London: With every child who dies, with every act of brutality that goes unpunished, eastern Ghouta more closely resembles what Kofi Annan once called the worst crime committed on European soil since 1945. Eastern Ghouta is turning into Syria’s Srebrenica. Intense Syrian regime shelling and air strikes on the Damascus suburb killed 100 people in what was the deadliest day in the area in three years, a monitoring group and paramedics said Tuesday.
Like the Bosnian Muslim enclave in 1995, eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, has been besieged by regime forces since the early stages of the Syrian war. Years of attrition have failed to dislodge rebel factions that control it.
As was the case in Srebrenica, food supplies, aid and medical assistance have been cut off. In 1993, the UN designated Srebrenica a “safe area”. Last year, as part of Moscow’s abortive Astana peace process, the Russians declared eastern Ghouta a “de-escalation zone”.
To no avail. As in Bosnia, nobody attempted to protect the civilian population when a regime offensive began there in December after negotiations failed. The air strikes and bombardments now taking a terrible toll are carried out with impunity by Syrian forces and their Russian backers.
The UN has almost begged the pro-Bashar Al Assad coalition, which includes Iranian-led militias, to agree to an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. Its appeals have been ignored. Relief agencies’ pleas for access have also gone unanswered. The regime sent more than 260 rockets crashing into the enclave on Sunday.
The attention of the big powers – the US and Russia – and regional actors such as Turkey, is focused instead on a grand strategic game played over the corpses of half a million Syrians. Their eyes are on future control of a country in effect partitioned into zones of influence.
For the Trump administration, this means curbing Iran’s supposed ambitions to create a “land bridge” to the Mediterranean, or a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Herat in Afghanistan to the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. For the Turks, it is all about crushing the Kurds. For Vladimir Putin, it is about power.
But for the residents of eastern Ghouta, it is about survival. Record numbers have died in the past 36 hours in an area where the overall death toll since 2011, when the war began, runs into uncounted thousands. And there is no escape.
The violence is relentless and unbearably cruel.
In Srebrenica, about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in a few days. Between 25,000 and 30,000 Bosniak women, children and elderly people were subject to forcible displacement and abuse. The international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia later decreed that these crimes constituted genocide.
At the time, the world stood back and watched as General Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb army and Scorpion paramilitaries closed in, over-running Dutch peacekeepers. The international community knew full well what Mladic might do, that a massacre was imminent. It looked the other way .
The agony of eastern Ghouta, already infamous as the scene of a 2013 chemical weapons attack using sarin gas, is slower but similarly ignored. Once again civilians, including large numbers of children, are being killed. Once again, the western powers, with forces deployed in the country, refuse to intervene. Once again, the UN is helpless, the security council rendered impotent by Russian vetoes.
“This could be one of the worst attacks in Syrian history, even worse than the siege on Aleppo ... To systematically target and kill civilians amounts to a war crime and the international community must act to stop it,” said Zaidoun Al Zoabi of the independent Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations .
But for now at least, Al Assad - like Mladic in 1995 - appears to be impervious to reason or outside pressure. The evidence implicating Al Assad in war crimes and crimes against humanity is plentiful. So far no charges have been brought, and he carries on regardless.
Today, in eastern Ghouta, like Srebrenica in 1995, vile crimes that could constitute genocide are being committed. In November, Mladic was finally convicted of genocide in The Hague. That took 22 years. How many more children will die before justice is served in Syria?
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