If one thing typifies the Syrian civil war and all its quotidian brutality, it is the prevalence of siege tactics. Like the war, sieges are protracted and grinding. They are more brutal than other forms of fighting, aping civil conflicts. And, as in sieges, in Syria the most horrific crimes can occur out of sight of the rest of the world, likely out of mind.
Syria has seen many sieges during the last seven years. They are tracked by Siege Watch, an organisation monitoring dozens of sieges and areas experiencing siege-like conditions across the country. Many of these sieges are hard; the conditions faced by those trapped seem almost beyond endurance.
In eastern Aleppo, besieged by the regime and its allies before being brutally conquered in late 2016, civilians went without food while bombs fell incessantly. When the siege ended in defeat for local rebels, civilians were summarily executed by advancing regime forces and allied militias.
What is happening in East Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus under insurgent control, is comparable to the denouement of the battle for Aleppo. East Ghouta, which has an estimated civilian population of 400,000, has been under siege by regime forces and allies since 2012.
In October last year, conditions in East Ghouta deteriorated. Many civilians, including children, were at risk of malnutrition and starvation. Things did not get better. In the past week, they have got a great deal worse. An aid convoy, which brought enough food for just 7,200 people, arrived in East Ghouta a week ago. At the time, there were estimated to be 700 patients within East Ghouta who required medical evacuation.
The bombs fell irregularly and were briefly stopped by Israeli strikes last week. But the aerial campaign against Syria’s civilians has ground on. In East Ghouta alone, the death toll from regime and allied aerial bombardment in the last two days is estimated to be more than 200. Medical facilities were systematically targeted, with six hospitals put out of action by the bombing. All this has happened since the start of the week.
These air strikes are deliberate and concerted. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) tabulated a total of twelve medical facilities attacked in 48 hours. Medical workers were killed, with the SAMS naming two of its own, Hicham Ayed and Mohannad Al-Marzouk, among the dead.
Several significant aspects of Syria’s war converge in East Ghouta. Its inhabitants have been under siege for six years. In that time, the Assad regime has used chemical weapons to attack the rebel enclave, most notably in August 2013, when Sarin, a nerve agent, was deployed by the regime to kill hundreds. This attack came close to spurring international intervention against Bashar al-Assad.That intervention never took place.
More recently, two apparently contradictory events affected East Ghouta. The first was the sudden decrease in air attacks at the beginning of the month, after Israel single-handedly destroyed much of the regime’s air defences.
This led to a lull in bombing which many had hoped would last. But the regime’s reaction, the second event, followed temporary timidity and caution with a stark increase in the aerial campaign against East Ghouta – a campaign so brutal that it has ostensibly rendered the United Nations agency UNICEF speechless.
What is happening to East Ghouta is not unique. The same pattern of air attacks on civilian targets befell Aleppo when it attempted to hold out under siege. The tragedy here is not in horror of an unprecedented sort or scale. Instead, what will happen next is known too well.
If the regime and its allies are not confronted, the aerial slaughter will continue, possibly with chemical weapons – which the regime has used several times this month alone – but certainly with conventional armaments. These armaments will include the barrel bombs which characterise the regime’s crude intention: to kill indiscriminately, to spread terror.
Life in East Ghouta will be made almost impossible. The bombs will fall – from regime and Russian planes and helicopters working in shifts – so fast that counting them all will be difficult and futile.
The siege will continue until it is unendurable, and finally, the regime’s forces, supplemented by paramilitaries and Iran-backed militia groups, will attempt to enter what has for years been a bastion of Syria’s insurgency, located mere miles from the capital’s presidential palace.
Evidence of the outrages being perpetrated abounds. Pictures of the large number of children killed in regime air attacks; footage of regime bombs falling endlessly to earth; interviews with those trapped in East Ghouta about the savagery that threatens to overwhelm them. These crimes are no longer out of sight. They must not be allowed to be out of mind.
What has been done to East Ghouta and other besieged areas cannot be undone. The crimes that have been committed will live long in the memory of those who witnessed them. But the outrages which are in progress, and what will likely follow them, are not pre-ordained. They can still be stopped.
Decisive Israeli action last week humiliated and weakened the regime. That action was undertaken seriously; but it was done quickly and in reaction to an unforeseen event. Despite all that, the Israelis did immense damage in two days.
Let the world take this as its model. The Assad regime is not invulnerable. It remains weak, powerful only when ranged against besieged communities and civilian targets. its allies are prepared to step back and allow Assad to take a hit.
At the beginning of this month, the international coalition fought back against a pro-regime force which advanced on a headquarters of its proxy, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), killing over a hundred attackers with artillery and air strikes.
The same force, judiciously applied, could not only halt the brutal attacks on East Ghouta; it could change the war for the better, forcing Assad to accept that he cannot massacre his opponents, nor attempt a brutal conquest of the whole country, without severe punishment.
If the watching world wished it, Assad’s air force could be destroyed in its entirety within days. The United States is more than capable; as are Israel, France, Great Britain and other nations already operating in Syria. The regime would be unable to resist. Its allies would be left with no choice but to allow it. Only then, one can say with certainty, the bombs will stop falling on the civilians of East Ghouta.
This piece was originally published at The Telegraph.