Syrian Conflict’s Deadly Week in Eastern Ghouta

A look at the major developments of one of the deadliest weeks in the besieged Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta.

Written by Hashem Osseiran, Alessandria Masi Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A civil defense volunteer, known as the White Helmets, checks the site of a regime airstrike in the rebel-held town of Saqba, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on February 23, 2018. ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images

BEIRUT – The opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in Eastern Ghouta have been under siege for more than four years and have been frequently pummeled by pro-government bombs and artillery. Over the past week, however, hundreds of people have been killed in some of the deadliest attacks of the conflict so far.

The situation in Eastern Ghouta has prompted an international outcry and calls to help hundreds of thousands of civilians still trapped in the area. However, more attacks were being reported late Friday.

Airstrikes and Artillery

More than more than 400 people have been killed in airstrikes and artillery attacks on Eastern Ghouta since Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said on Friday. The Syrian Civil Defense documented 347 deaths between Sunday and Thursday, the group’s press officer for the Damascus suburbs told Syria Deeply.

Here is a roundup of the latest news:

Friday: The SOHR and the Ghouta Media Center, an activist-run monitor, put the death toll at 32 people, according to the Associated Press.

Thursday: The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), a watchdog, said that at least 43 civilians, including five children and seven women were killed in attacks on the rebel stronghold. The SOHR put the death toll at 70, including nine children and eight women. Most died in airstrikes on the suburbs of Douma, Arbin, Misraba and al-Aftarees.

Wednesday: The SOHR said that at least 85 people, including 20 children and 12 women were killed. The SNHR put the death toll at 39, including six children and six women. The victims were killed in purported cluster bomb attacks on the suburb of Kafr Batna and airstrikes on the suburbs of Jisreen and Sabqa.

Tuesday: According to the SOHR, some 128 people were killed, making it the highest one-day death toll in the region since 2013. The war monitor said that attacks targeted the towns of Outaya, Arbin, Misraba, Zamalka, Hammouriya, Sabqi, al-Ashaari and al-Nashaabiya.

The SNHR put the death toll at only 38. The reason behind the vast discrepancy was not immediately clear, but varying death tolls are common in the Syrian conflict.

Monday: The SOHR said that at least 127 people were killed in attacks on Hammouriya, Beit Sawa, Sabqa, Douma, Misraba, Outaya, al-Nashaabiya, Zamalka, al-Aftarees, Kafr Batna, al-Shayfouniya and Jisreen. The SNHR put the death toll at 60 civilians, including five children and eight women.

Sunday: The SOHR said some 17 people were killed in attacks on Sabqa, Misraba, Outaya and al-Ashaari. The SNHR did not publish a death toll for that day.

Damage to Medical Infrastructure

Increased attacks on the rebel enclave have severely damaged the region’s already strained medical infrastructure.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said that at least 13 hospitals and medical clinics it supports in East Ghouta have been damaged or destroyed. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), another medical NGO, said that eight facilities it assists were hit. The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) said on Wednesday that more than 20 medical facilities in East Ghouta had been damaged or destroyed since Sunday, with some facilities being targeted more than once.

Citing medics, the Guardian reported that, as of Friday, only three medical facilities in East Ghouta remained fully operational.

The Violations Documentation Center, an advocacy group, said hospitals were being targeted with different weapons to those used elsewhere in Ghouta, the Guardian reported. “We have observed and documented that the Syrian government targeted the medical points with directed rockets,” said Mona Zeineddine, its director of communications.

“This is important to note because the Syrian regime is largely using unguided and improvised bombs, but when it comes to hospitals and medical points, guided and directed rockets are used. Also when a particular medical site is hit once, it is then hit again when first responders arrive,” she added.

A coalition of medical and humanitarian organizations, including UOSSM, Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), Save the Children, Care International and Physicians for Human Rights, deployed three billboards to circle the United Nations building in New York on Thursday, calling on the Security Council to vote for an immediate cease-fire to allow for humanitarian and medical assistance to reach the area.

Panos Moumtzis, the U.N.’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis said in a statement on Tuesday that he was “appalled and distressed by reports of the horrifying attacks” on healthcare facilities in East Ghouta. “These unconscionable acts are yet another grim reminder of the depravity and madness of this conflict now almost in its eighth year,” he said. “This nightmare in East Ghouta must end and must end now.”

Failed Negotiations

The SOHR and pro-government media are reporting Russian-sponsored negotiations between the Syrian government and East Ghouta’s two largest rebel groups in a last-ditch effort to spare the region a full-out attack.

Very similar negotiations took place between Damascus and rebels in East Aleppo before it fell to government forces in 2016.

The SOHR said on Friday that the Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman rebel groups have proposed to drive the al-Qaida-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham alliance from Eastern Ghouta in return for an end to hostilities. Russia, however, has reportedly refused the suggestion, according to the monitoring group.

Instead, Moscow has informed the two rebel groups that the region needs to be evacuated of civilians ahead of an upcoming full-scale military operation, including a ground offensive, that will be launched by pro-government forces, the SOHR said.

Russia has informed rebel groups that “regime forces led by the Brigadier Suhail Al-Hassan backed by Russia, will enter the Eastern Ghouta of Damascus to impose there control over it and secure the vicinity of the capital Damascus,” according to the monitoring group. The SOHR did not specify when such an operation would begin.

The Independent on Friday also reported continued negotiations to establish “humanitarian corridors” and “escape routes” for the 400,000 people trapped in the besieged suburbs.

However, it remains unclear as to where East Ghouta’s residents would escape to. Idlib province, is relatively far and already over-crowded with internally displaced civilians who have fled territory captured by the government. What’s more, the area has been the target of escalated government attacks in recent months, which suggests that it is neither a safe nor convenient alternative for the residents of the suburbs.

U.N. Security Council Considers Cease-fire

The United Nations Security Council twice attempted to pass a draft resolution for a 30-day nationwide cease-fire this week that would allow for humanitarian aid deliveries and medical evacuations of critically ill patients.

Russia vetoed the draft on Thursday after the UNSC convened an emergency session to discuss the situation in Eastern Ghouta, marking the 11th time Moscow has shot down a resolution on Syria. The Security Council was expected to vote again on the following day, but as of Friday evening it remained unclear whether or not the resolution passed.

Sweden and Kuwait drafted the resolution for a cease-fire earlier this month. After the first vote on Thursday Russia proposed amendments to the text, that Moscow’s U.N. ambassador Vassily Nebenzia described as “simply unrealistic.” Russia’s proposed amendments, according to the Associated Press, called on parties to “stop hostilities as soon as possible,” and “work for an immediate and unconditional de-escalation of violence” and a 30-day “humanitarian pause.”

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