An end to the Ghouta massacres?

Bassel Oudat , Saturday 3 Mar 2018

UN Security Council Resolution 2401 forcing a one-month ceasefire in Syria may not be enough to end the massacres in Eastern Ghouta

Eastern Ghouta, Syria
Destroyed buildings are seen in Arbin in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, Syria, on February 25, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

After much Russian procrastination, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2401 last week calling for a 30-day truce in Syria, including in Eastern Ghouta, in a bid to halt the massacres that have been taking place.

The fighting will cease while humanitarian relief is delivered and medical cases are evacuated.

There are also hopes that the massacres that began in Eastern Ghouta in February will now stop, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad having earlier carried out more than 300 air raids in one week on the area, dropping more than 1,000 missiles and killing at least 500 civilians and injuring 2,000, mostly women and children.

Eastern Ghouta is a small area east of Damascus with a population of 420,000 living under particularly harsh conditions.

Russia and the Syrian regime decided to escalate the military attacks on Eastern Ghouta, which is under the control of the armed opposition, after Russia supplied the regime with advanced weapons.

Regime fighter jets and artillery targeted residential areas and medical facilities in a clear breach of the Russian-sponsored “de-escalation agreement” between the opposition and the regime and of international law.

Russia and the regime have used all the means at their disposal to expel local residents, offering safe passage out of the area to northern or southern Syria. This is a systematic operation of displacement by the regime and Russia to take control of certain areas, as was earlier seen in Aleppo.

Such offers were turned down by Eastern Ghouta residents and opposition fighters.

The Syrian opposition is pessimistic about the UN Resolution’s chances of success in ending the massacres taking place in Eastern Ghouta because it does not include clear dates and does not penalise the regime.

“Any credible resolution must include punitive measures for those who do not comply,” said Riyad Naasan Agha, a member of the opposition. Syrian-Palestinian commentator Majed Kiali said that “it seems likely that this resolution will be no more effective than its predecessors, such as the Geneva I Resolution and UN Resolutions 2118 and 2254.”

The opposition can only hope the new resolution will alleviate the sufferings of Eastern Ghouta residents. All it can do is beg the countries involved in Syria to help it to fight against the regime and its powerful allies.

Hospitals, schools and infrastructure have been destroyed in Eastern Ghouta over recent weeks in an area that has been under siege for five years, as the deaths and denial continue.

The atrocities committed in Eastern Ghouta are examples of the barbarities committed by the Al-Assad regime across the country as part of plans to physically and psychologically annihilate an entire society.

Eastern Ghouta residents have already been deprived of food and medicine for five years. The regime has intermittently allowed businessmen close to Al-Assad to sell food and other commodities to areas under siege, even if at grotesquely inflated prices.

Despite such ongoing suffering, the residents have not surrendered and instead have planted crops and dug tunnels to nearby Damascus suburbs in a bid to bring in goods.

The humanitarian disaster was compounded when the regime refused to evacuate more than 500 wounded civilians who needed urgent medical care, mostly children, women and the elderly, despite appeals by international humanitarian and human rights organisations.

In summer 2017, Eastern Ghouta was named one of the “de-escalation” zones agreed on at the conference on Syria held in the Kazakh capital Astana, but this did not deliver aid to residents, contrary to what had been promised as part of the deal.

The regime and its Russian backers have used the pretext of “fighting terrorism” to commit atrocities in Eastern Ghouta and to keep it under siege and more recently to destroy the town itself.


However, the regime’s primary goal is to expel the people from the area, change the demography, and replace locals with regime loyalists, especially in militarily and economically strategic areas.

The common denominator between the massacres that took place in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo in 2016 and now in Eastern Ghouta in 2018 is Russia’s full support of the regime’s scorched-earth policies.

Siege and starvation tactics have been used, these being associated particularly with Iran and its militias, which have used them to force conciliation deals that are more like absolute surrender.

The ferocious tactics give the regime a sense of power that has been translated into military action against civilians without any humanitarian considerations. The regime and its allies claim to be fighting terrorism, which does not exist in the residential areas being pummeled and destroyed but is used as a way of justifying policies of ethnic cleansing to the wider Syrian population.

It is for such reasons that the Syrian opposition believes UN Resolution 2401 will not be as effective as hoped, and only three hours after its passage the regime carried out six air strikes targeting Eastern Ghouta and heavily bombarding the area, even though the armed opposition had welcomed the UN Resolution and committed itself to it.

The Kremlin is still providing political cover to the regime in Damascus and supporting it in its military strikes. “Russia is taking revenge on Syria and on the masses embracing the opposition by using ferocious means carried out by the regime,” Saeed Moqbel, a member of the opposition, told the Weekly.

“Russia has been dealt several blows on Syria in recent weeks. The Sochi Conference failed though Russia’s president was personally invested in it, and the opposition shot down and killed a Russian fighter pilot. The US bombed Russian and Iranian locations, killing (according to Russian media) 214 Russian fighters. This has turned public opinion in Russia against President Vladimir Putin who is preparing for elections next month.”

“The latest incident shows that Russia is using mercenaries from the Wagner Group [a security company] in Syria, which is an international scandal. Moscow is responding to these setbacks by taking revenge on the Syrian people in Eastern Ghouta,” Moqbel said.

For the majority of Syrians, Russia has become an occupying power and one that does not respect international law and kills at will. Most Syrians, except for regime loyalists, laugh at the idea that Russia can be part of a political solution in Syria, since it has shown itself to be an eager partner in regime massacres.

Russian wrangling during discussions of the new UN Resolution came close to exhausting the Security Council, with Moscow trying to argue that the resolution was designed to impede a Russian “victory”.

It said that “illegal combatants” were using civilians as human shields in Eastern Ghouta, though this did not convince the Security Council, which went on to adopt Resolution 2401 unanimously.

Russia and the Syrian regime are not the only ones responsible for the massacres in Eastern Ghouta, however. The major powers are also responsible, among them the US with its long history of indifference and procrastination in Syria that has led to its ignoring the one million people that have been killed and the double that number that have been injured during the conflict.

The US has stopped the delivery of advanced weapons to the opposition by any of the opposition’s allies, and it has refused to confront Russian actions or seriously press for an end to the conflict.

The Syrian people may have to wait a long time until US consciences finally awaken and there is an end to the tragedy that will see its seventh anniversary next month.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly  

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