Sieges by Western enemies get big headlines, while larger U.S.-backed blockades are ignored

The siege on Madaya is tragic — so are U.S.-backed blockades of Yemen and Gaza. Where is the outrage over those?

Published January 18, 2016 1:00PM (EST)

Healthcare workers demonstrate against a blockade on Yemen imposed by the Saudi-led coalition, outside the headquarters of the United Nations in Yemen's capital Sanaa on May 7, 2015  (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
Healthcare workers demonstrate against a blockade on Yemen imposed by the Saudi-led coalition, outside the headquarters of the United Nations in Yemen's capital Sanaa on May 7, 2015 (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

Reports on the siege of Madaya have recently flooded the media. Horrific stories have been told of people starving and residents being shot for trying to leave. The U.N. estimated 42,000 people were trapped in the Syrian town, and international attention pressured the Syrian government to lift the siege and allow aid to enter.

What is also horrific, however, are a number of other ongoing sieges -- and much larger U.S.-backed blockades — throughout the Middle East that are largely ignored in the Western media.

One does not even need to look beyond Syria's borders. The siege on Madaya is not the only siege in Syria; the U.N. estimates almost 400,000 people live in 15 besieged areas throughout the country.

Yet what is even less acknowledged in the U.S. press is the fact that Bashar al-Assad is not the only one imposing these sieges. The American media and political establishment have been exponentially quieter about the sieges imposed on Syrians by extremist rebel groups supported by its allies.

Syrian villages al-Fu'ah and Kefraya are presently under siege by Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra. Residents have faced a brutal siege since March. Many of the inhabitants are Shia, and fear they will be massacred by the Sunni extremist group. The world has said, yet alone done, little.

In September, al-Nusra, as part of the Jaish al-Fatah ("Army of Conquest") coalition, seized control of Syria's major northwestern city Idlib. Before capturing the city, extremist Syrian militants had imposed a siege on Idlib for two years.

Meanwhile, Western ally Saudi Arabia has funded and armed the al-Qaeda-aligned Jaish al-Fatah, and NATO member Turkey has given the extremist fighters free passage across its borders. Qatar, another Western ally, has also funded al-Nusra.

Vice President Joe Biden admitted in 2014 that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey have supported extremist Syrian rebels, including al-Nusra, but he was publicly condemned for telling the truth, and forced to apologize. It may seem strange that U.S. allies are funding Syrian al-Qaeda, yet former CIA Director David Petraeus has openly called for precisely this strategy.

It is of course important that the media draw attention to the tragedy in Madaya, but the way in which very similar tragedies have been ignored shows how this press coverage is politicized -- and how the outrage is selective.

In the meantime, numerous other sieges, including much larger blockades of entire countries that happen to be backed by the West, are largely ignored.

Millions under U.S.-backed Saudi siege in Yemen

A Saudi-led coalition of Middle Eastern nations and militants loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, led by Saudi Arabia and armed by the U.S. and U.K., launched a war against Houthi rebels and militants loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen in March 2015. Saudi Arabia immediately imposed a blockade of Yemen's air, water and land.

As early as June, rights organizations were warning that more than 20 million Yemenis — 80 percent of the entire population -- were in urgent need of food, water, medical supplies and fuel.

Before the Western-backed, Saudi-imposed blockade, Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, imported 90 percent of its food. As of September, 12 million Yemenis were on "the brink of starvation."

In October, UNICEF warned that more than 530,000 Yemeni children under age 5 were at risk of severe acute malnutrition, with their bodies visibly wasting away. 1.3 million more Yemeni children were considered "moderately malnourished."

"We are facing the potential of a huge humanitarian catastrophe," remarked Afshan Khan, director of UNICEF emergency programs, at the time. "The levels of malnutrition that are being reported for children are extremely critical." Yet, in the months since, this "extremely critical" hunger has only gotten worse. And the U.S.-supported Saudi blockade continues.

That is to say, millions upon millions of Yemenis have literally been starving under a Western-backed blockade for almost 10 months. And the U.S. media and political establishment have said little.

This is not even to mention the Saudi-led coalition's bombing campaign, which accompanies the blockade. The Western-backed coalition has bombed three Doctors Without Borders hospitals, weddings, civilian neighborhoods, refugee camps and more. The U.S. and U.K. have provided the Saudi-led coalition with weapons, including widely banned cluster munitions, with which human rights organizations say it is committing war crimes. The British military is also training Saudi bombers who are targeting civilian areas.

