No evacuations have taken place from Eastern Ghouta, and no aid has arrived. The five-hour daily ceasefire stipulated by Moscow has been broken; the associated humanitarian corridor sits unused. And so the siege of the suburb, which has been described as “hell on earth,” goes on. Some 400,000 civilians, including over 95, 000 children, are trapped under indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery fire.
The area has been under a continuous air assault for ten days, as the Syrian regime increases its campaign against opposition groups who have held the suburb since 2013. Since the start of the current offensive, more than 550 civilians have reportedly lost their lives. The New York Times reported that “last Thursday, local activists published a list of 42 victims, mostly women and children, who were killed when a rocket hit their shelter in the village of Beit Sawa this week. The names took three days to compile, the activists said, because rescue workers could only search for bodies during intervals in the bombing.”
Ceasefire talks at the UN Security Council, for a 30-day halt in fighting and to allow humanitarian aid through to Eastern Ghouta, were delayed by Russia’s initial refusal to back a resolution. Moscow’s opposition to the ceasefire led to accusations – from Britain, the US and others – of deliberate time-wasting, with the hope of giving Assad sufficient opportunity to gain control of Eastern Ghouta. While Russia did subsequently agree to the UN ceasefire, the terms were broken within hours – by Russian-backed jets.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that there would be a daily five-hour pause in the bombing. It would then begin again. Regime forces argue that this is technically legitimate, as the terms of the UN resolution allow for continued strikes on alleged “terrorists.” The implications of this are many, but three should be underscored.
First, the inclusion of such language in the UN resolution allows for “terrorists” to be identified on a subjective basis. This has no place in a meaningful peace agreement. Second, the pursuit of “terrorists” through the aerial bombardment of a densely populated suburb will certainly result in civilian casualties. Third, in sidestepping the UN-backed ceasefire, the Russian regime has placed itself as the arbiter of not only the siege of Eastern Ghouta itself – but also the aid that can reach civilians.
Russia and the regime’s promise of a ceasefire, as opposed to a negotiated pause that involves both sides of the fighting, is a cosmetic measure that offers little comfort to residents of Eastern Ghouta. The Middle East Director of the International Committee, Robert Mardini, said that it would be “impossible to bring a humanitarian convoy in five hours.”
Furthermore, the top-down creation of a humanitarian corridor fails to secure the trust of civilians who could use it. International aid groups argue that the failure to negotiate with rebel-groups, and therefore have both sides agree to the sanctity of it, mean that its security cannot be assured. “How could people trust Russia – the same people bombing us – with assisting in the safe evacuation of the injured?,” said local activist Alaa al-Ahmed. “There is huge contradiction.”
A senior humanitarian official, who spoke to The Guardian, said that the corridor was “not to save the people. It’s exactly the same propaganda war, more for media than civilians.’”
In any case, residents report that the five-hour ceasefire was not upheld – quite the opposite. Four civilians were killed in attacks that began just thirty minutes after the Russian ceasefire was due to start.
International politicking aside, there is a humanitarian catastrophe that is claiming hundreds of innocent civilians’ lives. Last week, 22 hospitals were reportedly hit by airstrikes; MSF reported that every facility that they support has been destroyed or damaged. Adults and children alike were killed as they lay in hospital beds, awaiting treatment for the other atrocities – including chlorine attacks – that have rained down upon the suburb. Dozens of children, too young to have ever known peace in Syria, will never grow up to see it.
As in Homs, Aleppo, Idlib and beyond, a massacre is taking place in full view of the world. Until the climate of impunity can be challenged, the deaths of innocent civilians will continue. The world is watching – but now we need to act.
It is easy to feel that there is little, or nothing, we can do to help. But however small they may feel, there are two simple acts that you can take in solidarity with the civilians of Eastern Ghouta:
- The Syria Campaign are using people to sign this letter, to demand that the ceasefire is enforced. It will be sent to all members of the Security Council.
- Donate to Help Refugees’ emergency appeal, if you are able. We are funding medical groups inside Eastern Ghouta, who are doing all that they can to provide life-saving care to those trapped. As ever, our work – and our partners’ – depends on your support.
This is a critical time, and all help is so gratefully received. Thank you.