By Chris Doyle
26 February 2018
One could almost hear the back-slapping and sense of relief from the hallowed halls of the United Nations Security Council on Saturday, when a text on Syria was finally unanimously agreed. In Eastern Ghouta, the enclave east of Damascus that has been largely reduced to rubble, besieged civilians ventured out of their basements, their new homes, to get a mobile signal in order to discover the result of the vote.
The 400,000 people in Ghouta, 100,000 of whom are internally displaced, cling to the very shaky thread of hope that there will be a meaningful cessation of hostilities; that aid will finally get through to them; that they will eat meals with fresh ingredients, even vegetables; that the hundreds in vital need of surgery get evacuated; and that perhaps they can venture out to seek loved ones.
It will be a familiar story to those who survived East Aleppo, Raqqa, Mosul, Idlib and Homs. The people of Ghouta endure this owing to the presence of just 500 extremist fighters, a mere quarter of one per cent of the population. These fighters are not innocent, they do mortar Damascus, where they have killed 25 people over the last two weeks, compared to at least 400 in Eastern Ghouta in the last seven days. One wonders how many of the 400,000 Syrians the Assad regime is prepared to kill.
But let us not pretend for one nanosecond that passing yet another United Nations Security Council Resolution — there have been more than 15 during the Syria crisis — represents genuine success. It is no more than a mini-blip in a seven-year cycle of failure. Why did the resolution not insist that humanitarian access should be permanent, not just for 30 days? The Syrian regime gave its routine answer within minutes with further bombardments of Ghouta.
Mark Lowcock, the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, masterfully scolded the Security Council by saying: “You are all as member states aware that your obligations under international humanitarian law are just that; they are binding obligations. They are not favours to be traded in a game of death and destruction. Humanitarian access is not a ‘nice-to-have’ — it is a legal requirement.”
If previous so-called cessations of hostilities are the model for Eastern Ghouta, the next few weeks will see a welcome downscale of attacks, a drop in fatalities, partial but not full humanitarian access, and some evacuations of medical cases, leading to a full-scale resumption of hostilities possibly before the end of the 30-day period. If the Aleppo model, touted by Russia, is followed, then Ghouta may yet “require” another round of pummelling before the green buses arrive to whisk the armed fighters off, perhaps to the north, even though Idlib will not be a viable option as it was for Aleppo.
The text was drafted for failure; all the ingredients are there to ensure it cannot work. The armed groups that are not covered by the cessation of hostilities include plenty who have members inside Ghouta, so Syrian and Russian forces can claim military action is in line with the resolution. Turkey has made it clear it does not feel bound to halt its military operations in Afrin.
You may also be forgiven if you had forgotten that, since May 4 last year, Eastern Ghouta has been part of a de-escalation zone, or that the UN has classified parts of the area as being under siege since November 2013.
Is there any chance this latest resolution could seriously change things? It depends above all on the intent of the two key members of the Security Council: Russia and the US, both of whom are present militarily on the ground in Syria. If Russia cared about international law or decency, it could end its support for this siege. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has overruled his secretary of state by unequivocally stating that the sole US interest in Syria is defeating Daesh.
Any half-decent ceasefire requires an independent and powerful monitoring mechanism. However, the word “monitoring” or even the weaker term “observe” do not even appear in the text. Instead it will “build on existing arrangements,” which are the ones that Russia, Turkey and Iran, parties to the conflict, put in place.
The US and European powers will sanctimoniously claim the moral high ground but they are all guilty too and still very much in the race to the bottom. Ask people in Raqqa or Mosul about the impact of the US-led coalition’s bombing of their cities and how many civilians their bombings killed.
And what about Gaza? Here too for years Palestinian civilians have lived under siege, not quite as severe but still facing regular bombardments; and there too armed groups fire mortars on to outside civilians. Here it is the US that shields its proxy Israel from any criticism, just as Russia does for the Assad regime. The latter has just taken the Israeli strategy to new depths. Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador at the UN, was prepared to quote Syrian civilians in Ghouta in a way she never would if they were Palestinians suffering in Gaza.
For all the warm diplomatic statements welcoming this resolution, its failure is off the charts. The pressure remains massively short of what is needed to end the conflict, to re-impose the norms of international law in Syria and across the Middle East, and above all to allow the Syrian people to reacquaint themselves with what passes for normal, peaceful existence. Never has this Chinese saying seemed truer: “It is better to be a dog in peacetime than a human being in war.”
Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honours degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech