“Condemn,” “deplore” and “denounce.” Words that are heard almost daily – from the United Nations and western governments – about the atrocities being committed against thousands of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus.
But those words are not accompanied by threats of retribution nor deadlines to ceasefire.
The UN’s pleas for ceasefire are falling on deaf ears.
There is, apparently, nothing that can be done to stop the Assad regime from pulverizing the area, in which about 400,000 people live under siege without access to medical care, or adequate food and water.
To the many human rights groups shouting from the rooftops about Eastern Ghouta’s suffering, this inaction amounts to a moral abdication. The world’s most powerful stand apparently helpless as evidence mounts that the regime has targeted hospitals and continues to use chlorine as a weapon of terror.
On 23 January, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said: “The recent attacks in East Ghouta raise serious concerns that Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime may be continuing its use of chemical weapons against its own people.”
He warned those who used such weapons: “You will face a day of reckoning for your crimes against humanity.” And he blamed Russia for not restraining the Assad regime.
On February 1, the State Department said it was “extremely concerned about yet another report of the use of chlorine gas by the Syrian regime to terrorize citizens” in Eastern Ghouta, the third reported in a month.
But the tough language of the Trump Administration last year has evaporated. After accusing the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons in April 2017, President Trump ordered cruise missile strikes against a Syrian airbase, saying: “Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically.”
In June, the White House warned that Assad “and his military will pay a heavy price” if they use chemical weapons again.
But the regime and its backers in Moscow and Tehran evidently feel they now have carte blanche to finish the job of retaking the parts of Syria still held by rebel forces.
And to the people of Eastern Ghouta – whether they are targeted by chemical weapons or barrel bombs – the result is much the same. Ahmad al-Dbis of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, says it is simply “the mass killing of people who do not have the most basic tenets of life.”
The West now has few options because it effectively handed Russian President Vladimir Putin the job of finishing the Syrian conflict. The US and its allies over time steadily withdrew support for rebel groups and toned down on their insistence that Assad must go as part of a settlement. They allowed the Russians to drive the resolution of the conflict through a well-calibrated mix of siege tactics, local truces and “de-confliction zones.”
Russia and its allies – Iran and Turkey – even declared Eastern Ghouta to be one of those four “de-confliction zones,” just as the US signed up to be the guarantor of another of the assault on Eastern Ghouta. This is a watershed moment, comparable with other critical moments for human rights in the last 25 years. After three years of horror in Bosnia, it took the 1995 massacre of Srebrenica – in which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in cold blood – to galvanize the west to action against the Bosnian Serbs. Srebrenica was a UN “safe haven” just as Ghouta is a “de-confliction zone.” Both became killing zones.
In 2011, western powers used cruise missiles and airstrikes against the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to avert what would likely have been a terrible massacre in Benghazi.
The US began bombing ISIS in the summer of 2014 as the terror group tried to annihilate the Yazidi minority of northern Iraq.
In 1994, the world turned its back on Rwanda. After a week in which 10,000 people were killed, the UN peacekeeping force was reduced from 2,100 troops to 270, who were left “standing knee-deep in mutilated bodies,” in the words of Roméo Dallaire, its Canadian commander.
The Clinton administration, scarred by the chaotic failure of the peacekeeping mission in Somalia, had no desire for a similar entanglement. The then-senior US diplomat for Africa, Prudence Bushnell, said much later: “For all of the reasons that make sense for rational policy analysis, we did nothing, and watched as hundreds of thousands of people were massacred by other people.”
800,000 Rwandans were killed in little over 100 days. The horrors of Rwanda and Bosnia led the international community to adopt a new principle in 2005: “the responsibility to protect.”
President Obama stated in 2011 that the prevention of genocide and atrocities was “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” But in 2013, after the regime first used chemical weapons in Ghouta, the Obama Administration decided against a military strike – instead signing up to an international effort to strip the regime of its chemical weapons
Since then more than 400,000 people in Syria have lost their lives.
In a desperate plea a week ago, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein drew a comparison between Bosnia and Syria. At least, he said, “the conflict in Bosnia was brought to a halt by the international community after four years.” After “seven blood-soaked years,” the Syrian conflict goes on, he said – “and the failure to end it marks an epic failure of global diplomacy.”