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Tuesday 20 February 2018

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
  • Organise events and hold vigils on behalf of eastern Ghouta
  • Write articles to submit to your local media.