Even if you do not follow Syria closely, you might have come across an article or a picture about a place called Ghouta. So what exactly is happening?
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 403 civilians, including 150 children, were killed in Ghouta between February 18 and 23. More than 2,100 were injured. Twenty-two hospitals and makeshift clinics have been targeted, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), and according to Médecins Sans Frontières, 13 of the hospitals they have supported in Ghouta have been knocked out of service. Only three medical facilities are left.
Today people are hiding in basements to protect themselves from bombardment, but even underground they are not safe. According to SAMS, the government and its Russian ally have been using so-called “bunker busters,” which can destroy underground shelters. One mother, Ward Martin, said in a post on social media that each basement shelter has more than 200 people in it—and they have no electricity or heat. She described crouching in the darkness, hearing the sounds of people praying. “Me and my children haven’t eaten for three days,” she said. “Some women are miscarrying from fear.”
Where is the international community?
The end of the Syrian civil war is apparently not on anyone’s agenda. The United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, saying, “We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage,” issued a blank statement—yet another sign of the international community’s failure.
What is happening today in Ghouta is not new, but the bombing hasn’t been this intense in years. This 100-square-kilometer suburb shelters more than 400,000 civilians, most of whom fled there from other parts of Damascus. Only some 100 doctors remain in Ghouta, and since the government siege began in 2013, more than 2,000 people have died. Meanwhile, evacuation for the injured is limited. In August 2017, four children died waiting for permission to be evacuated. Food is scarce, and too expensive for many to afford. Men allied with the regime bring food into the besieged suburb to sell at exorbitant prices. According to a SAMS report from last fall, a dozen eggs costs 4,000 Syrian pounds ($8), and a liter of gasoline costs a little over 6,000. The average monthly salary in Syria is 30,000.
Despite all the carnage, there are still voices in the Syrian government media defending this brutal military campaign against civilians, which has been aided by Russian air forces. One recent report claims that the only reason civilians are being killed is that jihadists use them as human shields. This is the same argument we hear every time Israel carries out an assault on besieged Gaza.
Some of these voices have gone even further; Syrian state TV is claiming that videos of children being rescued from the rubbles are fake, staged somewhere outside the country in order to strengthen demands for regime change.
The fact is that when Syrians joined the Arab Spring in 2011, they had every reason to do so. The country has been ruled by the Assad family since 1970, when Hafez al-Assad seized power in a military coup. Thousands of journalists and academics have disappeared in jails, both before and after the 2011 protests, for criticizing the government. When the uprising began, Syrian demonstrators were cut down with live ammunition, and thousands of activists have disappeared. Ghouta and Douma in particular were known for their brave activist councils, which gave a prominent role to women.
But what about the jihadis?
Ghouta, like any other rebel-held area in Syria today, has extremist groups—Jaysh al-Islam, for example. Many activists in Syria who protested the regime were also targeted by Jaysh al-Islam for speaking out against the group. Human-rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh was abducted in 2013 with four of her colleagues after reporting on atrocities caused by this Islamist group. Like many Syrian activists, Zaitouneh showed that one does not need to choose between standing against the regime and the Salafist groups fighting it. One can fight both, and this is what the people of Ghouta have done.
So what can we do?
Calling for the protection of civilians on both sides of the conflict is crucial. Whether or not you support the Syrian opposition, whether or not you support Bashar al-Assad, one simple thing that should never be debated is the sanctity of civilian life, and the fact that collective punishment is always wrong. We should show solidarity with all civilians, on all sides of the conflict. The people who were unable to flee the country are paying the highest price in this war.
The Syrian and Russian governments have been dropping leaflets on Ghouta instructing the civilians to leave via “safe corridors” that do not exist. The sole purpose of these leaflets is to validate the government’s attacks on civilians. They do not offer a practical way for people to escape the five-year siege. A small number of critically injured patients were allowed to leave Ghouta recently, but only after lengthy negotiations, during which the Syrian government used the patients as bargaining chips in its talks with Jaysh al-Islam. If civilians on the verge of death have not been allowed simply to leave, why should civilians believe in the government’s so-called humanitarian corridors?
On the other hand, the atrocities being committed by the Syrian government in Ghouta should not preclude us from calling for accountability for all human-rights violators. Jaysh al-Islam rockets have killed at least five civilians and wounded 20 in government areas since last week. While this pales in comparison to the 350 killed in Ghouta, it is still unacceptable. The crimes of Jaysh al-Islam are well documented, and we should stand in solidarity with the Syrian revolutionaries they hold hostage. This does not mean we need to support the air force flattening the area.