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As world watches relentless barrage, cowering Syrians feel hopeless, abandoned

Despite a UN Security Council resolution demanding a cease-fire, Syria and its allies have continued to pound the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta outside Damascus. Civilians cower in the basements, with little hope of reconciliation or peace, or any expectation of outside help.

Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
A man walked through the besieged and decimated town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, Feb. 25.

Hiding underground in the concrete confines of her building’s basement, with her small son and 44 other women and children, Noor feels at every moment the meaninglessness of the words “cease-fire” or “truce” in Syria.

Above ground, the slaughter continues, with Syrian regime forces and Russian planes targeting Noor’s town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, in their bid to crush the last remaining rebel enclave near Damascus. The onslaught has inflicted some 560 casualties in 10 days, in one of the most deadly episodes of Syria’s seven-year war.

“This has been the worst phase. I feel so stressed out … like the end is near,” says Noor, who requested her full name not be used. She speaks via a mobile phone, its battery fading because she is unable to safely recharge outside with solar power.

“People worry they will die in a chemical attack, because there was one in [the area of] Shayfuniya,” she says. Noor's toddler Hamza is agitated by the lack of food and fresh air, like the other children who can be heard crying in the background. They are even running out of the rainwater they’ve collected to drink.

“I try to stay calm, but I’ve never felt this level of fear,” says Noor. Her eastern Ghouta district, just 12 miles from the center of Damascus, has been controlled by anti-regime rebels since 2012, and besieged by the government since 2013.

“We know that going back means death. It will be a massacre. We will all be buried,” adds Noor. “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.”

The horror of her assessment seems widely, if not universally, shared. Of all those interviewed for this story – civilians, officials, and analysts – no one offered a practical solution to the crisis. One person wondered whether civilians could be evacuated to Idlib province in the north, though some observers have said that region could be the next to face President Bashar al-Assad’s triumphant wrath. Another suggested that all parties on all sides just be disarmed, and that a no-fly zone be imposed, a notion that seems less possible with every passing hour.

The global outcry has been emphatic, with UN Secretary-General António Guterres declaring Monday: “Eastern Ghouta cannot wait. It’s high time to stop this hell on Earth.”

Little impact from cease-fire

But so far the verbal furor has made little apparent difference to Mr. Assad’s playbook, which is using a relentless bombing campaign to capture the last remaining stronghold of what it considers “terrorists” near the capital.

A UN Security Council resolution demanding a 30-day cease-fire, adopted unanimously over the weekend, has not eased the air strikes or barrel bombs, and was met with reports of another chlorine gas attack.

And the order by Russian President Vladimir Putin of a daily 5-hour truce starting Tuesday, ostensibly to create humanitarian corridors and allow some of the 400,000 residents to flee, is seen by many in eastern Ghouta as just another mind game to help gain victory for the regime.

All told, from Feb. 19 through Feb. 27, some 560 people have been killed in eastern Ghouta, 107 of them children and 76 of them women, with more than 2,000 wounded, according to figures provided to the Monitor by the Civil Defense Unit officials known as “White Helmets.”

The Civil Defense Unit says dozens of people have been killed by air and missile strikes since the start of the daily truces, while Syrian state media, in their turn, Wednesday accused “terrorists” of targeting the safe corridor for the exit of civilians “for the second day in a row.”

For Syrian civilians like Noor, the agony has been years in the making: victimized first by forces loyal to Assad and their Russian and Iranian allies, and second by the host of rebel forces fighting them – in Ghouta most of them Islamists, and some linked to Al Qaeda. The result today, as the death toll rises, is a sense of hopeless abandonment.

Any hope or expectation that Europe or the US might intervene to stop the carnage, or even to give Assad and his allies reason to pause, disappeared from Syria’s front lines years ago, analysts say.

“Eastern Ghouta has resisted the siege, the bombing, all [that has] happened around it the past three years – it is literally the last area standing without some international support,” says Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Price of resistance

“The area needs to be taught a lesson, as far as the regime is concerned, so you bomb its people into submission, and you show the price of standing up to the regime – so there’s a big message there,” Ms. Yahya says.

That stark calculation appears to have been made public by Syrian government commanders themselves.

“I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire,” Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan, head of the Tiger Force, said in a video posted to pro-government social media accounts last week and cited by the New York Times. “You won’t find a rescuer.”

Eastern Ghouta is also an “orphan” rebel enclave of the Syrian war that has little outside support, Yahya notes; the rebel Jaish al-Islam militia, the largest in the district, was a proxy of Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis “seem to have lost interest.”

