The siege in Ghouta: Between the hammer and ‘Hell on earth’

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Artillery fire and indiscriminate air strikes pound and batter the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Civilians, mostly children, are being killed and maimed. The Security Council wrings its hands in pleading for a humanitarian respite in a ongoing horror.

And the world community politely averts its eyes from the Syrian civil war as the regime pulverizes cities, murders civilians and reasserts its bloody writ in what appears to be the endgame in a conflict which has killed 500,000 people and sent millions fleeing their land.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called the siege of Ghouta “Hell on earth.”

Ghouta: Bloody end game?
Ghouta: Bloody end game?

Now at long last, the Security Council has unanimously adopted a cease fire resolution which will allow a humanitarian respite for thirty days. After days of deliberate Russian stalling, and hundreds of additional casualties as the appalling violence churned on, the fifteen member Council agreed on a significant but unenforceable humanitarian pause.

American Ambassador Nikki Haley cautioned, “We are deeply skeptical that the regime will comply. But we supported this resolution because we must demand nothing less. We owe this to the innocent people of Syria begging for help.”

Since the onset of the Syrian civil war, Ghouta has remained a rebel held enclave just outside the capital Damascus. And it is from the ancient city of Damascus that the Assad regime has now unleashed its wrath hammering the militants, but especially civilians, in an all out assault using heavy artillery, randomly targeted Russian airstrikes, and the infamous barrel bombs, to finally break, bloody and terrorize its own citizens.

As the UN Humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the Council, “Eastern Ghouta is a living example of an entirely known, predictable, and preventable humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes; everyone knows that nearly 400,000 people are besieged.” They have endured a four-year siege in the midst of a conflict which has churned on for seven.

Indeed we have seen this sanguinary strategy before; Aleppo, Hama and in other places and conflicts; Sarajevo comes to mind.

French Ambassador Francois Delattre scolded earlier that failure to aid Ghouta would cause a “devastating loss of credibility for the Security Council,” and could signal the “death knell of the United Nations.”

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson warned, “I am utterly appalled by the brutal and merciless violence that the Assad regime is inflicting on the people of Eastern Ghouta. They are enduring a hell entirely of the making of Assad and his enablers.”

U.S. President Donald Trump named names as to the perpetrators, “I will say what Russia and what Iran and what Syria have done recently is a humanitarian disgrace.”

So now there’s a ceasefire for a month if it lasts. But as the UN’s Lowcock adds, “Humanitarian access is not a ‘nice to have,’ it is a legal requirement. Counterterrorism efforts cannot supersede the obligation to respect and protect civilians.” So, providing the resolution is respected by all sides, there’s a thirty-day respite to bring a hint of humanity, normalcy and dignity to a shattered city. And then?

But where are the angels? It’s simplistic to say that the long running conflict is between the Assad dictatorship, long supported by Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and democratic rebel forces. Most of the opposition, with the exception of the Kurds in the north, has morphed into a toxic mix of jihadi terrorist groups ranging from Al Qaida, to Al Nusra and Islamic State.

It’s absurd to talk about good guys here. But it’s crucial to recall that civilian lives are tragically caught between the hammer and the anvil of the Syrian army.

Importantly, the UN resolution does NOT mandate a ceasefire in fighting the terrorist groups.

Yet the Assad regime has reverted to its political pedigree which was formed in the 1960’s and 1970’s when Syria was a classic Soviet client state. When it looked like Assad may fall, and the Obama administration cheered from the sidelines, there was indeed a real opportunity early in the conflict for the quasi-democratic forces to have prevailed.

But as a power vacuum formed, and the U.S. led from behind, the Russians rescued their historic ally. The balance has since clearly tipped back to the Assad regime.

Half of Syria’s population have fled as refugees or become internally displaced in their country. Millions of Syrians have spilled into neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. A million more have fled to Germany and Sweden.

Does this truce foretell a genuine ceasefire? Or has a bloody endgame just begun?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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