East Ghouta is experiencing hell on earth. The European Union (EU) called last week for an immediate end to what it described as a “massacre” in the besieged Damascus suburbs, but violence is ongoing.
Hundreds of air strikes, rockets and mortars have rained down nearly every day for the past two weeks in the densely populated area, where at least 390,000 civilians are living under siege without access to basic food and medical supplies. There have been at least 28 attacks on medical facilities and health care professionals. Medical staff at a Syrian American Medical Society-supported facility said doctors treated at least 29 people on March 14 for symptoms of exposure to chlorine gas. At least 30,000 people inside Ghouta have been displaced, and an average of between 50 and 100 civilians have been killed every day.
As the death toll continues to rise, European governments should think twice about their plans to fund reconstruction in Syria and realise their current humanitarian promises are just empty words.
EU countries have long had conflicting positions on Syria. The United Kingdom, France and Germany said they remained committed to supporting humanitarian needs throughout Syria, but would not fund any future rebuilding until the country is on the path of reconciliation, respecting human rights and democracy.
Others envision funding reconstruction now without those guarantees, as their voters are more concerned with issues like immigration, refugees and counterterrorism. Consequently, they are willing to give in to the Syrian regime despite its attacks on civilians in Ghouta, despite its known history of violating human rights and the right of its citizens and despite knowing that the government will manipulate their funds to buy loyalty and advance its authoritarianism.
A large percentage of the Syrian people are living below the poverty line. Handing the financial resources to the current regime will only make Syrians more dependent on it as their only source of food and livelihood.
The Syrian regime has been able to manipulate the UN-Damascus operation to the point where United Nations teams admitted to having been blocked from providing food and medical supplies to Ghouta and other places for many years. Earlier this week, the World Health Organisation said Syrian regime security removed or blocked 70 per cent of the medical supplies from being transported in the convoy that arrived in Ghouta on March 12. This convoy delivered aid sufficient for less than 10 per cent of the population.
Now is not the time to grant this brutal regime more funds. History, voters and the Syrian people will not overlook the EU’s decision.
As president of SAMS, an organisation that operates over 140 medical facilities inside Syria, including 16 in Ghouta, I communicate with doctors in the area almost hourly. Over the past years, we have offered to share the coordinates of our hospitals and a live-stream from inside the facility with many members of the UN Security Council. We hoped one of these countries could protect our hospitals or at least establish an accountability process to investigate the deliberate targeting of these facilities. We only heard silence.
As a result of their inaction, the Syrian Air Force deliberately targets medical facilities. Ambulance drivers report being hunted by aerial drones that bomb them directly or track them until they arrive at hospitals, then bomb them. First responders are thus unable to evacuate patients in time, and some die from treatable injuries. Even if victims make it to the hospital, doctors might not be able to save them, either because it is too late or because four years of siege has left them without the necessary medical supplies.
Last week, I was told that an army general threatened Ghouta residents: “You won’t find a rescuer. And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You’ll be rescued with blood.” I think he spoke the truth.
Where is the international community?
This is another Aleppo unfolding before the eyes of the world. Hospitals are being bombed and medical workers besieged and hunted. Then and now, the eloquent condemnations of mass atrocities were uttered from a number of voices in the international community, without any concrete actions to back them up. Once the majority of hospitals were bombed out of service, more than 250,000 residents were displaced from Aleppo in a week.
I know from the Aleppo experience that words are not enough. The international community’s empty statements show only lack of political will. Once again, I plead with the international community — on behalf of the humanitarian workers of Ghouta — to turn words into action by stopping the air strikes, sanctioning the attackers and taking any reconstruction funds off the table until the war stops and civil society is empowered to implement the principles of peace and human rights.
— Worldcrunch, 2018/New York Times News Service
Ahmad Tarakji is the president of the Syrian American Medical Society.