Syria: Humanitarian Disaster in eastern Gouta under Russian-Assad airstrikes and shelling

 Who will help us?

My staff are trying to save lives in the rubble of Ghouta. Who will help us?

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been abandoned to starvation and bombing. How dare the world turn its face away

As Syrians, we have experienced death in so many more ways than we ever dared to imagine: we have been killed by barrel bombs, chemical weapons, starvation, drowning, torture, napalm and cluster munitions. This month, in eastern Ghouta, another encounter with death was added to the list: a mother’s corpse dug from under the rubble by her own son, a White Helmet volunteer.

The situation in Ghouta would break any heart. Some in the international community have run out of words and have stopped describing the horror. But the suffering of my people compels me to speak in direct terms: the world has left hundreds of thousands of civilians to starve or be bombed to death by the Syrian regime and its allies.

This is eastern Ghouta, where hundreds are being killed and injured by Assad’s forces
Ghouta has endured a barbaric siege for five years, cut off from food and medicine, but nothing has prepared us for the past 48 hours. Dozens of barrel bombs – improvised weapons filled with explosives, shrapnel and anything that will rip through skin – have been dropped on homes. Hundreds of missiles have been fired. Eight hospitals have been struck. More than 250 people have been killed and the death toll is rising by the hour. Thousands have been injured. All of this in an area of a little over 40 square miles.

Families in eastern Ghouta have been hiding in basements for weeks at a time, too scared to go above ground, but even these makeshift shelters are being shattered by relentless bombardment.

White Helmet rescuers in Ghouta are facing hell: they’ve left their families, often without the basic necessities, to rescue others. Some have returned to find their families had been forced to flee. White Helmet teams were targeted while on a rescue mission, and a volunteer was killed. This is not a war: this is a massacre.

The deteriorating situation across the country is stretching the White Helmets like never before. We have lost nine volunteers since the start of the year and more than 50 have been injured. The attacks on our centres and missions have destroyed much of our life-saving equipment and ambulances, making the work of saving lives much more difficult. My medical colleagues are suffering the same strain.

In our work, we have saved more than 100,000 lives over the past four years, often by carrying civilians in our arms to the safest place we can find. In eastern Ghouta, nowhere is safe and there is no escape. All we can do is rescue people from immediate danger and hope and pray that the hospital or home where we leave them is not struck immediately. Can you imagine making such decisions, with jets overhead?

All this is happening only a 20-minute drive from Damascus, from UN headquarters and the palace of Bashar al-Assad; a few hours on a plane to Geneva, where “peace talks” are happening. But as you look at the pictures of dust-covered people emerging from rubble or kids screaming out in pain, it could be another planet – one where the worst of humanity is in charge. For we have never seen anything like this before in this world.

I am a Syrian humanitarian, not a politician, so forgive me if I appear naive when I fail to believe that the world’s most powerful countries cannot protect children from waking up tomorrow in the rubble of their homes, their parents nowhere to be found. The Syrian people hold international leaders responsible for failing to prevent their suffering, and demand that they use all measures available to stop the aerial attacks, break the siege and immediately evacuate the hundreds of people in need of urgent medical attention. The White Helmets’ motto is: “To save a life is to save all of humanity.” I ask those who can to join us in our mission.

Raed Al Saleh

• Raed Al Saleh is the head of the Syria Civil Defence or White Helmets

* Thu 22 Feb 2018 11.36 GMT Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 11.54 GMT:

 ’It’s not a war. It’s a massacre’: scores killed in Syrian enclave

Aid groups warn situation in eastern Ghouta could unfold into worst atrocity of war so far

Almost 200 civilians have been killed in dozens of airstrikes and shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in eastern Ghouta over two days of “hysterical violence”, which has led to warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe that could eclipse past atrocities in the seven-year war.

The surge in the killing in the besieged region came amid reports of an impending regime incursion into the area outside Damascus, which is home to 400,000 civilians. More than 700 people have been killed in three months, according to local counts, not including the deaths in the last week.

