PHOTO: Rebels in Deir ez-Zor in 2013

Zeina Karam and Philip Issa write for the Associated Press:

In Syria’s eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, supplies are running so short that desperate residents are selling their gold, valuables and even their homes for food or an exit permit allowing them to escape a siege by both government troops and Islamic State militants.

The extremists have blockaded government-held areas of the city for more than a year, and some of its 200,000 residents are slowly starving — while troops and militias supporting President Bashar Assad exploit their suffering.

While international attention was focused recently on Madaya — a rebel-held town surrounded by pro-Assad troops near the capital of Damascus — the United Nations and aid agencies say another catastrophe is unfolding in Deir ez-Zor.

The civil war has transformed a once oil-rich city into a place where even something as simple as making tea is a struggle, according to residents who have fled, because of severe shortages of food, water and fuel.

Many people live on bread and water — and there are long waits for both. Taps are shut off for days at a time, and the water that flows out for only a few hours is brackish. The city hasn’t had electricity for over 10 months, with little fuel available for generators and water pumps.

The UN warned last week that living conditions have deteriorated significantly in Deir ez-Zor. Students are frequently absent from school because of malnutrition. The only remaining civilian hospital needs drugs and other supplies, as well as staff.

Unverified reports cited up to 20 malnutrition deaths, the UN said in its report. But Ali al-Rahbi, spokesman for the Justice for Life Observatory for Deir el-Zour, said his group documented 27 deaths.

The Islamic State group surrounds Deir el-Zour and won’t let people and supplies in by land; the Syrian government, which controls part of the city and its airport, won’t allow supplies to be brought in by air or let its people out.

The city, about 450 kilometers (280 miles) northeast of Damascus, is divided roughly along the Euphrates River, with the Islamic State group on the eastern side and the Syrian government on the western side, although IS controls some territory on the western bank as well.

Deir ez-Zor is the largest of about 15 besieged communities in Syria, cutting off about 400,000 people from aid….

“A Siege From Perverse Circumstances”

How the city came to be under such a punishing siege from both sides only makes sense in the perverse circumstances of Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year.

Deir ez-Zor lies near the Iraqi border, deep in Islamic State territory, but the government has been able to defend its military airport on the outskirts, allowing it to maintain its city’s fortifications. It also controls four large neighborhoods that are home to many internally displaced people, including women and children.

Because the airport is so close to the front line, only helicopters have been able to land there since September, the UN’s Farhan Haq said.

The government troops in the city are regularly reinforced and supported by Russian and Syrian air power. Rather than fight them, the IS militants imposed a blockade in January 2015. Residents say the siege grew worse in March when the government stopped anyone from leaving Deir ez-Zor without permission.

IS has prevented people from entering government-held areas, but a few months ago, it began allowing people to leave for other IS-held areas, although it subjected them to interrogation and harassment — and in some cases, it confiscated their documents.

The extremists then closed that window, banning anyone from leaving.

Residents say the government has its own reasons for maintaining the siege-within-a-siege and carefully controlling the flow of goods and people through the military airport: The residents have effectively become human shields against an IS attack. In addition, the government can extract money from them by raising the price of food or taking huge bribes in return for permits to leave.

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