But reclaiming control of eastern Ghouta is also of strategic import for the government, because continuing insecurity – including rebel shelling on Damascus, which has persisted despite the UN cease-fire – stymies its efforts to lure the international community back to the capital.

“The Assad regime has not cared about the civilian toll for seven years now, so why should it start caring now?” asks Yahya, noting that the estimated overall death toll of half a million does not include deaths in prison or disappearances.

“With each red line that they cross – each red line put forward first by [President Barack] Obama, and then by the international community – they’re emboldened even further,” adds Yahya.

“No one is standing up to them, no one is pushing back and saying, ‘You can’t do this,’ ” she says. “When you can use chlorine and chemical weapons on civilian populations … you’re not too accountable.”

In the early stages of the bombardment, Syria’s state news agency, SANA, denied any surge in fighting and dismissed such reports as the “lies, deceptions and fabrications” of “terrorists.”

Hundreds wounded daily

The impact is felt on the ground, where the first week of “relentless bombing and shelling” put health-care capacity “in its final throes,” according to the charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF). In the same period, 13 medical facilities fully or partially supported by MSF were struck by bombs.

Repeated calls by MSF and other humanitarian actors “have demonstrably fallen on deaf ears,” the charity said in a Feb. 24 statement.

“Words cannot describe the situation in hospitals,” says Dr. Mohammed Salem, a surgeon in Douma contacted by phone Tuesday.

“Hundreds are injured daily. All civilians. I have not encountered a single fighter for the past 10 days,” says Dr. Salem. “The injuries, their types, I cannot describe the horror.… We have issued thousands of humanitarian appeals, but no one listens.”

During the hours of the Russia-ordered truce, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. local time, says Salem, “we no longer know, is the airport on the ground or the sky, because of the multitude of aircraft in the sky.”

Mr. Putin’s announcement of the daily 5-hour truce “speaks volumes as to the pro-regime’s alliance’s intentions – for them, this is not about humanitarian concern; it is psychological warfare aimed at achieving surrender,” writes Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an analysis this week.

The reported deployment of chemical munitions in Shayfuniya, soon after the Security Council’s cease-fire vote, was the fourth chemical attack in eastern Ghouta in 2018, and the seventh such attack in Syria this year, notes Mr. Lister.

“Russia, Iran and the Assad regime know full-well that the international community will not stop their brutal military campaign, so one should expect violence and death to continue,” wrote Lister. “Diplomatic statements of ‘concern,’ labeling eastern Ghouta as ‘hell on earth,’ or issuing of blank statements by UNICEF … do not influence actors unperturbed by the constraints of international law.”

That scenario has played itself out time and time again, as government forces began making territorial gains, especially after Russian intervention on their side in September 2015. The latest example was the fierce bombardment of rebel enclaves in Aleppo, which saw the evacuation of surviving militants and a high cost in civilian casualties.

'No one keeps their word'

Now that bite is being felt in eastern Ghouta, where Siraj Mahmoud – a worker since 2014 with the White Helmets, who rescue those trapped by bomb attacks – says he has never seen it so bad.

“It is a disappointment that the international community just watches women and children trapped under rubble, praying to stay alive, covered in blood, limbs missing,” says Mr. Mahmoud, contacted by phone. “Yet, nobody cares.… This is clear evidence the Syrian regime has been given the green light to continue its genocide against civilians.”

That is also what it feels like for Nemaat Mohsen, a former Damascus University student who lives in the Sabqa neighborhood of eastern Ghouta. She says people were caught by surprise by the intensity of the latest bombing campaign, and forced into shelters with few mattresses, blankets, or even toilet paper during a period of freezing temperatures.

“Inside, everyone is on edge because the weapons used have been hugely destructive, targeting civilian areas so heavily that it made the front lines look safe,” says Ms. Mohsen, contacted by phone.

Meanwhile, in Noor’s crowded basement shelter, the 30-year-old mother is adept at interpreting the sounds of conflict. She knows the hammering thud of mortars, compared to the screech of incoming rockets – 150 of them last Monday alone, she says. There are helicopters with their deep-thudded barrel bombs, jet fighters and buzzing drones, all of them producing a daily concert that continues well into the night.

“I usually try to lift the spirits of others, but today I can’t even get my own up,” says Noor.

“I have realized that we keep being promised things, but everybody breaks their covenants. No one keeps their word. I only have God to lean and rely on.”

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