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In December 2016, Russian-led air strikes succeeded in recapturing East Aleppo from rebel control for the Syrian regime. Many international observers denounced the strikes, which killed hundreds of civilians and reduced much of the area to rubble, but the outrage did little to alter the outcome.
In February 2018, history seemed to be repeating itself – possibly on an even larger scale – in Eastern Ghouta, the last major opposition-held area outside the capital Damascus. The campaign, launched by the Syrian government and allied Russian forces to retake the enclave in late 2017, intensified in January and February 2018.
The area, with a population of just under 400,000 according to the United Nations (UN), is controlled by a patchwork of sometimes warring rebel groups and has been partially or fully under siege since 2013. Food and aid shipments have been severely restricted from entering the enclave, leading to sky-rocketing food prices and widespread malnutrition. The shortages have worsened since September 2017, when the remaining supply route at the al-Wafideen camp crossing point, was closed, according to the World Food Programme. The shortage of food is particularly ironic, given that before the war, Eastern Ghouta was known as a farming area that produced fruit and vegetables for the region.
The main rebel groups in control of the territory are the Islam Army, a Salafist-inspired Islamist group, and the Free Syrian Army-linked Failaq al-Rahman, which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as al-Nusra Front and linked to al-Qaeda, also has a presence, although Syria analyst Aron Lund said that the group is less powerful there than other groups. He noted that “due to its anti-Western agenda and terrorism designations, Tahrir al-Sham tends to be given outsized importance in the rhetoric of the pro-Assad camp”.
Although Eastern Ghouta is technically covered by the de-escalation agreements reached by Russia, Iran and Turkey for parts of Syria in 2017, fighting has in fact intensified and the siege has tightened.
Rebels launched mortar attacks from the enclave that killed civilians in Damascus. Nevertheless, the number of civilians killed by regime and Russian air strikes in Eastern Ghouta is undoubtedly much higher. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) documented at least 11 civilian deaths in Damascus as a result of attacks launched from Eastern Ghouta during January; in the same period, the agency documented at least 124 civilians killed by air strikes inside the enclave.
The opposition-aligned monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 602 civilians had been killed by the air strikes, shelling and barrel bombs in Eastern Ghouta between 18 and 28 February.
Residents have been largely unable to leave, and even medical evacuations have been stymied. Instead, residents have moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in an attempt to escape the bombing. Many have been displaced multiple times.
As images of the destruction reached the outside world, largely via social media, there were increasing international calls for a ceasefire. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the situation as “400,000 people living in hell on earth” and noted that an estimated 700 people were in need of medical evacuation.
As elsewhere in Syria, including Idlib, medical and emergency workers have accused Syria and Russia of targeting hospitals and other medical facilities. Doctors Without Borders said that between 18 and 23 February 2018, medical facilities it supports in the area had been hit by bombs or shelling and that ‘the capacity to provide healthcare is in its final throes’.
Russia’s envoy to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, hit back at the accusations, saying, “The impression from media reports is that Eastern Ghouta is composed exclusively of hospitals, and that the government is spending all its time fighting against them. This is a well-known technique in an information war. What we do know for a fact is that militants place their strongholds inside hospitals and schools. For some reason that inconvenient truth is not widely advertised.”
Despite Russia’s objections, on 24 February 2018 the UN Security Council adopted a resolution demanding parties to the conflict cease hostilities for 30 days and allow aid into Eastern Ghouta and other areas. The resolution specifically excluded the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front and other designated terrorist groups.
The vote was initially delayed after Russia – which has veto power in the Security Council – requested changes to some of the wording. Russia objected, for instance, to the proposal for the truce to start within 72 hours after the resolution’s adoption. This was eventually watered down to ‘without delay’ in an effort to gain Russian support.
After the vote, Russia unilaterally announced that it would establish a humanitarian corridor to allow people to leave Eastern Ghouta as well as a five-hour daily ceasefire. However, the ceasefire collapsed almost immediately.
Russian and Syrian officials blamed the rebels, saying they had shelled the evacuation route and were preventing civilians from leaving.
Rebel groups denied this. In a statement released on the Telegram social media application, Failaq al-Rahman spokesman Waiel Olwan said the allegations were “completely untrue”. The rebel factions were committed to freedom of movement for civilians, he said, but civilians in Eastern Ghouta could not go out safely because of the “continued very intense shelling” by Russian forces even during the ceasefire window.
He added that, should civilians evacuate, “There is no guarantee that the al-Assad regime will not commit more crimes and violations by arresting civilians, torturing them under interrogation and forcing them into the ranks of the [regime] forces or oppressing them because of their political orientation.”
It looks increasingly likely that Eastern Ghouta will eventually fall, as Aleppo did. However, the rebel groups may have an interest in delaying the inevitable in hopes of gaining a more favourable exit deal. In the meantime, the displacement and death of civilians continues unabated.