Where is the Coverage? Hezbollah Starving 40,000 Civilians

Updated on January 11, 2016
Forty thousand civilians in the southwestern Syrian town of Madaya, near the Lebanese border, have been slowly starving as the result of a six-month siege by Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terror group. Yet, major U.S. news outlets largely have largely failed to cover the encirclement of what in more peaceful times was a well-known mountain resort.

Reports that are emerging—initially from non-U.S. outlets—paint a grim picture.

According to The Independent (U.K.), denizens of Madaya have resorted to eating wild plants, insects and pets such as cats and dogs. Madaya has been cut off “for almost 200 days and it has been months since aid was last allowed into the town (“War in Syria:Up to 40,000 civilians are starving in besieged Madaya, say campaigners,” Jan. 1, 2016).”

Food reportedly ran out 200 days ago and electricity has been cut off.

The Independent reports that “around 20 men have so far perished from starvation” and “850 infants [are] in urgent need of milk, while six newborn babies have died because their mothers were unable to feed them.”

Another U.K. paper, The Mirror (“Inside Madaya,” January 6), shows a picture of what it describes as a starving man eating trash “in a desperate bid to survive” in a “Syrian town where 40,000 people are starving to death.”

To combat starvation, Madaya residents are attempting to sell belongings such as vehicles, for rice and baby milk formula. Those seeking to flee are faced with land mines and sniper fire from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim Iranian-funded terrorist movement.

Hezbollah is “effectively holding civilians hostage in order to gain leverage over two embattled Shia towns in Syria’s northern Idlib province.” According to The Independent, those two towns, Kafrayya and Fua, are under siege by members of the Sunni Muslim group Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), which is battling elements supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Kyle Orton, a British analyst and associate fellow at the think tank Henry Jackson Society, runs a blog called The Syrian Intifada. He describes Jaysh al-Fatah as an umbrella group composed of Liwa al-Haq, Ajnad a-Sham, Jaysh al-Sunna, Ahrar a-Sham and the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Jabhat an-Nusra. Hezbollah has been fighting in the Syrian civil war on the side of Assad, along with forces from its benefactor, Iran.

According to Phillip Smyth a researcher at the University of Maryland who specializes in Shi’ite militias:

Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Shiite Islamist Iran and its proxies, namely Lebanese Hezbollah and a collection of Iraqi Shia Islamist militias backed by Iran, have not only offered their diplomatic and political support, but beginning in 2012 have supplied fighters to assist in bolstering the rule of Syria’s Alawite leader, Bashar al-Assad (The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2015).

Media Misses Thousands Starving

Some news outlets, such as the BBC (“‘Weeks’ to save thousands from starvation in Syrian town,” January 5), Vice News (“‘Children are Eating Leaves off the Trees’: The Nightmare of The Siege of Madaya, Syria,” January 4), and the Associated Press (“Besieged Syrian villages run short of food, medicine,” January 5) have reported on the siege of Madaya. However, coverage in major U.S. media has been belated.

A Lexis-Nexis search conducted on January 6, 2015 showed that no articles had appeared on the 200-day siege in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Washington Times, USA Today, The Baltimore Sun, among others.

A lone mention of the situation in the northwestern Syrian town appeared in three sentences in a New York Times article (“Evacuations Aim to Ease Path to Talks in Syria War,” Dec. 29, 2015) about towns being evacuated in the Syrian civil war. The Times reported that Madaya is “besieged by pro-government forces” and noted that the city was not included in a United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross brokered deal meant to allow for evacuations of opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.

Despite not being part of that deal, the AP reported that food was supposed to be sent by the United Nations to the town but had not yet arrived—and a previous shipment in October consisted of expired nutrition biscuits. According to Hussain Abdul Hussain, a reporter with Al Rai (a Kuwait daily), the U.N. had said that the Assad regime initially refused its request to send food to Madaya.

Media Finally Finds Madaya

Some news outlets eventually provided some coverage of Madaya, albeit belatedly and of varying quality.
The New York Times (“Starving Syrians Go Without Aid as Powers Feud,” January 11) devoted an article to the siege of the town by Hezbollah. However, in 1,588 words, The Times only once mentioned by name, the terror group perpetrating the town’s starvation.
In contrast to The Times, a Washington Post editorial that ran two days prior (“The siege of Madaya casts a shadow on Syrian peace efforts,” January 9) wrote “the town is ringed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, which fights for the Assad regime on instructions from Iran.” In addition to providing an updated account of casualties (23 dead, including six children according to Doctors without Borders) The Post reported the Assad regime had finally agreed to allow food shipments to the town in exchange for relief to Kafrayya and Fua. 

In comparison to coverage of Madaya, the siege by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or the Islamic State) of the northern Syrian town of Kobani (Sept. 13, 2014-Jan. 27, 2015) received far greater media attention—a Lexis Nexis search of U.S. newspapers and wires shows more than 3,000 results. Unlike Madaya, Kobani is near the Turkish border and thus is perhaps somewhat more accessible to coverage in a region in which reporters and the information they provide are increasingly subject to suppression and violence, or manipulation by terror groups and authoritarian regimes.

Nevertheless, Madaya has faced an apparently deadly blockade by Hezbollah and pro-Assad forces for months, and is not far from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, a base for many foreign correspondents. Why was the media so late to cover Madaya?
Note: This post was updated to include recent media coverage on Jan.11, 2016.

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