Millennium Post

Syrian apocalypse

"We are standing before the massacre of the 21st century. If the massacre of the 1990s was Srebrenica and the massacres of the 1980s were Halabja and Sabra and Shatila, the Eastern Ghouta is the massacre of this century," the Independent newspaper quoted a doctor as summing up the situation in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region. Eastern Ghouta is one of the last rebel-held enclaves bordering Syrian capital Damascus that is being pounded by air raids, rockets and shells by President Basher al-Assad and his allies' troops.

An estimated 4,00,000 people – about half of them children – are trapped in the region which is under intense attacks by Assad's troops, considered as the most devastating air campaigns of the nearly seven-year-old civil war in Syria. Many of the bombing raids have targeted medical buildings and doctors in the remaining facilities are struggling to keep up with the stream of severely injured patients
Bombings, starvation, deaths and severe injuries are visible in the disturbing photos and footage being shared online. Human tragedy can be gauged from the fact that there are a large number of babies under the age of six months lacking formula, whose mothers are unable to breastfeed them. Nearly 700 people, mostly women and children, have been killed since the offensive was launched in mid-February.
Aid workers said that the latest violence in the area, where 1,300 people had died in 2013 after the Assad regime deployed Sarin gas, is using indiscriminate barrel bombs. The territorial demise of the IS has encouraged Assad to focus on the final pockets of resistance to his regime.
Increased attacks have severely damaged the region's already strained medical infrastructure. Doctors Without Borders said that at least 13 hospitals and medical clinics that it supports in Eastern Ghouta have been damaged or destroyed.
Doctors and medical activists from around the world called for an end to the violence, urging for protection for the civilians and greater action from the UN, in a joint appeal published in the Lancet.
By launching the offensive, President Assad has demonstrated once again that he hardly cares for the lives of his own people.
A five-hour truce daily, declared by Russia supporting the Assad regime, on February 27, failed to halt one of the most devastating campaigns of the Syrian war. Both Moscow and Damascus blamed the rebels for the collapse of the truce saying that the fighters had shelled a safe route intended for civilians to leave the enclave, a charge denied by the insurgents. The United Nations has also expressed its helplessness to provide aid to the civilians or evacuate the wounded while insisting that all sides must abide by a full 30-day ceasefire demanded by the UN Security Council.
Residents of Ghouta were among the first to protest President Assad's rule in 2011 as a part of the Arab Spring. The area was taken over by the rebels a year later as the unrest turned into an armed insurgency and subsequently led to a full-blown civil war. The government laid a partial siege to the enclave in 2013, the year in which a Sarin gas attack killed thousands there. Since mid-2017 the government is in complete control of areas around the enclave.
Assad wants complete recapture and restoration of his government's rule all over the country. He is strongly backed by Russia and is also supported by Iran and its allied militias such as Hezbollah from Lebanon.
The rebels are backed by the US and its NATO allies, as well as the Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia. The prominent militant groups that are active include Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam, the Qatar-funded Faylaq al-Rahman, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian branch of the al-Qaeda. The government says that the region is occupied by terrorists from these groups who are using civilians as human shields. The militants in the enclave and the jihadist elements amongst them have repeatedly shelled the government-controlled neighbourhoods in Damascus.
In other words, Syria has become a set of interlocking proxy wars between the superpowers – the US and Russia, and between the shifting alliances of the regional powers Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. With the exception of the Kurds, each and every faction at war in the country has its links to one of these, sometimes switching sides, with a supply of arms and ammunition and money.
Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Gulf countries have been very close allies of the United States while Syria has maintained its independence. In fact, the US military has been directly involved for more than five years or so in an attempt to dislodge Assad's regime.
Syria has also been historically a strong opponent of Israel, a close ally of the US in the region, with which it shares a border. Israel has been in occupation of Golan Heights, a part of Syria, since 1967, after a six-day war between the two countries.
With the situation worsening, the international community should make concerted efforts to see that civilian casualties are minimised. It would be unconscionable for the world to stand idle. Pressure should be mounted on the US and its allies to withdraw their armed forces from Syria and stop supporting terrorist groups in the country.
Also, a political deal between Assad and the rebels to end the conflict is crucial. The longer the international community allows the situation to continue, the more complicit it becomes to the sufferings of the Syrian civilians who are facing the brunt of the fighting. To end the attack on the civilians, the war must end and foreign intervention in the country must stop.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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