‘Kneel or Starve’: Damascus’s Brutal Ultimatum to the Population of Eastern Ghouta

Under siege for almost five years, the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, in Syria’s Damascus governorate, faces liquidation by the regime of Bashar Assad.

The regime, aided by Russian planes, began a campaign in February to conquer Eastern Ghouta. Within days, hundreds of civilians were killed in air attacks.

The United Nations attempted to institute a ceasefire at the end of February, which would have halted fighting for 30 days. The measure failed before it began and the violence continued.

As the regime’s campaign intensified, stories of brutality increased. Activists documented the aftermath of air strikes on markets and hospitals with photographs and video footage attesting to the devastation.

After the air campaign was deemed effective, the regime moved in ground forces. Regime fighters drove back the insurgent groups in Eastern Ghouta.

With the weight of regime and Russian forces pressing down on the besieged area, it appears things can only go one way.

The world has seen this sequence of events before. Across Syria, urban centres have been attacked with airpower and superior weaponry before being overrun by regime and allied forces.

In Homs, in Aleppo and now Eastern Ghouta, the toll these liquidations take on civilians is immense. Thousands are killed in the bombing and the ground campaigns. There are reports of regime forces staging mass summary executions of men of fighting age. Women fear rape from regime forces and its shabiha militias, which has become an established tactic as well as a weapon of war consciously employed.

Facing these odds, it is unsurprising that many civilians choose to flee. The assault on Eastern Ghouta created an exodus of people desperately attempting to escape the enclave before it is crushed.

Emma Beals, a Syria analyst, said via e-mail that ‘the scale of displacement is even bigger than what we saw in Aleppo’. She noted that United Nations estimates suggested, last week, that nearly one-in-six of the people in Eastern Ghouta – 50,000 people out of nearly 400,000 – had fled the enclave.

This forms part of a regime strategy not just of conquest but of depopulation. Beals said that ‘since August 2016, when Darayya was pounded by a military campaign that resulted in forced displacements, we have seen this strategy rolled out across the country’.

‘Eastern Aleppo suffered a siege, air assault and then ground campaign through the second half of 2016’, she said. Eastern Ghouta faces the same.

Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for A New American Security, said: ‘The Assad government is giving the population of [Eastern] Ghouta the choice to stand down and accept Bashar Assad as their leader, board on buses and leave Ghouta forever for other regions of Syria especially Idlib, or fight to the death’.

Regime slogans give a sense of its intent. Pro-regime forces offer brutal dichotomies, beginning with the threat ‘Assad or we burn the country’. Regime forces characterise sieges as a choice: ‘kneel or starve’. Beals noted that the latter has, for Eastern Ghouta, become an injunction to ‘surrender or die’.

Some of this has a personal edge. Heras noted that the assault on Eastern Ghouta ‘is collective punishment aimed at ripping out the roots of the opposition movement that has grown so close to Assad’s palace door in Damascus’.

Crushing the area is a way to signal the regime’s increasing dominance and the extent to which it is willing to employ brutal tactics against all opponents.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an adviser to non-governmental organisations in Syria and director of Doctors Under Fire, a medical charity, described the situation facing Eastern Ghouta’s residents.

He said, in an e-mail message: ‘There are virtually no medical supplies. What food there is, is very expensive and the bombardment interspersed with chlorine barrel bombs is as intense as we’ve seen’.

De Bretton-Gordon said that at the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations there are 175 very seriously ill children ‘who will die soon if they don’t get urgent medical care’. He said there are also 4,000 seriously injured adults in need of urgent medical help.

As the regime assault continues, and with the prospect of ceasefires cynically employed before being entirely discredited, the situation facing residents of Eastern Ghouta is dire. They must face regime and allied assault without aid. They have few options.

The violence will continue undiminished until the regime controls Eastern Ghouta. Thousands are likely to die or face suffering deliberately inflicted, consciously employed. The survivors who do not flee face deportation as the area is depopulated. The world has seen this strategy before and will shortly bear witness to it once again in Eastern Ghouta.

This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.

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