This is eastern Ghouta, where hundreds are being killed and injured by Assad’s forces
Amnesty International said “flagrant war crimes” were being committed in eastern Ghouta on an “epic scale.”

Diana Semaan, the charity’s Syria researcher, said: “People have not only been suffering a cruel siege for the past six years, they are now trapped in a daily barrage of attacks that are deliberately killing and maiming them, and that constitute flagrant war crimes.”

Seven hospitals have also been bombed since Monday morning in eastern Ghouta, which was once the breadbasket of Damascus but has been under siege for years by the Assad government and subjected to devastating chemical attacks. Two hospitals suspended operations and one has been put out of service.

“We are standing before the massacre of the 21st century,” said a doctor in eastern Ghouta. “If the massacre of the 1990s was Srebrenica, and the massacres of the 1980s were Halabja and Sabra and Shatila, then eastern Ghouta is the massacre of this century right now.”

He added: “A little while ago a child came to me who was blue in the face and barely breathing, his mouth filled with sand. I emptied it with my hands. I don’t think they had what we do in any of the medical textbooks. A wounded child breathing with lungs of sand. You get a child, a year old, that they saved from the rubble and is breathing sand, and you don’t know who he is.

“All these humanitarian and rights organisations, all that is nonsense. So is terrorism. What is a greater terrorism than killing civilians with all sorts of weapons? Is this a war? It’s not a war. It’s called a massacre.”

The Syrian civil defense, a search and rescue organisation, said 61 people were killed on Tuesday alone, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said 194 people had died in the last 48 hours– a toll that encapsulated the unbridled violence of the war in Syria. After seven years and interventions by regional and global powers, the humanitarian crisis has heightened instead of abating, as forces loyal to Assad’s regime and his Russian and Iranian backers seek an outright military victory instead of a negotiated political settlement.

Exact death tolls were difficult to obtain owing to ongoing rescue operations and because some families buried their dead without taking them to local hospitals.

Rebel groups responded with a wave of artillery bombardment targeting Damascus, killing 12 people and wounding 50 in government-controlled areas, according to the Observatory.

Aid workers said the latest violence in eastern Ghouta, where 1,300 people died in 2013 after the Assad regime deployed sarin gas, has included the use of notorious barrel bombs. The weapons are so inaccurate that their use is seen as a war crime by human rights watchdogs. The regime has also used fighter jets and artillery bombardment, on top of the punishing siege.

“The situation in eastern Ghouta is akin to the day of judgment,” said Mounir Mustafa, the deputy director of the White Helmets, the volunteer group that rescues people from under the rubble of bombed buildings.

The White Helmets said one of its volunteers, Firas Juma, died on Monday while responding to a bombing.

In Geneva, the UN children’s fund issued a blank “statement” to express its outrage at the casualties among Syrian children, saying it had run out of words.

Medical organisations said at least five clinics and hospitals, including a maternity centre, were bombed on Monday, some of them multiple times. An anaesthetist was killed in the attacks. Another two facilities were hit on Tuesday.

“The bombing was hysterical,” said Ahmed al-Dbis, a security official at the Union of Medical and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), which runs dozens of hospitals in areas controlled by the opposition in Syria. “It is a humanitarian catastrophe in every sense of the word. The mass killing of people who do not have the most basic tenets of life.”

Mark Schnellbaecher, the Middle East director for the International Rescue Committee, said: “Once again we are seeing civilians in Syria being killed indiscriminately. Once again we are seeing medical facilities attacked. We have long feared eastern Ghouta will see a repeat of the terrible scenes observed by the world during the fall of east Aleppo and these fears seem to be well founded.”

Sonia Khush, an official with Save the Children, described the situation as “absolutely abhorrent.”

“The bombing has been relentless, and children are dying by the hour,” she said. “These families have nowhere left to run – they are boxed in and being pounded day and night.”

