Warplanes have pounded the last rebel enclave near the Syrian capital for a fifth straight day, as the UN pleaded for a truce to halt to one of the fiercest air assaults of the seven-year civil war and prevent a “massacre’.
More than 335 people have been killed in the besieged rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus since Sunday, with 13 more civilians killed in the latest strikes on Thursday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Aid agencies including the Red Cross and World Food Programme are calling for an urgent ceasefire to allow them to reach eastern Ghouta, where more than 1,200 people have been injured, a toll people on the ground say has been exacerbated by attacks on hospitals, clinics and ambulances.
The calls were echoed by the UN secretary general, António Guterres, who demanded an immediate suspension of “all war activities” in the rebel-held Damascus suburb, which he described as a “hell on earth”.
What is happening in eastern Ghouta?
Eastern Ghouta is a rebel-held enclave that borders the city of Damascus. Once a breadbasket of the Syrian capital, since 2013 it has been under a siege that has tightened severely over the last year. In 2013 the area was targeted in a chemical attack by the Syrian regime that killed more than a thousand civilians and nearly prompted a US intervention in the war.
The enclave is controlled by a mix of rebel groups dominated by the Islamist leaning Jaysh al-Islam, though the day-to-day affairs of the towns in the area are run by local civilian councils.
The situation is catastrophic for the 400,000 civilians who still live in eastern Ghouta. Prices for basic foodstuffs have skyrocketed and medical supplies are mostly absent because of the siege. Treating the injured is especially difficult because of the repeated bombing of hospitals and clinics.
An estimated 700 civilians have been killed in the area in the last three months alone, not including those killed over the last week of escalation.
The first aid convoy to the region in months arrived a week ago but did not do much to alleviate the suffering.
Terrified residents in the area, where 400,000 people are trapped, have been sheltering in caves, dugouts and basements, as a hail of explosives hit homes, roads and hospitals amid what aid officials warned was an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.
“There is a need for avoiding the massacre, because we will be judged by history,” the UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said.
The UN security council is expected to vote soon on a draft resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire to allow deliveries of aid and medical evacuations. But de Mistura said while he hoped the security council would agree to a resolution, it would not be easy.
Russia, Bashar al-Assad’s veto-wielding ally, was ready to consider a ceasefire only if it does not cover Islamic State, Nusra Front and other groups “who are shelling residential quarters of Damascus”, its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said.
What is the UN security council and why is it paralysed over Syria?
The security council is the UN’s most powerful body, the only one with the authority to issue legally binding resolutions that can be backed up by sanctions, blue-helmeted peacekeepers or by force of arms.
There are five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – and 10 temporary members at any one time, elected by the general assembly for two-year terms.
For a resolution to be passed, nine of the 15 council members must vote for it, but permanent members have a veto. Russia has repeatedly deployed its veto to block resolutions targeting its ally, Syria. China has also vetoed resolutions on Syria.
One possible remedy is to expand the security council and its permanent membership, but the existing members have mixed feelings. The UK and France say they are in favour, the US and Russia are more tepid, and China is against it.
Another possible remedy involves reining in the use of the veto. France and others argue an immediate fix would be for permanent members to waive their veto rights in cases of mass atrocities, but Russia is adamant in its opposition.
Aid workers and residents say Syrian army helicopters have been dropping barrel bombs – oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel – on marketplaces and medical centres.
Residents and insurgents in eastern Ghouta say high-altitude jets of the kind involved in bombing on Thursday morning are Russian, as Moscow’s warplanes typically fly higher than those of the Syrian air force.
Damascus and Moscow deny targeting civilian areas and accuse rebels of holding civilians as human shields. Western powers have also accused Russia of aiding the bombardment.
Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by regime forces since 2013. After government gains in recent years, it is the final rebel bastion near the capital.
Along with Idlib province and part of Aleppo province in the north, and a strip in the southwest, it is one of a handful of areas left where large numbers of people remain in territory controlled by fighters seeking to overthrow Assad. The president has vowed to regain control over all of Syria.
Residents and opposition figures say the Syrian government and its allies are deliberately destroying infrastructure and paralysing life in what they describe as a “scorched earth policy” to force rebels to surrender. The Syrian army accuse the rebels of causing deaths by firing mortars on the heavily defended capital.
“They want to break our will and turn Ghouta into another Aleppo but this is their dream,” said Yusef Dughmi, a resident in the devastated eastern Ghouta town of Arbin overnight.
Among agencies saying that the violence had made their work impossible was Care, whose Syria country director, Wouter Schaap, warned of a humanitarian catastrophe if a ceasefire was not agreed.
One worker with a local organisation supported by Care said: “The situation in eastern Ghouta is more critical than ever. Despite their resilience for years, people are giving up hope for survival. Unlike previous airstrikes, destruction has reached every area this time. There is no place for people to go – no shelter, no safety.”
Khaled Shadid, a resident of Douma, told Reuters by telephone as sounds of explosions could be heard: “Why is the regime targeting us? We are civilians and the regime and Russia are only targeting civilians?”
Basema Abdullah, a widow who was huddled in a basement with her four children in Douma, said: “We are in desperate need for your prayers.” Then the connection was cut off.
Rescue workers said at least 40 people were killed during Wednesday’s heavy bombing of Kafr Batna, Saqba, Zamalka and Arbin and other towns in the opposition enclave. In the town of Haza, the bombing targeted a field hospital and a bakery, rescuers said.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report