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.
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.”
Where is it and why is it important?
Eastern Ghouta is a rebel-held enclave that borders the city of Damascus. Once a breadbasket of the Syrian capital, since 2013 it has been under a siege that has tightened severely over the last year. In 2013 the area was targeted in a chemical attack by the Syrian regime that killed more than a thousand civilians and nearly prompted a US intervention in the war.
Who controls it?
The enclave is controlled by a mix of rebel groups dominated by the Islamist leaning Jaysh al-Islam, though the day-to-day affairs of the towns in the area are run by local civilian councils.
How bad is the humanitarian situation?
The situation is catastrophic for the 400,000 civilians who still live in Eastern Ghouta. Prices for basic foodstuffs have skyrocketed and medical supplies are mostly absent because of the siege. Treating the injured is especially difficult because of the repeated bombing of hospitals and clinics.
An estimated 700 civilians have been killed in the area in the last three months alone, not including those killed over the last week of escalation.
The first aid convoy to the region in months arrived a week ago but did not do much to alleviate the suffering.
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.