UN human rights head: “Let it not be thought that the perpetrators will get away with this”
UPDATE 1145 GMT: More civilian casualties, including children, are reported from regime-Russian attacks on Saturday morning:
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) March 3, 2018
A high-ranking UN official has said the Assad regime must be taken to the International Criminal Court for prosecution over its assault on East Ghouta near Syria’s capital Damascus.
Commenting on the attacks by the regime and its allies which have killed almost 950 civilians in the past month and wounded thousands, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein, spoke of “likely war crimes and potentially crimes against humanity” — “Syria must be referred to the International Criminal Court. Attempts to thwart justice and shield these criminals are disgraceful”:
For half a decade, the people of Eastern Ghouta have been under siege. They have suffered airstrikes, shelling and on several occasions, civilians have reportedly died gasping for breath after toxic agents were released. They have endured every kind of deprivation, with no aid getting through since November except for one single convoy of humanitarian aid on 14 February that managed to reach just 7,200 people, of the hundreds of thousands who are living in this area. As a direct result, thousands upon thousands of children in Eastern Ghouta are acutely malnourished and profoundly traumatised. And now they are facing one of the most pitiless onslaughts in this long-running and brutal civil war.
Hussein said at least 14 medical facilities were damaged or destroyed between February 18 and February 22, and spoke of the claimed chlorine attack on the village of Shifouniya that killed two children and wounded at least 16 other people.
Referring to the ICC’s conviction of war criminals such as Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladic, Hussein said, “Let it not be thought that the perpetrators will get away with this.”
#Syria: Civilians are being pounded into submission or death. There must be justice – determined, inescapable and effective – for the suffering that has been inflicted on the Syrian people- #Zeid https://t.co/AGf52prqdC
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) March 2, 2018
The Assault by the Regime — and Russia
Hoping to enable the takeover of East Ghouta, held by the opposition since 2012 despite the bombardment and a five-year regime siege, pro-Assad forces have been bombing, shelling, and rocketing the area of more than 350,000 people for months.
The assault was stepped up from late January, defying the “de-escalation zone” which had been agreed between Russia and rebels last July. Moscow has supported the attacks, while trying to provide cover with the declaration of a five-hour “humanitarian pause” each day and a non-existent “evacuation corridor”.
Attacks have continued during the other 19 hours of the day, and aid agencies said the pause is too short to provide assistance that has been blocked by the regime. Only two people — a Pakistani couple — have left the territory under an arrangement with the regime.
A pro-Assad blog, The Arab Source, says Russian warplanes are involved in bombing, including near Shifouniya, the site of the claimed chlorine attack on January 25.
The monitor Airwars reports a record high of 78 alleged Russian civilian casualty incidents across Syria between February 19 and 25 — a surge of 700% from the previous. All but four of the strikes were reported in East Ghouta.
At least 324 civilians were reportedly killed in the strikes, including at least 59 children and 42 women.
UN satellite images, published by Al Jazeera, show extensive devastation since February 23. Einar Bjorgo of the UN Operational Satellite Programme said “It can be hard to distinguish between residential and businesses, but we do observe damage to [many different] buildings, including what seems to be residential areas.”
Noor and Alaa, who have informed the world of developments in East Ghouta through social media, posted a video on Friday:
#Noor and her sister Alaa, living in #EasternGhouta area Near #Syria's #Damascus, describes the situation in the area as the #Syrian_regime and #Russia-n warplanes escalate the military operations against civilians and urging the international community to #SaveGhouta pic.twitter.com/NTwZIAPuOY
— Qasioun News Agency (@QASIOUN_NEWS) March 2, 2018
While 14 more civilians were slain on Friday, pro-Assad forces continued their ground offensive. The Syrian military declared the capture of the villages of Hawsh al-Dawahra and Hawsh Zreika and nearby hills and farmland. Rebels and local sources said fighting is ongoing, after heavy casualties among pro-Assad troops.
A pro-Assad commander — likely from Hezbollah — told Reuters, “What is happening at present is biting and taking some villages from the eastern side.”
The death of 14 civilians in Eastern Ghouta in March 2, 2018:
SNHR documented the death of 14 civilians, including 2 women, in #EasternGhouta in Damascus suburbs at the hands of the Syrian/Russian regime forces on Fri, Mar 2, 2018 #Syriahttps://t.co/Sk9NQbZuUl
— Syrian Network (@snhr) March 3, 2018
As a further element in the “information warfare” around the offensive, Russian embassies have been trying to discredit White Helmets rescuers, thus undermining efforts to withstand the regime-Russian attacks:
We warn #US against temptation to use fake claims by #WhiteHelmets that have totally discredited themselves, as well as other pseudohumanitarian NGOs that receive Western allowance as a pretext to attack #Syria🇸🇾 government facilities
— Russia in USA 🇷🇺 (@RusEmbUSA) March 2, 2018
The «Last Men in Aleppo» is #propaganda, not a documentary. It gives a dangerous misinterpretation of the #Syrian conflict and is aimed at hailing pseudo-humanist activity of the #WhiteHelmets which are known to be closely affiliated with #terrorist groupshttps://t.co/FT68SV5xoD
— Russian Mission UN (@RussiaUN) March 3, 2018
Western Leaders Confer
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel each spoke with Donald Trump on Friday about steps to halt the assault. Last weekend, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution for 30-day ceasefire, but Russia watered down the terms, with the removal of a 72-hour timetable for implementation.
The Elysee Palace said Macron and Trump agreed that Russia needed to“unambiguously exert maximum pressure on the regime in Damascus”. Macron also said France would have a“firm response” if it transpired chemical weapons had led to civilian deaths.
Merkel’s spokesman said Trump agreed that Damascus, Russia, and Iran should“promptly and fully” implement the UN resolution for a ceasefire.
Residents of East Ghouta comment, “Ceasefire? What ceasefire?”
— Nemesis Arcady❄️ (@zuzamikulova) March 2, 2018
Turkish-Rebel Offensive Claims Town in Kurdish Canton of Afrin
The Turkish-rebel offensive against the Kurdish canton of Afrin has claimed its first key town.
The Turkish-Free Syrian Army force moved into Raju, 25 km (16 miles) northwest of Afrin city, on Friday. The town is the second, following Bulbul, captured by the offensive that began on January 18.
Local Kurdish forces maintained that fighting continues in Raju.
Turkish-FSA troops take down a Syrian regime flag and stomp on it:
#AfrinOp: #OliveBranch forces kicked off the 2nd stage of Offensive & took #Rajo from #YPG, until now the largest urban center in #Afrin area. Regime flag also taken down. https://t.co/oV176054bo pic.twitter.com/KbRURhqM0d
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) March 3, 2018
The offensive has also surrounded the town of Jinderes, taking all the nearby high ground. At the end of February, the Turkish-FSA force established control of the entire northwest Syrian area on the Turkish border.