The Syrian army’s apparent chemical attack on Douma on April 7 was the worst atrocity of an infernal six-week military campaign in Eastern Ghouta. This in turn was the latest horrific chapter in a war lasting seven years which has brought unthinkable suffering to millions of innocent civilians. The relentless bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, backed by Russia and Iran, follows a cruel siege of the area lasting almost five years. These events reflect the most destructive and tragic elements of human nature: when ruthless powers encircle and terrorise the vulnerable, unchecked by any higher authority. The scenes being broadcast from the region are glimpses into an abyss of inhumanity – children being dragged from underneath rubble, parents convulsed with grief, neighbourhoods reduced to debris. The repeated bombing of hospitals and obstruction of aid convoys entering Ghouta are the most depraved aspects of the Syrian army campaign. They are examples of what Holocaust survivor Primo Levi called “useless violence” – suffering inflicted for its own sake and for no other purpose.
Putin’s geo-political game
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been providing military and diplomatic support to Bashar al-Assad since 2015 when he was losing the Syrian civil war – partly to secure Russian economic interests and partly to assert Russia’s dominance over the US in the region. The civilians of Eastern Ghouta are pawns in Putin’s geo-political game, and it appears he faces little consequence for directing this inferno of mayhem and bloodshed from Moscow.
The wholesale destruction of Eastern Ghouta resembles the fate suffered by Aleppo and Homs earlier in the Syrian war and by Grozny, capital of Chechnya, during Putin’s first venture in politicised mass killing, a year into his reign. In each of these war zones the wretched plight of civilians incited him to an extreme of merciless aggression. Putin and al-Assad appear to share a psychopathic relish for attacking the weak.
Aerial footage of Aleppo after the worst bombardments in 2016 showed apocalyptic scenes of ruination. The Russian and Syrian forces may as well have dropped a nuclear bomb on this once thriving, exotic city. Night after night on our television screens we are witnessing similar destruction and misery visited upon another mass of civilians, and hearing the same lies from Russian and Syrian officials who deny appalling events that are plain for all the world to see. Footage now emerging of Eastern Ghouta reveals almost a carbon copy of the haunted, hollowed-out cityscape that remains of Aleppo.
Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations, set out at its inception in 1945, committed members to “tak[ing] effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace”. Humanitarian protections for civilians in war zones were enshrined in the UN’s Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. Grave breaches of these conventions include “wilful killing”, “wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury” and “making the civilian population or individual civilians the object of attack”, all of which have without question been perpetrated on Eastern Ghouta.
The UN as it currently stands is nothing more than a politically redundant talking shop for Syria. Hand-wringing about the awfulness of the latest atrocity is invariably followed by diplomatic paralysis. Where power is concentrated most – among China, the US and the EU – moral courage appears absent.
The US government, supported by the UK and France, mounted a sharp military response to the chemical assault on Douma, as it did last April when 80 civilians were killed by nerve agents dropped by Syrian army planes in Idlib province.
We could ask why the relentless killing of civilians by every other weapon imaginable does not warrant intervention. As before, it is likely that such a measure will not be followed by substantive protections for Syrian civilians who will remain at the mercy of al-Assad and Putin. It primarily served as a show of US military might and of Trump’s willingness to impose a supposed tougher line than Obama on chemical weapons. It also conveniently shifted public attention from the Mueller investigation into Trump’s alleged links with the Russian administration during his election campaign.
An international peace-keeping force
The Syrian conflict is a complex and deadly quagmire, involving armies and militias from several countries. Any attempt to resolve it is fraught with risk. And yet the choice to allow this slaughter of innocents to continue is a defilement of our collective humanity. If a large international peace-keeping ground force were based in Syria Putin would be far more cautious in the use of his military power there, and in his sanctioning of al-Assad’s violence. This would require courage from several of the world’s most powerful nations and would involve some risk to the domestic popularity of their leaders. It would be a show of collective strength to cold-blooded autocrats who answer to nothing else. A long-term political settlement is another challenge altogether, but in the interim this would give some protection to civilians caught up in the war.
Putin and his allies have been emboldened for too long by having no limits placed on their behaviour and by the implied international attitude that the lives of Syrian civilians are not of much value to the rest of the world.
Liam Quaide is a clinical psychologist and the Green party election candidate for East Cork