Mass Murder in Slow Motion (III): Military and paramilitary violence

This is the third in a series of posts on siege warfare and East Ghouta (Damascus); the first is here and the second here.  It’s also an extension to my post on the chemical weapons attacks on Douma here.

Slow violence and siege warfare

In an earlier essay in this series I described the slow violence intrinsic to siege warfare: the malnutrition and misery set in train once food becomes a weapon.

But there is another slow violence inscribed into the calculus of siege warfare: the subjection of the trapped population to multiple forms of military and paramilitary violence from which there is little or no escape. I’ve written about the slow violence of bombing – the dread anticipation of the next strike, even when death from the skies has become normalized, and the long drawn-out aftermath: the search for survivors in the rubble, the rescue and often prolonged treatment of casualties, the salvage, clearance and rehousing operations, and the enduring grief and traumatic flashbacks of the survivors.

All of this was multiplied in East Ghouta, which was under siege by the Syrian Arab Army and its proxies and allies from the winter of 2012 until the spring of 2018 (‘April is the cruellest month…’). The parameters of this slow violence were exacerbated and extended in multiple ways: by the systematic targeting of hospitals and clinics and the withholding of medical supplies; by the forcible displacement of those who surrendered to a series of what critics have described as elaborately constructed killboxes elsewhere in Syria, where the violence will surely follow them; by the confiscation of their homes and property under new ‘absentee’ laws; and for those who chose to remain, by the abuses, humiliations and assaults (and for some, detentions) involved in the regime’s ‘reconciliation agreements’ and screening and resettlement operations.

Here I focus on direct military and paramilitary violence; in the next post in the series I’ll deal with medical care under fire, and in the final post I’ll address the bruising aftermath: the displacements, property confiscations, resettlements and more.

It’s important to remember throughout my discussion that the two modalities of siege warfare – the denial of food, other resources and medical supplies and the direct violence of air and ground attack – worked like scissors.  Sometimes one was dominant, sometimes the other, and sometimes they cut into the lives of the besieged population together.  But they have always depended on each other: interdicting movement across the siege lines required military and paramilitary cordons, while military and paramilitary offensives were predicated on degrading the ordnance and resources of the armed groups and weakening the resolve of the besieged population.  It’s also necessary to recognise that direct violence has been inflicted on the people of the Ghouta not only from outside – by aircraft, helicopters and artillery, and eventually by ground assault – but also from inside through the summary executions, detentions and repressions carried out by the armed opposition and the infighting between its different constituencies.

In the early stages of the siege the situation was fluid.  There were times when the armed opposition groups beat back the Syrian Arab Army and its supporting militias and advanced deeper into Damascus; at others they were forced to retreat to their bases in the Ghouta from where they continued to launch guerrilla raids and mortar attacks on the capital and its perimeter.  In the course of the war, pro-government forces launched three major offensives that successively transformed the terms of military engagement with East Ghouta and I’ll consider them in turn.

Offensive I: Operation Capital Shield

In the early months of 2013 pro-government forces stormed several towns to the south of Damascus, and there were allegations that chemical weapons had been used in the course of capturing al-Otaybeh on the southern fringe of East Ghouta in March and April (and at least two other districts outside the Ghouta).  The loss of al-Otaybeh was a major blow to the rebels – it cut a major supply line from the south – and by June 2013 it was clear that pro-government forces were moving to secure the perimeter of the capital, supported by Iranian troops and militias and by Hezbollah fighters.  Precisely because the situation was so fluid it’s impossible to be definitive, and the sources are fragmentary and open to competing interpretations; here is how the Institute for the Study of War summarised the state of play on 9 August 2013:

This preliminary report was written by Elizabeth O’Bagy – who may well have exaggerated the reach of the rebels (for an alternative reading of the situation on the ground see here) – but her analysis was subsequently supported by a detailed security report written for ISW by Valerie Szybala.  Their combined narrative suggests that rebel forces had launched a major co-ordinated counter-offensive on 24 July 2013 from Irbeen, Zamalka and Ain Tarma in the Ghouta, pushing across the M5 highway into Jobar, al-Qaboun and Barzeh, and then using those neighbourhoods as springboards to launch attacks on pro-government forces designed to bring them within striking distance of central Damascus:

[The first map is from the ISW security report, the second from information supplied by reporter Mohammed Salaheddine and used by Hisham Ashkar here].

There were also reports that rebel groups had captured an ammunition depot and had used radar-guided surface-to-air missiles to bring down a Syrian Arab Army helicopter and two fighter jets.  Emboldened, the rebels warned the government that any of its aircraft flying over East Ghouta would be shot down.  This was no doubt bravado, but these threats were straws in the wind to a regime building a bigger haystack.  Szybala argues that rebel advances and their use of increasingly sophisticated weapons systems, combined with a mortar attack on Assad’s convoy on 8 August (probably from Jobar) and the heightened fear of increased international support for opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army, meant that the regime ‘felt increasingly threatened in Damascus and believed itself to be at unprecedented risk.’