Where is the outrage over this enormous tragedy? There is little, as it is U.S. government policy, as Secretary of State John Kerry insists bombing Yemen is helping "accomplish significant progress."

And yet the U.S. double standards on Yemen are by no means alone.

Israel's illegal blockade and "diet" for Gazans

For almost a decade, the Israeli government has imposed a blockade of Gaza. For years the U.N. has explicitly said that the Israeli siege is illegal. Yet the U.S. has continued to back it.

The Israeli human rights organization Gisha fought a long legal battle, forcing the Israeli ministry of defense to release documents showing how it controls Palestinian civilians' access to food as an act of war against the democratically elected Hamas government — which Israel previously had tried to overthrow, with U.S. support.

In 2006, Dov Weisglass, an adviser to the Israeli prime minister, explaining the Israeli blockade of Gaza, said "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger."

1.8 million Palestinians live in Gaza, and Israel controls everything that enters the strip — one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. The close U.S. ally counts the number of calories needed by Gazans, and allows in only that much food.

Moreover, Robert Turner, director of operations in Gaza for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, warned in 2012 that "The facts on the ground indicate that food imports consistently fell below the red lines" established by Israel.

Clearly, putting almost 2 million people on a collective "diet" is deemed permissible when a U.S. ally does it, otherwise why would Israel have gotten more than $100 billion in military aid from American taxpayers in the past five decades?

Meanwhile, the U.S. cannot stop tugging at the heartstrings of the international community when its enemy engages in very similar tactics in neighboring Syria.

Selective attention

The siege of Madaya was mentioned in the U.S. State Department's daily press briefings on Jan. 6, 7, 8, 11, 14 and 15.

Secretary of State John Kerry addressed Madaya in his Jan. 11 remarks with U.S.-backed Jordanian autocrat King Abdullah.

On the same day, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power also condemned the siege on Madaya. She lambasted the Syrian regime in very forceful terms -- while making no mention of the ongoing sieges imposed by extremist groups armed by U.S. allies.

In a talk at Seton Hall University two days later, Ambassador Power once again brought up Madaya. And, once again, she failed to mention al-Nusra's sieges. The day after, she did the same.

"There are hundreds of thousands of people being deliberately besieged, deliberately starved," Ambassador Power declared before the U.N. on Jan. 11. And she is right.

But what about the millions of people who are being deliberately besieged, deliberately starved by U.S. allies? Why are they being ignored?

The sieges in Syria are dreadful, and absolutely deserve attention. But 42,000 people live in Madaya, and 400,000 Syrians live in all besieged areas -- including those under siege by extremist groups backed by U.S. allies. On the other hand, rights organizations have warned for half a year that more than 20 million Yemenis "desperately need" food, water and medical supplies and face "humanitarian catastrophe." Do their lives not matter too?

"Blocking aid in order to starve civilians is grotesque -- and but one more reason why Assad’s supporters should recognize that he has lost the legitimacy to govern the Syrian people," Ambassador Power proclaimed. Should we take this to mean the U.S. believes that the ruthlessly violent and repressive, extremism-supporting theocratic absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia has lost its legitimacy too? What about the Israeli government? Does it still retain its legitimacy?

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel regularly block aid from entering Yemen and Gaza, respectively. Yet the U.S. obviously still considers them "legitimate." The Obama administration certainly didn't call the Saudi regime's crimes "grotesque" as it did more than $100 billion in arms deals with the Wahhabi absolute monarchy in the past five years, nor does the U.S. government challenge the legitimacy of Israel as it hands over more than $3 billion in military aid annually.

Double standards at the U.N.

It's not just the U.S. that is hypocritical; the U.N.'s coverage is also selective. In the span of a week, the U.N. released statement after statement after statement after statement about the siege on Madaya, and its language was much harsher than usual.

Moreover, the U.N. has released numerous statements about the siege on the Yemeni city Taiz by Houthi rebels. It has said much less about the Saudi blockade of Yemen as a whole.

An estimated 200,000 Yemenis are living under the Houthi-imposed siege in Taiz. Millions of Yemenis are living under the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia. Why is there much more attention on the former when the latter involves many times more victims?

It goes without saying that it is because Saudi Arabia is a close Western ally and the Houthis are a Western enemy.

The violent autocratic Saudi monarchy was appointed the head of a U.N. human rights panel in September. The U.S. State Department "welcomed" the news, noting "We're close allies."

