The United Nations on Saturday passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire across Syria, but Western diplomats said they were sceptical the Syrian regime would actually end its ferocious assault on the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta.
After days of intense negotiations, Russia agreed not use its veto to scuttle the UN security council resolution, which calls for a halt to fighting as well as the delivery of humanitarian aid and the evacuation of the wounded from besieged areas.
The unanimous passage of the resolution was hailed by Western diplomats, who had pushed hard for a deal amid a week of intense Syrian regime bombing of Eastern Ghouta. Hours before the vote, the civilian death toll climbed above 500.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, castigated Russia for days of delays which slowed the passage of the resolution. “In the three days it took us to adopt this resolution how many mothers lost their kids to the bombing and the shelling?”
It remains to be seen what impact the deal crafted in meeting rooms at the UN’s New York headquarters in New York will have on the ash-filled streets of Eastern Ghouta. Mrs Haley said the US was “deeply sceptical the regime will comply” with the ceasefire and called on Russia to pressure Assad’s forces to respect it.
Russia demanded that the resolution not include a specific time for the ceasefire to go into force. The text instead reads that it should begin “without delay”, making it unclear when the fighting would actually stop.
The ceasefire does not extend to terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. Both Russia and the Syrian regime accuse large swathes of the Syrian rebels of being al-Qaeda members, giving themselves a broad license to continue strikes.
“Russia used this loophole in previous agreements to continue bombing indiscriminately,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think tank.
One Western diplomat said they feared the exemption on al-Qaeda might render the resolution “worthless” but that they were still hopeful its passage at UN would compel Russia to at least reduce the violence in Eastern Ghouta.
“The people are happy but they do not trust the regime and its allies,” said one man in Eastern Ghouta, after hearing the news from New York.
The council had been due to vote on Friday but the vote was delayed.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, tweeted her frustration, demanding a vote, as the discussions continued late into Friday afternoon.
Unbelievable that Russia is stalling a vote on a ceasefire allowing humanitarian access in Syria. How many more people will die before the The Security Council agrees to take up this vote? Let’s do this tonight. The Syrian people can’t wait.
— Nikki Haley (@nikkihaley) February 23, 2018
More than 500 people have been killed since the assault began Sunday night, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
New air strikes on the Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Saturday took the civilian death toll from seven days of devastating bombardment to more than 500.
“This is about saving lives,” said Sweden’s UN Ambassador Olof Skoog.
"UN convoys and evacuation teams are ready to go. It’s time for the council to come together and shoulder its responsibility to urgently avert a situation that is beyond words in its desperation,” he said.
Russia is one of five permanent members of the Security Council that can veto a draft resolution. It has done so repeatedly throughout Syria’s civil war, torpedoing numerous efforts to stem the bloodshed even as its air force carries out bombing runs on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally.
Russia had described civilian testimonies from the embattled area as “mass psychosis” earlier in the week, and blocked a UN Security Council vote.
On Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote a joint letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling for an immediate truce in Eastern Ghouta.
“France and Germany condemn in the strongest possible terms the deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations, including very large numbers of children, and against civil and medical infrastructure in clear violation of the most fundamental international humanitarian law,” it read.
The letter included a condemnation of the attacks on Damascus by opposition fighters inside Eastern Ghouta, but ended with a call for Russia to “assume its full responsibilities”.
In a statement released Friday, the European Union called for an immediate ceasefire and access for aid trucks, citing a “moral duty” to protect civilians.
Damascus (South West Syria) territorial control map
"The European Union is running out of words to describe the horror being experienced by the people of Eastern Ghouta," the bloc said.
US president Donald Trump said Russia and Iran’s behavior in Syria was a ‘disgrace’.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also spoke out Friday.
"Russia and Iran must stop the regime," he said.
Turkey, Iran and Russia are co-signatories on the de-escalation agreement. Mr Cavusoglu said the offensives in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib were "contrary" to the agreements negotiated by the three countries.
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Eastern Ghouta is the last holdout of Islamist and opposition fighters near the capital. The densely populated area has been under siege since April 2013 and has become synonymous with civilian suffering – either through starvation and lack of access to medical supplies, or under intense aerial bombardment.
On Friday, helicopters dropped barrel bombs on homes in the Hamorieh neighbourhood, and warplanes strafed the residential neighbourhood of Ein Tarma.
According to Save the Children, more than 70 per cent of buildings in Ein Tarma have been destroyed or damaged. Infrastructure across Eastern Ghouta has sustained heavy damage, and some areas have not had water or electricity for two years.
Twenty-two hospitals and clinics have bombed since Sunday. Medical charities have accused the Syrian government of deliberately targeting healthcare facilities, which is a war crime.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said 13 hospitals it supports have been destroyed or damaged this week and that medical staff were struggling to cope with repeated mass-casualty influxes.
The latest surge in violence in Eastern Ghouta is thought to be the first phase of an assault that will eventually include ground troops and will follow the same arc as Syrian government forces’ battle for east Aleppo.
In Aleppo, the population was starved and endured weeks of air raids, after which ground troops moved in and fought block by block until the entire area was back under government control.
Surviving civilians and militants were then bussed to Idlib province, one of the last areas of Syria still controlled by anti-government forces.
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