils, olives and dried figs, according to residents and activists.
"We have no food, no milk and no medicine," said a woman from Moadamiyeh, who identified herself by her nickname Um Lujain for fear of government reprisals. "We are surviving on one meal a day"
Um Lujain said her 18-month-old daughter has lost half her weight and spends most of her days sleeping. The woman said her daughter's diet is based on the liquid she makes by boiling lentils.
"There has been no children formula or bread for about a year," the woman said. She added that sometimes rebels find expired boxes of powdered milk in abandoned shops or pharmacies, and people still give it to their children for lack of food.
According to the Moadamiyeh Media Center, six people have died of starvation over the past 20 days: two women and four children ages 18 months to 7 years. It added that 15 other children are in intensive care in clinics, suffering from malnutrition.
On Monday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition accused government forces of tightening their months-long siege. "Assad's forces are starving people to death in those areas," the coalition claimed. "Famine looms in the horizon."
Rana Obeid, the 18-month-old girl, was the latest to die on Monday. An amateur video showed her lying on a bed, her ribs visible and her stomach bloated.
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.
Mahmoud Abu Ali, an activist in Moadamiyeh, said the suburb has been under siege for 307 days. He added that most of the cows, sheep and goats died as a result of shelling or lack of feed, and people cannot plant their land because of daily bombardment.
"People wake up in the morning and there is no food to have breakfast. At noon there is no food for people to have lunch," Abu Ali said.
Khaled Iriqsousi, head of Syrian Arab Red Crescent, told The Associated Press that the organization has not entered suburbs of Damascus for five months because of the fighting.
Iriqsousi said by telephone that one of the most serious problems is that children are not getting vaccinated. "This will affect generations," he warned.
The United States and Russia brokered an agreement for Syria to give up its chemical weapons, but U.N. diplomats are at odds over details of a Security Council resolution spelling out how it should be done and the possible consequences if Syria doesn't comply.
In a speech at the U.N. on Tuesday, President Barack Obama challenged the Security Council to hold Syria accountable if it fails to live up to its pledges.
"If we cannot agree even on this," Obama said, "then it will show that the United Nations is incapable of enforcing the most basic of international laws."
Ertharin Cousin, head of the U.N.'s World Food Program, demanded that a potential cease-fire for the benefit of the experts who will secure Syria's chemical weapons include access for aid workers.
WFP is feeding 3 million people inside Syria.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.