Russian and Syrian warplanes have relentlessly bombed rebel-held enclaves in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta in what has been one of the most devastating attacks in the country’s seven-year civil war. President Bashar Al-Assad’s ramped up offensive to restore state control in Syria has left a massive death toll with at least 550 people killed during the last eight days. Syria’s top foreign ally Russia has consistently hammered these rebel-held regions to help Assad regain control.
Eastern Ghouta is a suburb of Syria’s capital city Damascus and a rebel-held enclave. It was once called the breadbasket of Damascus but since 2013, it has been under siege. In 2013, Eastern Ghouta was hit by a chemical attack that killed over a thousand civilians. The enclave is held by a combination of rebel groups with the most prominent being Islamist leaning Jaysh al-Islam.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 34 were killed Monday by airstrikes and shelling. Eastern Ghouta is home to nearly 400,000 people living in dire conditions owing to the siege laid on the constantly bombed and hammered suburb.
In spite of a 30-day ceasefire “without delay” agreed unanimously in the UN to deliver aid, Russia has given a five-hour (9 am to 2 pm) ‘humanitarian window’ daily to the dwellers of Eastern Ghouta during which time it promises to halt strikes. UN Secretary General António Guterres over the weekend had asked the fighter’s to “stop this hell on earth”.
A Syrian monitoring group and paramedics said the bombardment of rebel-held suburbs of Damascus continued despite the ceasefire killing several people, AP reported. Syrian state TV broadcast showed live air strikes and artillery strikes on the Harasta suburb. “It is like legitimizing the strikes on civilians.” activist Firas Abdullah told AP, a resident of Douma, a town in the region where at least 13 members of a family were killed Monday when their home collapsed after an airstrike. “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,” Abdullah said.
The scale and degree of the violence has created a humanitarian crisis in the region which is already torn apart by the civil war. In the first 48-hours of the latest attacks, the death toll had crossed 250. This was the highest 48-hour death toll in Syria during a conflict since the 2013 chemical weapon attack, also ordered by President Assad.
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.
The Syrian conflict is spiralling out of control and with its multiple actors, militaries and rebel groups, it is increasingly 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 on Sunday 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.
The situation right now is anything but in control. Supplies run short as prices of essentials skyrocket in the region. Basic foodstuffs and medical supplies are precious commodity and in short supply due to the siege. Bombings on hospitals has also caused problems in the treatment of suffering civilians. In Eastern Ghouta on Monday, at least five hospitals and clinics were were bombed, according to medical aid groups. Two hospitals have suspended operations and one shut down.
Russia itself voted for the ceasefire but having opened the humanitarian window, it is to be seen whether it will move toward the 24-hour ceasefire. It is not the first time that ceasefires have been called in Syria’s civil war as well. In 2011, Syria signed an Arab League proposal to halt violence between protestors and government forces, but it went on nonetheless. In February 2016, US and Russia agreed to a partial ceasefire near Raqqa and Aleppo but both had a fallout days later. In September the same year, both agreed to pause violence in the interest of allowing humanitarian aid. three months later, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria declared a ceasefire pretty much across the country. In 2017, a four-zone ceasefire was also declared for Idlib, Eastern Ghouta etc. Further, Turkey ignored ceasefire calls from France and others last month in northern Syria. Given that Russia has continued strikes even after the ceasefire agreement gives little confidence this time for cessation of the violence in Eastern Ghouta.