Elsewhere in Syria on Tuesday, pro-government fighters started entering the northern Kurdish enclave of Afrin, where Turkish troops have been on the offensive for a month. The development came a day after Turkey said it would hit back at the troops if their goal was to protect the Kurdish fighters.

Syrian state media said Turkish troops fired on the pro-government militiamen, a development that risks widening an already complicated war.

Kareem Shaheen in Istanbul

* Tue 20 Feb 2018 17.19 GMT First published on Tue 20 Feb 2018 09.33 GMT:

 Russia threatens to turn Eastern Ghouta into another Aleppo

UPDATE: The death toll for East Ghouta for February 19th and 20th now stands at 250

Yesterday, Russia and the regime killed 97 people and injured over 500 people in east Ghouta, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM). Not a single town in this small rebel-held enclave was spared bombardment and five hospitals were damaged and put out of service by the attacks. One of these, the Al-Marj Hospital was completely destroyed by three barrel bombs.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, stated that Russia could “deploy our experience… of freeing Aleppo in the eastern Ghouta situation.” The east Ghouta area, which is home to roughly 400,000 people, is the last opposition-held area in the environs of Damascus. Other areas previously held by the opposition around the capital, such as Daraya and Wadi Barada, have either surrendered and been cleared of their inhabitants or have entered into “reconciliation agreements” giving the regime total control of their affairs.

The CEO of UOSSM, Dr. Zedoun Al-Zoabi described the attack as “one of the worst attacks in Syrian history, even worse than the siege on Aleppo.” As the attack which targeted homes, hospitals, civil defence workers, and any building which may be used to store food supplies show, Lavrov’s threat to “free” east Ghouta is not an idle one. The Russian and regime capture of eastern Aleppo at the end of 2016 saw dozens of people killed in airstrikes and massacres, the bombing of every single hospital in the city, and the forced displacement of tens of thousands of people. At the time Russia and the regime used the presence of a small number of fighters from the formerly Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front (today known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) as a pretext for their attack on east Aleppo, even though there were only a few hundred fighters from this group in the city out of approximately 10,000 fighters overall.

Dead bodies of civilians at the morgue of a field hospital in the town of Hamouriya in eastern Ghouta on February 19th. At least 97 civilians were killed in yesterday’s airstrikes. (Photo by Abdul Moyeen Homs / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

Russia has once again used the presence of the Al-Nusra Front as a pretext for the latest attack on east Ghouta, saying that Al-Nusra was using the civilians there “as a human shield”. In fact, it is doubtful today whether there is any armed Al-Nusra presence in Ghouta at all. The two largest rebel groups in East Ghouta are Jaish al-Islam (the Army of Islam) and Failaq al-Rahman (the Brigade of the Merciful). In May last year Jaysh al-Islam signed up to a de-escalation agreement guaranteed by Russia and Failaq al-Rahman followed suit in August. This agreement was supposed to put an end to attacks on the rebel-held enclave and guarantee food, medical supplies, and where necessary, medical evacuations, for its inhabitants. Since September, however, Ghouta has been under attack by the regime and the five year siege on the area has been tightened to the point where child malnutrition rates became “the highest seen so far in Syria since the beginning of the crisis” as the World Health Organisation representative to Syria, Elizabeth Hoff, said on December 6th of last year.

Following the de-escalation agreement, the other rebel groups in East Ghouta became exceedingly hostile to the Al-Nusra Front’s presence in the area. Beginning in May of last year Jaysh al-Islam began attacking Al-Nusra Front fighters in East Ghouta, killing approximately 40 and arresting 150. The Nusra Front lost 70% of its equipment and ammunition as a result of these clashes. There were also several popular demonstrations in the area calling for the Al-Nusra Front to leave and posters were placed on mosques calling for fighters from the group to register in preparation for departure from the area. In November, Jaysh al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman started negotiating with Russia for the departure of the remaining Al-Nusra Front fighters. These negotiations were not completed however, and Syrian observers speculated that the Assad regime did not want the Nusra Front to leave Ghouta because that would mean the loss of its last pretext to attack east Ghouta.

