After the United Nations described the bombardments taking place in Eastern Ghouta outside the Syrian capital Damascus as producing a “hell on Earth” last week, commentators have argued that the suburb is now Syria’s Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia where the worst crimes committed on European soil since the Second World War took place in 1995.
Crimes familiar from the Srebrenica massacres have been repeated in Eastern Ghouta, Aleppo, Homs and other Syrian cities, where prevarication has provided a pretext to sacrifice the lives of thousands of people and the media has spread confusion about the extent of the suffering.
The situation is catastrophic for the 400,000 civilians who still live in Eastern Ghouta. Prices of basic foodstuffs have skyrocketed, and medical supplies are mostly lacking because of the siege of the area enforced by the Syrian regime. Treating the injured is especially difficult because of the repeated bombing of hospitals and clinics by regime forces.
Eastern Ghouta is the last holdout of the armed Syrian opposition near Damascus, and this densely populated area has been under siege since April 2013. It has become synonymous with civilian suffering either because of starvation and the lack of access to medical supplies or because of intense aerial bombardments.
An estimated 700 civilians have been killed in the area in the last three months alone, not including those killed over the last week of escalation. The first aid convoy to the area in months arrived a week ago, but it did not do much to alleviate the suffering.
Throughout last week, Syrian regime forces kept up their bombardment of Eastern Ghouta. The medical aid agency Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) said hospitals and clinics it supported in the Damascus suburb had reported more than 550 deaths and more than 2,500 wounded in just the previous five days.
On 24 February, the UN Security Council demanded a 30-day truce across Syria as rescuers in Eastern Ghouta said the bombing had not let up long enough for them to count the bodies during one of the bloodiest air assaults of the seven-year war.
Shortly after the unanimous vote by the 15-member Council approving UN Security Council Resolution 2401 calling for a truce in Syria, warplanes struck Eastern Ghouta, a monitoring group said. Warplanes have pounded the area for seven straight days while residents stay holed up in basements.
Iran, an ally of the Syrian regime, said attacks would continue on rebel-held areas near Damascus, where clashes have been reported between insurgents and government forces despite the truce called for across the country by the UN Resolution.
Several previous ceasefires have unravelled over the course of the seven-year war in Syria, where Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s military has gained the upper hand with the help of Iran and Russia, its key allies.
The US has raised the prospect of Western strikes on Syria if it is proved that the regime has carried out fresh chemical weapons attacks.
As was the case in Srebrenica in the 1990s, food supplies, aid and medical assistance have been cut off. In 1993, the UN designated Srebrenica a “safe area,” while just last year the Russians declared Eastern Ghouta a “de-escalation zone” as part of Moscow’s abortive Astana Peace Process.
In addition to the killings, more than 20,000 civilians have been expelled from the area, a process known as “ethnic cleansing,” which the Syrian regime has been carrying out in settlements in areas it does not control, including in Homs, Madaya and Aleppo.
No one attempted to protect the civilian population of Eastern Ghouta when the Syrian regime began its airstrikes in December after negotiations failed. The airstrikes and bombardments are being carried out with impunity by Syrian forces supported by their Russian and Iranian allies.
The agony of Eastern Ghouta, already infamous as the scene of a 2013 chemical weapons attack using Sarin gas, could be one of the worst incidents in the Syrian conflict and worse even than the siege of Aleppo, when the Syrian regime again targeted and killed civilians.
Srebrenica played an outsize role in bringing about an end to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the atrocities there being on such a massive scale that the victims are still being disinterred from mass graves in the area and identified.
Each year on the anniversary of the killings, the Bosnian government releases bodies that were recently discovered, in whole or in part, in the hills and fields that surround the town. The friends and relatives of the victims attend a mass funeral each year, and such events can be expected in the Syrian conflict.
Will the killings in Eastern Ghouta be the breaking point of the Syrian conflict, or will they simply be yet another grim chapter in the atrocities that have already taken place?
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly