Syria’s long war has reached its Srebrenica moment.
The Assad regime and Russia are poised to destroy totally the East Ghouta region just outside Damascus or expel its population of some 400,000, and nothing but the empty words of the United Nations, the United States, and Europe stand in their way.
So, too, 23 years ago, the world sat mostly mute, watching events unfold in and around the small village of Srebrenica in a remote corner of eastern Bosnia. No government was ready to lift a finger to save the population of some 27,000, at least half of them displaced from other areas.
At a critical moment, the United Nations Protection Force decided not to bomb Bosnian Serb forces marching on the town. That was taken as the all-clear for Gen. Radko Mladic to capture Srebrenica, expel the women and children, and exterminate the male population of some 8,000.
The discovery of mass graves just a month after the July 1995 massacre, coming on top of the genocide in Rwanda one year earlier, provoked soul searching in the world community and a chorus of declarations of “Never again.”
Four years later, in 1999, the U.S. led NATO to intervene decisively in Kosovo, averting another bloodbath, and in 2005, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a principle that governments have a “Responsibility to Protect” their citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
But “Never Again” has turned into “Ever Again.”
No government has offered to lift a finger in Eastern Ghouta, whose population is 15 times that of Srebrenica. The United States, which has stationed some 2,000 troops 240 miles to the northeast to fight extremists of the so-called Islamic State, isn’t involved.
“Those aren’t our issues,” said Col. John Thomas, of the U.S. Central Command’s public-affairs office. “CENTCOM has no part in anything in Syria other than defeat of ISIS and some counterterrorism authority,” he told us by email.
Eastern Ghouta, a cluster of small towns just east of the Syrian capital, was a prime target for the regime’s sarin gas attack in August 2013. It has been under near-total siege since October 2013 and intermittent conventional weapons attack ever since. By far the most devastating air attacks began about 10 days ago. Since then, more than 800 civilians have been killed and 1,900 wounded, according to humanitarian aid observers in Ghouta. The number rises daily as rescue workers dig out the dead from under the rubble and as the wounded die for lack of medical care.
Five hospitals were destroyed on Feb. 21 alone. Ten medical aid stations and more than 30 ambulances were also attacked and put out of service. The sole bakery in the town of Misraba was also attacked and destroyed on the first day of the bombing, along with depots of flour and medicine. “This was the biggest bakery in all of Ghouta, and it used to supply all of Ghouta. It was completely put out of service,” Bara’a Abdulrahman, an activist, told The Daily Beast.
What’s so striking about the latest assaults is that Russia has taken the lead role in the devastating airstrikes. From Feb. 21 to 28, there were 1,034 attacks by fixed-wing Russian aircraft and 829 by Syrian fixed-wing aircraft, aircraft observers said. But the 55 to 45 ratio doesn’t fully explain the impact of the Russian airstrikes. By targeting civilian medical facilities, mosques, schools, markets, and other infrastructure, a military can paralyze a population of non-combatants. That’s why such targeting has been outlawed by international conventions.
But Russia’s role is all the more effective because its aircraft and weapons systems are more advanced than Syria’s and pilots better trained. “They fly higher, they are much quieter, their missiles are guided, and they cause huge destruction,” said Yusuf Al Bustani, of the Damaski news agency, an opposition news portal in Eastern Ghouta.
He added that destroying hospitals and medical centers seemed to be “one of the specialties of Russian air pilots.” He blamed Russian aircraft for destroying all the main markets of Ghouta, including the vegetable market. “Hunger is spreading now,” he told The Daily Beast. “Everyone is going hungry now because there is no place to buy food.”
Air to-ground-missiles are only one munition now being hurled at the residents of Ghouta. They’ve also endured a daily barrage of artillery, rockets and mortars fired by the regime and allied Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese militias, as well as and barrel bombs—crude explosives loaded into barrels and pushed out of regime helicopters. Since the beginning of 2018, there were eight alleged attacks using chlorine gas, an industrial chemical that is banned as a weapon of war, local authorities said.
The attacks continued even after the U.N. Security Council last Saturday unanimously called for a 30-day cease-fire.
The U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, claimed Thursday he was not frustrated by the way the Assad regime and Russia—which signed on to the Security Council resolution—have completely ignored it. But, in fact, his frustration was evident: “The U.N. here has not and will not give up in asking for the full implementation of [Resolution] 2401. And we will continue asking until we are red in the face, blue in the face,” he said, mentioning that there has been some shelling by rebel forces, but nothing like that carried out be the regime. One may note, as well, the rebels have no air force.
The onslaught has been so fierce that medical and rescue organizations tending to the wounded are throwing up their hands in anguish. “Our team in Eastern Ghouta don’t know how to react,” said a top official of one rescue agency. “How can they transport the wounded” from a destroyed site “to a safer place? There is no safe location.” The official asked not to identify his organization, which has often been targeted for attack.
Although the total number of civilians killed in February is staggering, it’s just a fraction of the casualties in the region since Syrians took to the streets in 2011 and staged a national uprising against the Assad regime. Some 12,763 civilians, among them 1,463 children, were killed in Eastern Ghouta through last Saturday, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a human-rights monitor often quoted by the U.S. State Department.
One reason that the Russian-Syrian offensive raises the specter of Srebrenica is that two days after joining the U.N. Security Council’s unanimous call last Saturday for a 30-day cease-fire, Russia has now stated a rationale for destroying all the towns of the region. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that Syrian government “operations against terrorists and their allies” are not counter to the cease-fire resolution.
He included HTS, the successor organization to al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra, a U.N.-listed terror group said by locals to have 300 fighters in Eastern Ghouta, as well as two far bigger groups—the Army of Islam (Jaish Al-Islam), believed to have at least 10,000 fighters, and Ahrar al Sham, a once-radical group that now describes itself as moderate Islamist, with several thousand fighters.
In a vain bid to remove any pretext for further Russian and Syrian regime bombing, the three main rebel factions in Eastern Ghouta wrote U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and offered to force HTS, the al Qaeda-linked group, to leave within two weeks. One group threatened unspecified action against HTS if it didn’t.
This isn’t the first time Eastern Ghouta’s military forces have tried to accommodate international demands. Activist Abdulrahman said the Rahman Legion, one of the major rebel groups, opened a center in the city of Hamurya and invited HTS fighters to sign the register and offer to leave. But he said the regime and Russia expressed no interest.
Lavrov’s statement on the same day as the rebel factions’ letter is being viewed by Syrian activists as a rebuff. On Tuesday, the regime or its principal outside backer, Russia, introduced a new weapon, a napalm-like munition that targeted the offices of the local council in the city of Al Shilonya, local officials said. The head of the council, Muhamad Jamous, an engineer, was killed along with five of his colleagues. The bombing continued all week. Another 19 civilians were killed Thursday after Russian and regime aircraft carried out more than 60 airstrikes.
The stage is now set. Russia has shown that it’s not only prepared to violate the U.N. call for the cease-fire, but it’s set out a rationale that allows the violations to continue indefinitely.
Where it will end is now in the hands of the major powers, starting with the United States. But if history is any guide, their silence and inaction will be viewed as a green light by Russia and Syria to continue their attacks on Eastern Ghouta indefinitely.
And when the smoke finally clears amid the rubble and the bodies, we will hear, no doubt, the phrase “never again.”
Roy Gutman, a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast, won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war in Bosnia. He is the author of A Witness to Genocide and How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan, and the co-editor of Crimes of War 2.0: What the Public Should Know.