The real reason for the current escalation probably has much more to do with what happened at the failed Russian-sponsored Sochi peace conference. The Syrian opposition boycotted this conference on the grounds that attendance would amount to accepting the regime and Russia’s terms for the future of Syria. An ominous response came from the Facebook account of the Russian Hemeimim military base in Syria, saying that the opposition’s refusal was not in its interests and “would have consequences on the ground”.

While Lavrov wants to repeat the experience of Aleppo in east Ghouta, and there is a real danger of this taking place on the ground, the situation there differs from the one that existed in Aleppo in important aspects. The safety of Ghouta was guaranteed by an agreement to which both Russia and the two main rebel groups in the area are signatories. One of the other so-called de-escalation areas, Idlib province, is also being attacked and the regime has threatened to attack another, northern Homs province, and expel its inhabitants to Idlib. The attack on Ghouta and the siege which the area has been subjected to in the preceding months has underlined just how meaningless the de-escalation agreements are. As a Syrian radio presenter pointed out last week, what is the worth of an agreement “where the guarantor is the criminal?”

When the people of eastern Aleppo were forced out of their city, they took refuge in nearby opposition-held areas—the rural western areas of Aleppo province and Idlib province. Today the 400,000 people of Ghouta have literally nowhere to go. Idlib province, which was used as a dumping ground last year for people from opposition-held areas which the regime overran, is now overcrowded and itself under attack. It is very difficult to imagine what fate Russia and the regime have in mind for the people of eastern Ghouta beyond more massacres and more siege-induced starvation. The fact that Russia can get away with being both the guarantor and the criminal is the result of the international community letting it take the lead in Syria and looking the other way while it massacres civilians.


• Join the global advocacy campaign on social media #BreakGhoutaSiege & #SaveEastGhouta

• Call, write and meet your local and national political leaders. Find out who your MP is and how to contact them here:

• Organise events and hold vigils on behalf of eastern Ghouta

• Call the Russian embassy in your country and tell them exactly what you think of what they are doing in Ghouta – contact info and further details here:

• Write articles to submit to your local media.

• Donate to UOSSM to support their life-saving work in Ghouta:


* SyriaUK is a network of activists committed to solidarity with the Syrian Revolution.


 UN agencies have the power to deliver aid to Eastern Ghouta NOW

The UN is failing Syria’s civilians.

After months of waiting, this UN convoy only had 1 month of food for 1 out of every 50 people.

While UN airdrops fed 100,000 people in Deir Ezzor for 1½ years, the UN has never once dropped aid to besieged Eastern Ghouta.

Drop aid now.

On 14 February, a UN and Syrian Red Crescent humanitarian aid convoy took food for 7,200 civilians for one month to Al-Nishabieh in besieged Eastern Ghouta. It was the first UN aid convoy to Eastern Ghouta since November. There are about 400,000 people trapped in Eastern Ghouta. This aid delivery was a drop in an ocean of need.

Medical supplies such as painkillers were included in Wednesday’s convoy, but medications needed to treat chronic illnesses were not, local council member Abu Saleh told Syria Direct.

UN OCHA tweeted: ‘If Nashabiyeh East Ghouta is a sample of communities in need, then the situation is far graver than imagined.’

According to OCHA’s report, ‘in Nashabieh, the UN technical team of the World Food Programme, UNICEF and the World Health Organization found a tired and exhausted population following long months of isolation. Families are forced to skip meals, some only having one meal a day. A young ailing girl informed the team she has been eating yogurt and nothing else.’

Jakob Kern, Country Director of the UN’s World Food Programme in Syria, tweeted: ‘We need much more such convoys. Fighting has to stop to deliver much needed aid to all civilians in need.’

