The Syrian regime tightened its grip on a rebel enclave on the outskirts of Damascus yesterday, with dozens of people killed as fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships unleashed some of the worst violence yet in the country’s seven-year civil war.
Witnesses to the attack on Eastern Ghouta described scenes of unprecedented devastation in a conflict that has already displaced millions and destabilized the entire region.
Pictures from the enclave showed desperate civilians, including women and children, bleeding and covered in dust as they struggled to find cover amid the shattered landscape.
The assault, which human rights observers said killed 127 people on Monday and at least 66 yesterday, brought condemnation from the international community but appears to be far from over.
Syrian forces, backed by Iranian militias, are now reported to be massing for a ground assault on the area.
Panos Moumtzis, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, warned that the situation “is spiraling out of control” and called for the regime’s targeting of civilians to stop immediately.
“It’s imperative to end this senseless human suffering now,” he said.
In a rare and emotive gesture, the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, issued a largely blank statement to symbolize its anger at the carnage. “Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?” it asked in a postscript.
Eastern Ghouta, an area of satellite towns and farms on the fringes of Damascus, is home to 400,000 people. Once an important source of food for the Syrian capital, it has been under rebel control since 2012.
By the following year, the enclave was under almost constant attack from the government of President Bashar Assad, with markets, schools and hospitals frequently targeted by regime forces. In one of the most notorious incidents of the war, hundreds of civilians died there on Aug. 21, 2013, in an attack using rockets containing the chemical sarin. UN investigators later found “clear and convincing evidence” they had been killed using chemical weapons.
However, witnesses to this week’s bloodshed say the current level of violence is arguably more horrific than anything they have previously experienced.
A doctor told the UK’s The Guardian newspaper the recent bombardment is “the massacre of this century right now.”
Meanwhile, AFP quoted a doctor, who identified himself as Abu Al-Yasar, as describing Monday as “one of the worst days that we’ve ever had in the history of this crisis.” He described inserting a breathing tube into an injured 1-year-old who had been pulled from the rubble, only to find the baby’s mouth “packed with dirt.”
He managed to save the boy’s life, but many others were not so lucky.
According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, about 210 people have died in Eastern Ghouta since the bombing intensified on Sunday, including 54 children. At least 850 have been injured. Monday’s death toll was the highest in the area for three years, it said.
The dominant rebel movement in the enclave is Jaish Al-Islam, a hard-line coalition that took part in UN-sponsored peace talks last year.
One of the group’s co-founders, Mohammed Alloush, told AP that the recent attacks on Eastern Ghouta are “a new Holocaust” that “is being committed by the dirtiest regime on earth.” He said the UN was also to blame for failing to protect civilians.
The Syrian civil war began in 2011 when Assad’s security forces violently cracked down on a wave of popular peaceful protest inspired by the Arab Spring sweeping the region. Since then, an estimated 11.5 million Syrians have fled their homes.
The conflict has become a proxy war for major world powers, with the US backing Kurdish rebels fighting Daesh in the north of the country, Israel launching air strikes against Syrian government targets, and Moscow and Tehran both providing crucial military, logistical and diplomatic support to Damascus.
Eastern Ghouta is meant to be part of a regime-approved “de-escalation” zone established in 2017 cease-fire talks backed by Russia, Iran and Turkey. But Lebanon’s Al-Manar television, which is affiliated to Assad’s ally Hezbollah, reported on Monday that the Syrian army is sending reinforcements toward the area.
In a statement yesterday, the French foreign ministry described this week’s assault as “a grave violation of international humanitarian law.” It condemned Russia, Iran and Syria for failing to honor the truce deal.