For weeks now the residents of Ghouta, the north-eastern suburbs of Damascus, have been sitting in their basements. It had been foreseeable for a long time that this would be the region, after Aleppo, to become the target of severe attacks. Its inhabitants had defied the regime from the start and have long paid a high price for it. They have lived under siege for the past five years – a time during which they endured near-constant bombings and the deployment of incendiary, cluster and chemical weapons. The past year also saw an increasing number of their secret supply tunnels destroyed. The worst bombings since the beginning of the war in eastern Ghouta set in at the start of February.
When the alarming developments in Ghouta led to the refocusing of media attention on Syria, Sweden and Kuwait presented a draft resolution already on 21 February with the aim of animating the UN Security Council to intervene, while Russia perceived no urgency in the matter. The country delayed the passing of the resolution for days, only to eventually sign it off without any major changes. However, almost simultaneously with the supposed success message from New York, the Syrian regime once again struck with military means and embarked on a ground offensive in Ghouta. The resolution does not prescribe a date for the ceasefire to begin – it is to be established “without delay”, while reality looks very different.
Were the real situation to mirror what has been agreed on paper, it would look far better in Syria. With 17 resolutions the UN Security Council has demanded the protection of civilians and has condemned a number of practices which are in breach of international law, do not comply with the Geneva Conventions and which constitute war crimes. Exactly four years ago, resolution 2139 pressed for unlimited humanitarian access to all areas of Syria, even more importantly: the lifting of sieges, with explicit reference to eastern Ghouta. In addition, the resolution called for an end to the deployment of barrel bombs. With approval from Russia. None of it has been implemented.
In 2015, the UN Security Council passed a comparatively valiant resolution, reprimanding the regime’s use of chemical weapons, including chlorine gas. Should the regime continue with its deployment, the resolution states that the Security Council reserves the right to impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN charter – an intervention.
The lie is a core component of the Russian plans
Russia’s method of dealing with such violations: It bluntly denies them. When chlorine gas was deployed this Sunday in Al-Shifoniya in Ghouta, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called it a “provocation aimed at sabotaging a ceasefire in the enclave” – albeit it was the air force that dropped the deadly freight, just as it had previously during the chemical weapons attacks on Khan Shaykhun in April 2017. None of the rebels, neither nationalists nor radicals, have helicopters or airplanes at their disposal. Russia fails to even afford itself the effort of plausibility.
Lavrov had on previous occasions attempted to relativize the dramatic reports from Ghouta and described them as “populist”, “propaganda” and a “mass psychosis”. Rarely have Russian trolls been as active as when they attempted to shroud helpers of organisations like the White Helmets in smear campaigns. The lie has become a core component of the Russian plans.
Perhaps one of the most prominent examples are the so-called de-escalation zones agreed upon by Iran and Russia during the Syrian peace talks in Astana last May. Fighting temporarily subsided following this agreement, especially in the locality of Daraa in southern Syria. Specifically however in Idlib and eastern Ghouta, both part of a de-escalation zone, the term escalation zone would already have been more appropriate as of autumn 2017.
Moreover, humanitarian aid that was to be facilitated by the alleged de-escalation failed to arrive: Even during the two months of relative calm immediately following the establishment of the zones, only three aid convoys each were authorised to enter areas not under regime control, one of which respectively was allowed to pass into an occupied area. In the reports of UN Secretary-General António Guterres for the best month, he states that “28 percent” of people for which the United Nations aim to supply aid were allowed to be provided for. However, in most cases it amounted to merely a fifth.
Much has been written on the loopholes and backdoors of the resolutions. And yet, in this instance, the devil is not actually in the detail. On the contrary, there is a lack of true will which would be necessary in order to achieve any significant progress.
Russia is war party, not a peacemaker
Local ceasefires, in the international realm, were linked to the hope that they could serve as a model, a type of hotbed for an expanding peace. The regime merely used them in order to gather renewed strength for attacks or to deploy the freed-up troops from one location to another. The various international fora in Geneva, Riyadh, Astana and Sochi have barely alleviated the suffering of civilians. Neither have they contributed to the political transition agreed on in Geneva in 2012 – however, they have indeed distracted from Russia’s conduct as a war party instead of a peacemaker.
One passage from the current resolution 2401 particularly stands out: In it, members of the Security Council express “outrage at the insufficient implementation of its [previous] resolutions" and “[underscore] that Member States are obligated under Article 25 of the Charter of the United Nations to accept and carry out the Council’s decisions”. In other words: Russia is entirely unmoved by its breaches of the UN resolution, even in the very moment it signs it.
Another indication that Russia does not plan on adhering to the UN resolution was soon to come. Already on Monday, Russia proclaimed its own conception: A ceasefire not, as demanded, for 30 full days, but instead only in the mornings. “Five hours is better than no hours,” commented Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General Guterres. However, it is clear that an essential aspect of the resolution has thereby been neglected: it is not possible to supply humanitarian aid within that timeframe. And the ceasefire will only last subject to specific conditions.
Not even willing to concede the smallest humanitarian gestures
Ghouta is another crystallisation point in the reluctance of western states to protect the civilian population in the Syrian conflict. The Aleppo scenario repeats itself. The only offering in the face of a nihilistic strategy of eradication is: more aid, even if it has previously already failed to reach the addressees; and evacuation, thus the deportation of residents from their hometowns.
The regime has no interest in providing for more needy people. Its claim of fighting terrorists in Ghouta - while it targets hospitals, schools and other civil facilities in bombings - has bred hatred.
The only province to take in displaced persons up to now has been Idlib. The situation there is, however, equally dire. Because the regime is currently focussed on Ghouta, there are fewer attacks on Idlib for the time being. What is ultimately clear: Given the regime’s unwillingness to concede even the smallest humanitarian gestures, such as the evacuation of seriously ill people, relocation to Idlib would only mean temporary respite. The civilian population is faced with death in instalments.
Translated from the German by Christine F.G. Kollmar