MS Risk Blog

Eastern Ghouta: A living hell on earth

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Airstrikes carried out by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies have pummelled Eastern Ghouta for the eighth consecutive day, with warplanes and artillery hitting hospitals and residential areas, resulting in one of the deadliest assaults since the 2013 chemical attack. While most of the suburbs of Damascus have returned to government control, the Syrian government has stepped up attacks on eastern Ghouta in its effort to clear the countryside from the presence of terrorists and rebels in the area. The region under government-siege for years was declared a “de-confliction”, ceasefire zone last May, but it has become a battleground as the status quo stands indefensible.

Many of the approximately 400,000 people still trapped in the rebel-held area are cowering in basements while water, food and electricity supplies have run out. Witnesses have told Reuters that it is “raining bombs”- over 2500 have been injured and more than 520 civilians have lost their lives. And while the death toll is rising, the medical system in eastern Ghouta, overwhelmed with mass casualties, is near collapse. Medics and doctors say, after nearly a week of airstrikes that have hit 22 hospitals (with 13 hospitals destroyed in just three days alone), they have now started using expired drugs to treat the many wounded. International organisations that monitor the Syria crisis alleged there was clear evidence that hospitals were deliberately targeted. The Violations Documentation Centre, which has been gathering data on attacks in Syria, said hospitals were being targeted with different munitions to those used elsewhere in Ghouta. “This is important to note because the Syrian regime is largely using unguided and improvised bombs, but when it comes to hospitals and medical points, guided and directed rockets are used. Also, when a particular medical site is hit once, it is then hit again when first responders arrive.” Authorities in Ghouta have also detailed attacks on up to six civil defence centres, which have been used to coordinate rescue attempts.

Damascus and Moscow deny using barrel bombs or hitting civilians and stated that the rebels use civilians as human shields. Rebels have been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding seven people on Wednesday and killed at least six people on Tuesday. “Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta,” Russia’s Defence Ministry said late on Tuesday.

The UN has described the Eastern Ghouta as a “living hell on earth”, denounced the bombardment, saying such attacks could be war crimes and appealed for an “immediate suspension of all war activities in eastern Ghouta”. Assad’s ally, Russia has responded by saying that they do not target civilians and point to rebel mortar fire on Damascus. On Thursday the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) ended its meeting on eastern Ghouta in Syria without voting on a draft resolution for a 30-day ceasefire as Russia disagreed to the proposal and described it as non-realistic. Russia stated that it would have supported a 30-day truce, but not one that included the Islamist militants it says the onslaught on eastern Ghouta is meant to target. UNSC has been negotiating the draft resolution on the ceasefire for nearly two weeks now as the Syrian regime has pressed on with a fierce offensive in the rebel-held enclave. A UNSC meeting took again place on Saturday after multiple delays. The unanimous passage of the resolution was hailed by Western diplomats, who had pushed hard for a deal amid a week of intense Syrian regime bombing of Eastern Ghouta. Hours before the vote, the civilian death toll climbed above 500. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, castigated Russia for days of delays which slowed the passage of the resolution. “In the three days it took us to adopt this resolution how many mothers lost their kids to the bombing and the shelling?”

It remains to be seen what impact the deal will have on Eastern Ghouta. A 30- day truce however would allow for the delivery of critical supplies and evacuation of the wounded. Mrs Haley said the US was “deeply sceptical the regime will comply” with the ceasefire and called on Russia to pressure Assad’s forces to respect it. Iranian General Mohammad Baqeri said that “parts of the suburbs of Damascus, which are held by the terrorists, are not covered by the ceasefire and clean-up [operations] will continue there.” The resolution does not cover militants from Isis, al-Qaeda, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra. The two main rebel factions in Ghouta – Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam – said after the vote that they would implement the truce and facilitate aid access. but also vowed to respond to any attacks. Russia demanded that the resolution not to include a specific time for the ceasefire to go into force. The text instead reads that it should begin “without delay”, making it unclear when the fighting would actually stop.

Shortly after the unanimous vote by the 15-member council, warplanes struck a town in eastern Ghouta, the last rebel enclave near Syria’s capital, an emergency service and a war monitoring group said. In the meantime, health officials in Eastern Ghouta are accusing Syrian government forces of using chlorine gas in their aerial bombardment campaign in the Damascus suburb. They stated that “victims were showing symptoms “consistent with exposure to toxic chlorine gas”.