On 21 August 2013 the Syrian military launched Operation Capital Shield focused on West and East Ghouta, ‘their largest-ever Damascus offensive, aimed at decisively ending the deadlock in key contested terrain around the city.’

At 0245 reports began to flood in about a chemical weapons attack on Ain Tarma and Zamalka in East Ghouta; these were followed by reports of a third attack on Moaddamiya in West Ghouta at 0500 (see map above).  Dexter Filkins spoke with Mohammed Salaheddine by telephone soon afterwards:

When Salaheddine arrived [in East Ghouta], he saw four big pits, where trucks were carrying bodies of the dead. He estimated that he saw about four hundred corpses. Salaheddine said that he went to the central hospital in a town called Zamalka, where, he told me, there were so many Syrians suffering symptoms of poison gas that the doctors could not treat them all.

“There were so many people I could not count them,’’ Salaheddine said of the hospital. Many of the people, he said, were weak and couldn’t breathe; the doctors were trying to give injections of atropine, an antidote, to as many of the victims as they could, and administer oxygen to others. “People were unable to breathe,’’ Salaheddine said. “They were asphyxiating. The doctors had really limited resources. We were trying to help, but we didn’t have enough.

“People were panicking,” he went on. “They were saying, Am I dead or am I alive?”

The worst moment, Salaheddine said, came when he found three women huddled together in the hospital; a young woman, her mother, and her grandmother. All were suffering the symptoms of poison gas, he said, and each was trying to comfort the others. “I was trying to rescue the grandmother,” Salaheddine said. “She was dying. I was trying to give her oxygen. She kept saying to me, ‘My son—my heart, my heart.’ She was gasping for air. She was in agony. She died in my arms.”

And here is a doctor who helped to treat the casualties:

I was sleeping in the doctor’s house in one of the basements beside the operati[ng] room. At about 2:30 am, we got a call from the central ER. The physicians who were on staff that night informed me that it was a chemical attack. I arrived and in the next 10 minutes, it was like a nightmare. One of the medics entered and said gas had fallen in Zamalka and all the people died. Then I realized that it was a huge chemical attack. All of the hospitals from Zamalka to Douma were filled. I asked some people to go to the mosque and use the speakers to request that everyone who had a car go to Zamalka and help. I don’t know if it was a wise decision or not. But there were so many heroes that night. Our local culture says that we would die to save others.

The numbers became over all capacity. I asked to our staff to do medical work in two schools and mosques, where there are water tanks. If there is no water, you don’t have a hospital. There was just one person who could classify the patients— me. I was the only one who studied it. I had to decide quick response for bad cases and delay medium and moderate cases. After 30 minutes, there were hundreds. We didn’t realize how many, but we knew there were hundreds.

I put two medics on the door of the ER. I said that every patient who is unconscious or shaking, take him down to the ER. All kids or seniors, or anyone shouting loudly, put him in the second ER. All others should go in the third medical point. We could not do anything in the second or third medical points—we could not provide them with any medicine. From the first hour, I gave all staff their mission so that they know what to do.  I told them not to ask, just to give atropine to all…

After 90 minutes, one of my medical staff fell down. The symptoms began to appear on medical staff themselves, and we had to change our strategy. I chose to see the patients one by one, and check vital signs to see if there was a misunderstanding.  I spent 5 seconds for every patient, and did not do any medical procedures myself – I just made decisions. The staff did a great job here.

At 11 am, the bombs and shelling began…  I called my friend Majed and he was crying as we prepared the first report for media. The number in Douma was 630 patients and 65 victims. We could realize some symptoms we never saw before.

The Syrian-American Medical Society estimated that more than 1,300 people were killed in the attacks – 97 per cent of them civilians – and 10,000 others were affected.  Their symptoms, described by eyewitnesses and confirmed by multiple videos and digital images, were consistent with exposure to a nerve-agent.  A month later hundreds still suffered from respiratory problems, nausea, weakness and blurred vision that were sufficiently serious to require medical attention (though this was compromised by the continued siege and the consequent difficulty of obtaining medical supplies, including oxygen).

