Recently the issue of human rights violation has reached such an extreme extent in Ghouta, an area near Damascus (the capital of Syria), that it has made headlines around the globe. Albeit news reports and images tell many things about the condition of civilians of the area, but it seems that the real situation is more miserable than that. The fresh air strikes have killed numerous people including women and children there. Many people have taken shelter in the basements of the buildings where they do not have enough food and other daily needs. Moreover, ban on international aid makes their lives awful. Supplies run short as prices of essentials skyrocket in the region. Basic foodstuffs and medical supplies are precious commodity there and in short supply due to the siege. They have no stock of food and water, and most people do not even have clothes. Bombing on hospitals has caused problems in the treatment of injured civilians. The total area has become such a place where humanity has no space for taking breath.
The Syrian conflict is spiralling out of control and with its multiple actors, militaries and rebel groups, it is increasingly turning difficult for humanitarian efforts to materialise and secure a ceasefire from all parties. Organisations like the International Red Cross have had their on-ground access blocked in the region with chemical attacks apparently still on. Relief group Syrian American Medical Society said in a tweet that there have been seven cases of chemical attacks in Syria this year and the latest attack was the 197th time a chemical weapon was used in the country since 2011, though the Assad government denied such allegations. But the organisations those are responsible to watch the matter and are considered to take initiatives to establish peace are yet to take any effective step. Six days later on March 15, the civil war in Syria will enter its eighth year, with more than 465,000 Syrians killed and over 12 million displaced from their homes.
The unrest in Syria, part of a wider wave of 2011 Arab Spring protests, grew out of discontent with the Assad government and escalated to an armed conflict after protests calling for his removal were violently suppressed. The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian government and its allies, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with a number of countries in the region and beyond being either directly involved or rendering support to both the factions. Iran, Russia and Hezbollah support the Syrian government and militarily, with Russia conducting air operations in support of the government since September 2015. On the other hand, the U.S.-led international coalition established in 2014 with a declared purpose of countering ISIL, have conducted airstrikes against ISIL in Syria as well as against government and pro-government targets. International organisations have accused the Syrian government, ISIL and rebel groups of severe human rights violations and massacres. The conflict has caused a major refugee crisis. Over the course of the war a number of peace initiatives have been launched, including the March 2017 Geneva peace talk on Syria led by the United Nations, but the battle continues.
Well, Eastern Ghouta, one of the major battlegrounds, is about 10km east of central Damascus. Being so close to the capital makes it important for the Syrian government to reclaim the area from the rebels. The 104-square-kilometre district is home to about 400,000 civilians, half of whom are children. Since 2012, Ghouta had been controlled by the opposition and armed factions (three rebel groups), some of whom once were parts of the regime’s military and they tried to occupy the territory. The Assad regime soon imposed its siege. In August 2013, it carried out sarin attack on six sites in East Ghouta, killing more than 1,400 people. Rebels repelled subsequent attacks, but bombardment and siege eroded the civil society groups who had developed an alternative to the Assad regime. Activists were killed or abducted by gunmen, and tensions rose over rising prices of foods and basic supplies. In February 2017, the Syrian government captured the areas of al-Qaboun and Barze, which border the Harasta neighbourhood of Eastern Ghouta, and closed all smuggling tunnels that had for years guaranteed a minimum flow of food, water, and medical supplies. On October 3, the Syrian government further tightened the siege by closing the last remaining entry point to Douma, the al-Wafideen checkpoint, impeding access to medical and humanitarian aid and barring civilian movement. From then on only three aid convoys have been allowed, but all of them were significantly under-stocked to address the humanitarian needs of the population, and all medical supplies were stopped by the government. Since October 2017, the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta has significantly deteriorated as the supply of medicine and basic food items like milk and bread dried up and price hiked. However, the remaining section was held out, including towns such as Erbin and Harasta and the centre of the territory, Douma. In the last month, the Assad regime and its allies started preparing for an invasion to retake that section. While taking preparation for the ground assault, airstrikes and shelling have killed almost 900 people and wounded more than 4,000. Since February 18, the death toll has reached a staggering figure of 630.
On February 27, Russia declared a ‘humanitarian pause’ from 9.00am to 2.00pm each day, but the PR tactic was not intended to halt the fighting or permit aid into East Ghouta. The short window of pause by Russia will likely coincide with a humanitarian corridor being opened that would allow civilians to exit the besieged region. However, entry of aid convoys to affected regions, delivery and exit would seem a difficult task to accomplish. That’s why the rebels deny this. Instead, pro-Assad attacks are continuing with Moscow putting out the pretext that rebels are preventing civilians from leaving the area. A Syrian monitoring group and paramedics said the bombardment of rebel-held suburbs of Damascus continued despite the ceasefire killing several people. Firas Abdullah, a resident of Douma, a town in the region, where at least 13 members of a family were killed when their home collapsed after an airstrike, told the media, “They will be so kind to grant us a mere five hours when they will not bomb us. Then the rest of the day, they will bomb us as usual. It is like a permission to kill.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in an emergency meeting of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council that events in Eastern Ghouta likely included ‘war crimes and potentially crimes against humanity’.
Assad’s sustained slaughter of Ghouta’s civilian population should come as no surprise. More than 60 years after the creation of the United Nations, there are more displaced persons around the world than ever before. One of the primary purposes of the UN is to prevent global atrocities. Yet the institution has repeatedly failed or delayed to act on reports of genocides, such as in Rwanda in the 1990s. Today, the world is still silent on similar crises, including the ongoing massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In each of this humanitarian crisis, countries couldn’t show much political will to introduce any economic or political ban. Thus far, the international community’s response to the attacks in Ghouta has been lacklustre. Some countries thought that they did enough by issuing condemnations. UNICEF released a blank sheet of paper – a symbolic stunt to show that they ‘no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage’. The UN Security Council agreed to a 30-day ceasefire that would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to the battered region. Yet even after the armistice was passed, reports emerged that the Syrian government not only continues to pummel Eastern Ghouta with air and ground assaults, but is also using chlorine gas – a clear act of defiance to the international community.
Indeed, the UN negotiated ceasefire in Ghouta was less intended to change the reality on the ground than it was to assuage the international community’s discomfort with mass killing. It seems that in absence of strong political will and decisive military action, the massacre will continue in Ghouta in the coming years. Direct and indirect players of the game will try to take benefits and blame each other without considering the immense sufferings of the local hapless people. But one thing is sure that several years from now when the residents of Ghouta will look back and review the current happenings of the area, they will not be in a situation to forgive the geo-political superpowers and influential organisations for not protecting the innocents.