The day before, 13 February, Jakob Kern tweeted impressions from the World Food Programme’s team in Deir Ezzor: ‘Abu Sufian told WFP: “Your airdrops kept us alive. We had at least some food to keep us going during the siege.”’

The UN successfully airdropped enough food and medical aid to besieged Deir Ezzor to sustain as many as 100,000 people for a year and a half.

In that time, the UN’s World Food Programme completed 309 airdrops of food and medical aid.

There have been ZERO aid airdrops to Eastern Ghouta.

UN agencies were given a mandate to plan aid airdrops to all besieged areas by the International Syria Support Group in June 2016. Today’s starvation in Eastern Ghouta is in part the result of a dereliction of duty by UN officials who didn’t want to rock the boat.

Eastern Ghouta was an agricultural area before the war. Space is available for drop zones.

Whether by road or air, UNSC resolutions empower UN agencies to deliver aid cross-line WITHOUT Assad regime permission.

Load the trucks. Drive them to the checkpoints in front of the cameras of the world’s media.

Load the planes. If necessary use JPADS remote-guided parachutes as in Deir Ezzor. Drop aid NOW.

What legal power do UN agencies have to deliver aid inside Syria?

UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorised to use routes across conflict lines in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance, including medical and surgical supplies, reaches people in need throughout Syria through the most direct routes, with notification to the Syrian authorities.

This means that Syrian authorities, upon receipt of notification, do not have a legal right to stop UN agencies delivering humanitarian assistance across conflict lines.

UN agencies have a legal right to declare that they are going to deliver aid to Eastern Ghouta, and the Assad regime then has no right to stop them.

Here is how that is set out in UN Security Council resolutions:

On 19 December 2017, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2393 renewing legal authorisation for cross-border and cross-line humanitarian access in Syria by UN agencies. The details of the authorisation are set out in paragraphs 2 and 3 of the earlier UN Security Council Resolution 2165 (adopted 14 July 2014).

Paragraph 2 of Resolution 2393 states that the Security Council:

2. Decides to renew the decisions in paragraphs 2 and 3 of Security Council resolution 2165 (2014) for a further period of twelve months, that is, until 10 January 2019;

And those paragraphs 2 and 3 of Resolution 2165 state that the Security Council:

2. Decides that the United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorized to use routes across conflict lines and the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha, in addition to those already in use, in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance, including medical and surgical supplies, reaches people in need throughout Syria through the most direct routes, with notification to the Syrian authorities, and to this end stresses the need for all border crossings to be used efficiently for United Nations humanitarian operations;

3. Decides to establish a monitoring mechanism, under the authority of the United Nations Secretary-General, to monitor, with the consent of the relevant neighbouring countries of Syria, the loading of all humanitarian relief consignments of the United Nations humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners at the relevant United Nations facilities, and any subsequent opening of the consignments by the customs authorities of the relevant neighbouring countries, for passage into Syria across the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha, and with notification by the United Nations to the Syrian authorities, in order to confirm the humanitarian nature of these relief consignments.


* SyriaUK is a network of activists committed to solidarity with the Syrian Revolution.


 ’The hospitals are overflowing with blood’: Doctors struggle to cope in Eastern Ghouta

Nearly 300 people have been killed in attacks on besieged enclave that doctors say are targeting civilians and hospitals

Doctors in Eastern Ghouta are struggling to keep up with an influx of patients injured by the Syrian government offensive that they say is targeting civilians and hospitals.

Nearly 300 people have been killed and 1,400 wounded since the attacks on the only rebel-held area near Damascus started earlier this week. On Wednesday morning, 24 people died in government strikes, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Late on Wednesday, Russia UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called on the UN Security Council to meet on Thursday to discuss the situation.

“This is necessary given the concern that we’ve heard today in order to make sure that all parties can present their vision, their understanding of this situation and come up with a ways of getting out of this situation,” Nebenzia said.

