Syrians Are Now Eating Everything From Cats to Leaves to Survive

CAIRO - In a town that lies less than eight miles from the center of Damascus, Syrians are starving to death. Some children in Muadamiyah have resorted to eating leaves to survive, while a group of Muslim clerics also issued a fatwa that the consumption of dogs and cats was permissible for the area's residents. Meanwhile, videos showing emaciated  children's corpses continue to filter out -- victims of a siege by the Syrian regime that prevents the entry of either food or medical care.

In an article for Foreign Policy on Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the Syrian security forces' denial of humanitarian aid to places like Muadamiyah, calling on the world to "act quickly and decisively" to pressure the Assad regime to allow assistance to reach civilians. For some of the aid workers on the conflict's front lines, however, the United States and its allies have been all talk and no action.

"Secretary Kerry and others give support in a gray, non-focused way," said Khaled Erkoussi, the head of emergency operations at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). "It's not enough now to say, ‘we support you, Syrian Red Crescent.' What we want you to say is, ‘You must get your hands off the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, stop shooting at them, let them go to the areas [in need] with the support with the U.N.'"

Erkoussi wants the international community to single out the SARC as an organization whose operations must be protected inside Syria. He also wants a renewed focus on the humanitarian angle of the crisis, citing the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in Damascus as an example of the world's misplaced priorities.

"Our reaction as a humanitarian organization was to get the ambulances and the first aid workers ready to go there. Others' reaction was to issue a statement from the Security Council demanding an investigation," he said. "Usually, if a murder happens, don't you save the victims first before finding a killer? The whole priority of things nowadays, I think it's sometimes screwed up a little bit."

The U.N. Security Council issued a non-binding statement this month calling for increased aid delivery in Syria -- Western members opted for the statement over a resolution to avoid a veto by Assad's allies on the council, Russia and China. Despite the diplomatic action, however, Erkoussi said that Syrian regime checkpoints were still denying SARC aid workers access to Muadamiyah, even after they received the proper approvals from the authorities. Meanwhile, a ceasefire in the town - designed to allow civilians to evacuate -- collapsed earlier this month, as the Syrian military shelled the evacuation point. It is unclear who fired first.

But access to stricken areas isn't the only aspect of the Syrian humanitarian crisis - there also simply aren't enough resources to go around. The U.N. Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan estimates that there are 6.8 million Syrians in need within the country, and requested $1.4 billion to provide for their needs in 2013. However, states have provided a mere 56 percent, or less than $800 million, of that funding request. The United States has contributed by far the largest amount of any state to fulfilling the U.N. request.

However, the deficit means that aid organizations have been forced to make tough decisions about who they can help in Syria. While the United States estimates that there are 5 million internally displaced persons in Syria, Erkoussi says that food parcels to feed only 2.1 million people are getting into Syria each month. That has forced the Red Crescent to limit aid to needy families, reducing them to a single parcel every two months.

And then, Erkoussi says, some of the aid earmarked for Syria simply isn't getting to the people in need.

"We are asking and demanding to donors to be tough, to monitor more," he said. "I hate it when I see people from international organizations staying in four-star hotels or wasting money on armored vehicles in situations where there is no need for it. People with some of the NGOs inside Damascus, they use armored vehicles -- while the rest of us can walk."

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Maybe Saudi Men Shouldn't Be Driving

Saudi Arabia's ban on female drivers has prompted some pretty outrageous justifications -- and that was before this weekend's demonstrations, in which 60 women got behind the wheel in a rolling protest. One leading Saudi cleric argued that women ran the risk of damaging their ovaries and pelvises when they drove cars, increasing the possibility of giving birth to children with "clinical problems." But perhaps none of these reasons are more ludicrous than the one charging that female drivers would increase car accidents.  The Kingdom's actually has one of the planet's worst safety records. Indeed, the biggest argument against the ban could be Saudi drivers' atrociously high road accident death toll, consistently rating among the highest in the world.

According to the most recent World Health Organization figures, Saudi Arabia has the 21st-highest road-related death toll in the world, but that number becomes even more exceptional when you look at the group of countries that are faring worse. The countries with the worst fatalities are overwhelmingly low-income countries, with the South Pacific island of Niue registering the highest number. The fact that a lot of these countries struggle with basic road infrastructure and an inadequate police force to enforce traffic laws makes the number in Saudi Arabia, a wealthy country, even more striking. Saudi Arabia has the highest accident-related death toll among high-income countries.

A 2013 study by the Kingdom's General Directorate of Traffic found that 19 people die per day in traffic-related fatalities in Saudi Arabia, predicting that if current rates continue, by 2030, 4 million people will die annually in a car accident there. The biggest reason for the high rates is simply reckless driving - the report has found in past years that a third of all car accidents in the Kingdom are cause by drivers jumping red lights, and 18 percent were caused by illegal u-turns. In an interview with Arab News in September, the associate vice president and transportation systems director of Middle East Operations at traffic management consultancy Iteris Inc., Glenn N. Havinoviski, said infrastructure wasn't an issue, but "when you see people turning left out of the far right lane and traffic cutting through parking lots and frontage roads, there are clearly some issues with discipline."

Saudi Arabia has a pretty well-registered case of reckless driving, affected by what commentators call "tufush," a national boredom among the country's young men that stems from chronic unemployment the constraints of ultraconservative social mores. This boredom has reportedly spawned a thriving underground car culture, in which wealthier men drag race high-end cars and lower-class men "drift" cars through traffic. The scene has led observers to compare the streets of Saudi Arabia to a mix of Death Race and The Fast and the Furious. Of course, the relationship between a culture of reckless driving and the all-male Saudi driver base could be more than coincidental: a recent U.S. study by Quality Planning, a firm that conducts research for insurance companies, found that men were 3.4 times as likely as women to be ticketed for reckless driving and 3.1 more times as likely to get a ticket for drunk driving.

At least sixteen women have been fined for defying the ban on driving in Saudi Arabia in recent demonstrations, but a post on the campaign's Facebook page vowed that women in the country would keep up the protest. A Saudi woman who was filmed driving during the demonstrations told Reuters, "Yesterday there were lots of police cars so I didn't take the risk. I only took the wheel for a few minutes. Today I drove and nobody stopped me. For sure I will drive every day doing my normal tasks." If the current state of driving in Saudi Arabia is any indication, that kind of resolve from other women might be the best thing for the country's public safety.