Unsurprisingly then, a month later, Saudi Arabia blocked an independent U.N. inquiry into the war crimes it has committed in Yemen. Instead, its allies in the U.S. and U.K. said they would support an investigation conducted by the Saudi- and Western-backed Hadi government -- that is to say, they would support a doubtless impartial investigation into Saudi war crimes conducted by a Saudi puppet.

Human rights organization have joined the U.N. in condemning the Assad regime for using starvation as a "weapon of war." Is it not then also a weapon of war when Saudi Arabia and Israel use it? For significantly less attention has been paid to the close U.S. allies, both of whom have long done the same as the Syrian government.

This double standard is reflective of an overall trend. The U.N. is consistently much harsher in its rhetoric toward countries that are not Western allies, such as Iran, Syria and Russia. The siege on Madaya is just one example of a myriad of such double standards.

Skeletons in Uncle Sam's own closet

None of this is even to mention the skeleton that is  not so subtly hidden in Uncle Sam's own closet: the more than five-decades-long, ongoing embargo against Cuba.

The U.S. imposed a unilateral embargo on Cuba in 1962. In October 2015, 191 of 193 U.N. nations voted to condemn the embargo. This was the 24th year the vast majority of the international community called for an end to the U.S. aggression against Cuba.

Cuba officially refers to the U.S. embargo as a blockade. Other Latin American countries have also called it a "blockade." China, Bolivia and Argentina, among others, have insisted the U.S. embargo is illegal and constitutes a violation of the U.N. charter, although Washington denies this.

There is virtually no outrage about this in the media; there are no viral campaigns. But, once again, is the U.S. embargo against Cuba not too an act of using starvation as a "weapon of war"?

After all, in an April 1960 U.S. government memo titled "The Decline and Fall of Castro," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lester Mallory admitted that the "majority of Cubans support Castro" and that there "is no effective political opposition." He therefore concluded that the "only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship."

The State Department official openly stated that "every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba." In order to engage in such economic sabotage, Secretary Mallory said the U.S. government, while being "as adroit and inconspicuous as possible," should make "the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government."

That is to say, the U.S. government openly admitted it was planning to impose an embargo on Cuba in order to exploit "hunger" and "desperation" as a weapon to try to overthrow the popular socialist government in its backyard.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that, while the U.S. has imposed an embargo on Cuba for more than five decades, it has supported similar blockades of millions of Yemenis and Palestinians.

Manufacturing Consent 2.0

The selective outrage around the siege on Madaya is yet another example of how what goes viral in the U.S. media and what is constantly discussed by the political establishment does not reflect the balance of injustices in the world, but rather what is politically convenient for the U.S. government. World renowned scholar Noam Chomsky famously analyzed this propaganda tactic in his canonical work "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media."

One of the most prominent examples discussed by Chomsky, along with co-author Edward Herman, was the genocide in East Timor -- which, in the 1970s, was backed by the U.S. government and largely ignored by the American media. After invading the tiny southeast Asian country, the occupying Indonesian military forced much of the East Timorese population into camps, upon which it then imposed siege. Hundreds of thousands of people died; entire villages were slaughtered; many more East Timorese civilians starved to death.

Overall, one-third of East Timor's population was killed under the U.S.-backed Indonesian occupation. The U.S. provided Indonesia with weapons it used to massacre civilians. Yet the media was very quiet about East Timor at the time; instead, it was focusing much more on the ongoing genocide in Cambodia.

These kinds of double standards clearly continue to exist in media coverage today. These kinds of blatant double standards expose the moral hypocrisy at the heart of U.S. empire.

Yet, when you even mention these other atrocities, apologists for this empire frequently accuse you of carrying water for America's enemies. You are smeared as a "defender of Saddam Hussein" for condemning the catastrophic U.S. invasion of Iraq, or a "Qadhafi lackey" for criticizing the disastrous NATO war in Libya. In reality, the world is much more complex than this.

It goes without saying that all atrocities should be condemned — but they currently aren't. Some are barely even being acknowledged.

All sieges are of course tragic, because they harm civilians. There should be outrage at the siege on Madaya, but there should be proportionate outrage. All of the other ongoing sieges — and the much larger blockades — that happened to be supported by the West should not conveniently be ignored.

Americans, in particular, should be concerned about the millions upon millions of people being starved in policies backed by their ostensibly democratic government, right at this very moment.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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John Kerry King Abdullah Madaya Saudi Arabia Syria Unicef U.s. Military Yemen