When a UN-backed Syrian ceasefire was announced on Saturday, residents of Ghouta again took cover, fearing that what would come next would be anything but peace.
Nearly two days later, with more bodies dug from the ruins, more slain children wrapped in burial shrouds, Russian and Syrian warplanes still menacing the skies and claims of another chlorine attack, it’s clear the so-called ceasefire has barely led to a lull.
As has been the case throughout the war, the UN again failed to prevent the suffering of Syria, or even to slow it down. In Homs and Aleppo, Zabadani and Madaya, Idlib and now Ghouta, international will has been trampled by the protagonists of a war without restraint. The unchecked savagery of Syria’s disintegration has become so routine that those trying to prevent it have effectively become its underwriters.
Russia, a party to the UN security council resolution, breached its intent within hours, sending its warplanes to drop more bombs as Syrian and Iranian-backed troops launched ground incursions into the opposition enclave. And this to a binding resolution – not a gentle nudge.
On Monday, Vladimir Putin announced a five hour pause in the bombing, purportedly to allow in aid. The move, if honoured, sidelines the UN as a decision maker – as the Russian leader has tried to do throughout the crisis – setting up him and his military as ultimate arbiters of who gets fed, or killed.
The pretext for the ongoing assault was in the resolution’s wording, which was debated for days before being passed and ended up allowing continued strikes on armed groups deemed to be terrorists.
In Ghouta, that meant a cell of several hundred members of the al-Qaida-aligned group known by the initials HTS. It runs an area on the outskirts of the enclave – a large outer neighbourhood of Damascus that was central to the uprising against president Bashar al-Assad in its early days and has remained an opposition stronghold in the eight years since.
Resentment towards HTS inside Ghouta is almost as strong as the rage against the UN. Residents and members of the two main opposition groups, Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, say the jihadists among them do not hold sway, and have no direct links to their heartland in Idlib province, much of which is run by al-Qaida. Both groups had been parties to earlier ceasefires signed with Russia during de-escalation talks in Astana. Neither are designated as terrorist organisations.
Why is the regime targeting eastern Ghouta?
Eastern Ghouta is the last rebel-held enclave bordering the Syrian capital, Damascus. Since 2013, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have imposed a suffocating and deadly siege on the area. Yet several insurgent factions have retained control.
This month, Syria’s army launched one of the most intense bombardments of the war, saying their assault was necessary to end rebel mortar strikes on the capital. Residents accuse Russia of also bombing Ghouta, a mixture of dense suburbs and fields that once served as the breadbasket for Damascus.
“HTS consists of barely 300 fighters here in eastern Ghouta,” said local resident Mohammad Bakr. “They are outcasts and not wanted – they cannot pressure us in any way even if they tried. Two years ago when they had power over us it was suffocating – they would tax the farmers, confiscate their lands and take over the houses of civilians who have left. They did nothing but wreak havoc and burdened us Syrians and our revolution.”
“They consist of about 240 men here,” said Mohannad Mahmoud Qassem, 33, another resident. “Although they are trying to implement the same scenario as in Idlib, the chaos and the Islamisation, they have no power or choice in Ghouta. Faylaq al-Rahman are the ones with the upper hand here.”
Over the past six months, attempts to expel HTS and their families have failed because a passage out of the besieged area has been unable to be negotiated with regime forces that surround it. Such deals have been made elsewhere in Syria, along the border with Lebanon, and in Aleppo as forces supporting the Assad regime were storming the opposition-held east of the city in late 2016.
They have often involved population shifts – fighters leave first, and then communities have been moved en masse where they have been forced to blend in with the jihadists. Soon there will be no distinction. For the regime and its backers, in whose eyes the uprising was all about global jihad in the first place, things will have come full circle.
Aleppo marked a seminal shift in battlefield momentum away from the loose array of opposition groups that had until late 2015 been prevailing in northern Syria. As Russia and Iran doubled down on Assad to prevent his fall, the civilian toll increased, as did the exodus. Then, as now, the UN could do little to stop the country’s collapse. Blocked by Russia and China at every attempt to denounce Assad’s actions and stymied repeatedly when they attempted to deliver aid, UN officials have been forced to beg for mercy.
“While there is zero deterrence and total impunity, there will be no mercy coming, I can assure you,” said a senior western official. “The global order is shifting. There is no longer a price tag on bad behaviour. And the messaging – this is important – from Trump is that the US doesn’t care. That’s a soundtrack for tyranny everywhere.”
As bombs fell throughout Monday in Ghouta, resident Mayada Sobhe said: “Nothing can stop our tragedy. Why would we have faith in the world coming to save us? Those who kill us know that no one will criticise them.”
Meanwhile in another part of the suburb, Mohannad Mahmoud Qassem awaited his fate. “The UN decision was useless,” he said. “It was nothing but a green light to kill us all here. The international community has sanctioned our deaths.”