In addition to air strikes and shelling, rescue workers and residents told MEE that the government has been dropping barrel bombs on residential neighbourhoods, accounts backed up by images posted on social media.

When the regime attacks a shelter, it becomes overwhelming because we are dealing with 15-20 people all at once

- Dr Malik
Amid the targeted strikes and already depleted medical supplies after a four-year siege, medics say the situation is becoming untenable.

“We don’t have enough ambulances left to ferry the injured, meaning many people die before they reach us,” Dr Malik told MEE. He and one other doctor who spoke to MEE declined to give their last name out of concern for their safety.

“The hospitals have been overflowing with blood. We are doing what we can to help, but the situation is becoming unbearable.”

Medicine Without Borders reported on Wednesday that 13 facilities it supports inside Eastern Ghouta have been bombed since Monday; Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), another medical NGO, said that eight facilities it assists were hit. It was not immediately clear if there was overlap between the facilities.

PHR called the attacks “blatant war crimes” that have become “an everyday feature” in the war.

Ten operations in one day

Dr Malik and other physicians say the attacks on facilities have only compounded an already impossible job.

“When the regime attacks a shelter, it becomes overwhelming because we are dealing with 15-20 people all at once,” said Dr Malik.

When the regime attacks a shelter, it becomes overwhelming because we are dealing with 15-20 people all at once

- Dr Malik

“No matter if they are family or friends, as doctors, we have to continue our work to save as many lives as possible. Saving a single life is a massive achievement for us.”

Dr Mohammed Salem, the coordinator of primary care in the Directorate of Health of Damascus and a local surgeon, said now that most of the equipment has been destroyed, conditions in the hospitals still open are very primitive.

We are underground. We don’t have equipment or electricity

- Dr Mohammed Salem
“We are underground. We don’t have equipment or electricity,” he said.

Dr Rida, who is also treating patients in the area, told MEE that medical teams have been working at “full capacity”.

“On Tuesday, I did 10 operations. One of the cases involved me having to amputate someone’s leg,” said Rida.

“The main target from what we have seen are civilians. This bombardment is a tactic being used to silence the revolution.”

’This madness has to stop’

Several UN agencies condemned the latest escalation in violence on Tuesday as the Syrian government continued to pummel the rebel enclave.

Russia, which has propped up Assad’s government since 2015, claimed rebels had wounded four people on Wednesday with mortar bombs, and six were killed on Tuesday.

“Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta,” said Russia’s defence ministry on Tuesday.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday described as “groundless” accusations that Russia bears some of the blame for civilian deaths in Eastern Ghouta.

About 400,000 people still live under siege in the enclave, including hundreds in urgent need of medical care outside the enclave.

Valerie Szybala, executive director of the Washington-based Syria Institute, said that this is the “first time” barrel bombs have been used to such a degree in Eastern Ghouta.

Everyone is depleted both physically and militarily

- Valerie Szybala, Syria Institute
“One of the main reasons they haven’t used barrel bombs much in Ghouta until now is because the rebels were able to take down helicopters,” Szybala told MEE.

“But now, thanks to the siege, everyone is depleted both physically and militarily.”

Aid groups have said their assistance can no longer reach those in need due to the heavy bombardment and have warned of an unfolding catastrophe.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Wednesday for humanitarian access to Ghouta, especially to reach wounded people in critical need of treatment.

“The fighting appears likely to cause much more suffering in the days and weeks ahead,” said Marianne Gasser, ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria. “This is madness and it has to stop.”

’This is preliminary bombing’

A commander in forces fighting Assad’s government told the Reuters news agency that the bombing aimed to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern areas of Damascus with mortar bombs.

“The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing,” the commander said.

Another commander, Suheil al-Hassan, in a video said: “I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire.”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.”

Areeb Ullah

* Middle East Eye

. Wednesday 21 February 2018 14:45 UTC. Last update: Thursday 22 February 2018 9:42 UTC:

No specific license (default rights)