Russia and the Assad regime have been challenged over their failure to allow implementation of a ceasefire in East Ghouta, near Syria’s capital Damascus, where thousands of civilians have been killed and wounded in the past 11 days.

A UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday considered the situation in the opposition-held territory, where pro-Assad airstrikes, missiles, and rockets continue despite last Saturday’s Council resolution for a 30-day halt to attacks.

Russia watered down the text to ensure there was no timetable for implementation, and the assault has continued despite Moscow’s PR announcement of a “humanitarian pause” from 9 am to 2 pm each day. Pro-Assad forces are trying to advance in the Hawsh al-Dawahra area at the eastern edge of East Ghouta.

Council members criticized the failure to halt attacks and ensure the provision of aid, which has been blocked by the Assad regime amid a tightening five-year siege, to more than 350,000 residents. Since early February, almost 900 people have been killed and more than 4,000 wounded.

“Despite the unanimous call for a ceasefire, the regime’s attacks continued unabated,” US represenative Kelley Currie said. “Hundreds of Syrians have been killed or injured since we passed the resolution on Saturday. Such an attack demonstrates Syria’s complete and utter contempt for this council and the United Nations.”

Currie described Russia’s self-proclaimed “humanitarian pause” — the same tactic used by Moscow amid the five-month siege and bombardment that forced the capitulation of eastern Aleppo city in December 2016 — as “cynical, callous and in flagrant defiance of the demands” of the UN resolution.

Men dig out an underground shelter in East Ghouta:


“A Psychological Game”

East Ghouta residents said pro-Assad forces attacked across the territory on Wednesday, with the most intense strikes in Douma, Misraba, and Harasta near the frontlines of the ground offensive trying to seize territory.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights documented 14 civilian deaths — eight in Douma, three in Beit Sawa, two in Harasta, and one in Otaya.

“There have been no evacuations whatsoever — not medical, not humanitarian, nothing,” said one resident. “The regime has launched a psychological game — that’s all. Bombardment has been ongoing since last night.”

Aid worker said the five-hour “pause” was too short for convoys to be arranged to ease the lack of food and medicine which has caused scores of deaths and almost 12% severe malnutrition among children.

But Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia insisted that Russia was acting in good faith while rebels were shelling supposed “humanitarian corridors”: “We trust that the opposition leaders have a serious-minded approach and that their words will be met with deeds.”

Nebenzia then justified the continued assaults on both rebels and civilians: “We understand that terrorists remain a legitimate target for military operations and that there will be no ceremonial approach for them.”

At the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put out similar lines: “Now it is the turn to act for militants entrenched there, who still continue shelling Damascus, blocking aid deliveries and the evacuation of those wishing to leave, as well as for their sponsors.”

Lavrov maintained Moscow’s pretext that the attacks are on the hardline Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra, which has almost no presence in East Ghouta: “It’s getting worse for the terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra, who willingly or unwillingly have been sustainably spared by the American coalition.”

Russia President Vladimir Putin said Moscow had evacuated “quite a big group” of civilians and that Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan helped broker the departure. Putin provided no evidence to support his claim.

Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Ankara asked for the evacuation of about 700 people a month ago. Kalin said that Russia told Turkey the civilians had been taken to southern Damascus a week later, despite Erdogan’s request for them to receive treatment in Turkey.

Meanwhile, Mohammad Alloush, a senior official of the Jaish al-Islam rebel faction, said pro-Assad forces were struggling to make gains and were taking heavy losses despite their bombardment of the area:

A number of the regime forces who were forced to fight the people of Ghouta handed themselves over to the Army of Islam. [We] welcomed them and they told us that large numbers wanted to split but the regime executes dozens of them every day.

He called on fighters to “be with your family and your brothers in the eastern Ghouta before the regime kills you”.

“I Feel Like the End is Near”

Hiding in a basement with her small son and 44 other women and children, an East Ghouta mother summarizes:

This has been the worst phase. I feel so stressed out…like the end is near.

People worry they will die in a chemical attack, because there was one in [the area of] Shayfuniya. I try to stay calm, but I’ve never felt this level of fear.

We know that going back means death. It will be a massacre. We will all be buried.

Let’s be clear: The regime is bombing civilians in their homes, not the fighters on the front. There is no way towards reconciliation or peace.