Other sources provided other casualty figures, but that’s not surprising.  As Human Rights Watch explained in its analysis,

Because the August 21 attacks took place in two separate areas of Ghouta, and owing to the chaos resulting from the large number of casualties, it is difficult to establish a precise death toll. The areas affected do not have any large hospitals, and rely on several small, badly supplied underground clinics to provide medical assistance. According to the doctors interviewed by Human Rights Watch, these small medical clinics were overwhelmed by the number of victims, and many of the dead were never brought to the clinics and thus not registered. According to Médecins Sans Frontières, at least 3,600 persons were treated for symptoms consistent with exposure to neurotoxic agents at three hospitals it supports in the area in the first three hours following the attacks.

Whatever the numbers, these were clearly mass-casualty events: and for that very reason, the victims too often remained not only faceless but nameless.  That same month (August 2013)  Hisham Ashkar provided an important corrective to the de-humanising anonymity of the statistical shrouds (and the photographic record):

(The original photograph was taken at al-Ihsan Hospital in Hammouriya; the victims all had numbers fixed to their foreheads).

This was vital work, but even the anonymity of the victims was eclipsed by the almost immediate desire to identify those responsible for the attacks.  This too is exceptionally important, but Hisham is right to remind us of what is lost in all the maps and calculations of missile trajectories.

A team of UN weapons inspectors led by Professor Ake Sellström was already in Damascus to investigate previous allegations of chemical weapons use, and after several days (and an attack by unidentified snipers) the investigators were allowed to visit the three Ghouta sites during a temporary ceasefire, where they took samples and interviewed 36 survivors (with ‘severe clinical presentations’ since they would have had ‘significant exposure to the chemical agent’) along with doctors, first responders and other witnesses.  Their report was delivered on 13 September and concluded that ‘the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin’ had been used in the attacks.

The authors were not permitted to assign responsibility, but two dossiers published before the UN  investigation delivered its report to the Secretary-General claimed to have identified the likely culprits.  On 30 August the Obama administration published an unclassified summary of what it called a ‘government assessment’ based on multiple streams of intelligence (‘human, signals, and geospatial intelligence’) as well as open source reporting. It concluded ‘with high confidence’ that the Syrian government was responsible for the attacks.  Intercepts revealed preparations for the attacks three days before they were launched, and satellites had identified ‘rocket launches from regime-controlled territory early in the morning, approximately 90 minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media.’  The assessment linked the attacks to Operation Capital Shield:

The Syrian regime has initiated an effort to rid the Damascus suburbs of opposition forces using the area as a base to stage attacks against regime targets in the capital. The regime has failed to clear dozens of Damascus neighborhoods of opposition elements, including neighborhoods targeted on August 21, despite employing nearly all of its conventional weapons systems. We assess that the regime’s frustration with its inability to secure large portions of Damascus may have contributed to its decision to use chemical weapons on August 21…

On the afternoon of August 21, we have intelligence that Syrian chemical weapons personnel were directed to cease operations. At the same time, the regime intensified the artillery barrage targeting many of the neighborhoods where chemical attacks occurred. In the 24 hour period after the attack, we detected indications of artillery and rocket fire at a rate approximately four times higher than the ten preceding days.

This was a rapid response and the accompanying map of areas affected by the attacks turned out to be inaccurate: as a note on the map conceded:

Reports of chemical attacks originating from some locations may reflect the movement of patients exposed in one neighborhood to field hospitals and medical facilities in the surrounding area. They may also reflect confusion and panic triggered by the ongoing artillery and rocket barrage, and reports of chemical use in other neighborhoods.

For critics this was far from the only inaccuracy, but on 10 September, just three days before the UN investigation delivered its report, Human Rights Watch also concluded that the evidence its analysts had examined ‘strongly suggests that the August 21 chemical weapon attacks on Eastern and Western Ghouta were carried out by government forces.’

They based their preliminary conclusions on the large scale of the attacks, the Syrian military’s documented possession of the types of rocket retrieved from the affected sites, and the state’s ability to prepare or obtain and deliver nerve-agents in sufficient quantity.

Once the UN report had been published, HRW used the detailed specifications of the rockets tabulated in an appendix to calculate possible trajectories:

The two attack locations are located 16 kilometers apart, but when mapping these trajectories, the presumed flight paths of the rockets converge on a well-known military base of the Republican Guard 104th Brigade, situated only a few kilometers north of downtown Damascus and within firing range of the neighborhoods attacked by chemical weapons.

According to declassified reference guides, the 140mm artillery rocket used on impact site number 1 (Moadamiya) has a minimum range of 3.8 kilometers and a maximum range of 9.8 kilometers. The Republican Guard 104th Brigade is approximately 9.5 km from the base. While we don’t know the firing range for the 330mm rocket that hit impact site number 4, the area is only 9.6km away from the base, well within range of most rocket systems.

 

HRW conceded that its results were not conclusive, but the balance of probabilities from these dossiers was used by many commentators to indict the Assad regime.  Similarly, on 17 September the New York Times tracked the co-ordinates of the rocket trajectories given in the UN report and concluded that they pointed back to ‘the center of gravity of the regime’ on Mount Qasioun.

The geometry of culpability was complicated by other assessments – I am leaving on one (far) side the vindictive delusions of a distant nun (who, among other lunacies, demanded to know where all the victims shown in the photographs and videos had come from since the Ghouta was ’empty’, ‘a ghost town’, and insisted that the dead and injured were ‘women and child abductees’; and also the anonymously sourced speculations of Seymour Hersh that Turkey had supplied Jabhat al-Nusra with the sarin to carry out an attack that would draw the United States across Obama’s ‘red line’ to intervene directly in the conflict (for critical comments, see here and here) – to focus on the calculations made by Richard Lloyd and Professor Theodore Postol (which also reappear in the debate surrounding Hersh’s conjectures: see here).  They claimed that the munitions used in the attacks were ‘improvised’ and that, when the aerodynamic drag exerted on the rockets by their heavy payload is factored in, their range contracts to around 2 km.  Superimposing the new radii on the map previously published by the Obama administration identified launch locations far from ‘the center of gravity’ of the regime:

Accordingly Lloyd and Postol concluded that the US government assessments had to have been based on faulty intelligence and that they were almost certainly wrong.  That may well be so, but it does not follow that these new geometries reassign culpability to the opposition.   The large volume of sarin factored in to the heavy payload of the rockets makes the involvement of a state actor far more likely than a non-state actor (see Dan Kaszeta‘s analysis here) and the ring around East Ghouta that appears on the revised map follows the cordon lines through which the siege was being so actively contested in the days and weeks before the attacks: a situation plotted inaccurately on the assessment map in both its versions but shown on Hisham Ashkar‘s map I reproduced earlier (see Eliot Higgins‘s analysis here and also here).  In short, the reduced range does not militate against the use of mobile rocket-launchers from territory held by pro-government forces (however precariously).

I’m not the person to adjudicate between these competing views, though I do believe that the weight of evidence makes it far more likely that the Assad regime carried out the attacks than any opposition group.  Instead I want to emphasise two other conclusions.

First, these chemical weapons attacks were designed to inflict maximum possible harm on civilians.  Those are not my words; they come from Theodor Postol himself:

  • This attack was designed to cause the maximum possible harm to civilians with the technology that was available to the attacker.

  • The attack was executed at a time of day that would maximize the density of nerve agent near the ground where the civilians reside.

  • The pancake geometry of spreading nerve agent at that time of day greatly increased the area on the ground, causing the maximum number of people possible to be exposed to an organophosphorous nerve agent.

  • If soldiers with proper equipment had been attacked in this manner, casualties would have almost certainly been very low.

Second, the result of Operation Capital Shield was a stalemate, and it is clear that civilians in the Ghouta continued to be caught between the overwhelming fire power of the Assad regime and its allies and the brutalities of the armed opposition.  As Linah Alsaafin explained eighteen months later:

The residents of Eastern Ghouta [are] trapped between a rock and a hard place, facing down constant shelling by Syrian government forces on the one hand, while on the other living through the ongoing rebel struggle for control.

“People are tired from all the factions,” [Nuran al-]Na’ib said. “They don’t care so much about the protests and who is in power. Their only concern is to find food for themselves and their families.”

Abu Ahmad agreed: “Most people in Ghouta do not want Assad to stay in power, but at the same time there is a high number of complaints against the course the revolution has taken. There is no love lost for Jaysh al-Islam.  The ethical superiority we witnessed at the beginning of the protests … has all degenerated in the face of the crimes these armed groups are committing against civilians in Damascus and elsewhere.

A rock and a hard place

The background throb of daily violence continued as the front lines were consolidated in the wake of the initial offensive and response. In January and February 2014 uneasy truces were negotiated with armed groups in al-Qaboun and Barzeh that allowed the continuation of crucial, quasi-clandestine supply lines into East Ghouta (see my extended discussion here).  The stalemate materially assisted the Assad regime by opening time-space windows of opportunity for pro-government forces, which had been weakened by defections and casualties from opposition offensives, and enabled a renewed focus on the besieged cities of Homs and Aleppo.

During those two northern campaigns air and artillery strikes on the Ghouta were not suspended.  Syrian forces had deployed cluster munitions and ‘parachute bombs’ against the towns of the Ghouta since 2013, and they continued to use them without regard for the civilian population.  Both weapons are notoriously indiscriminate; the former disperse clusters of bomblets over a wide area to detonate on contact, thus delivering ‘maximum destruction with minimum accuracy’, while the slow descent of the unguided fuel-air bomb by parachute is terminated by an explosion metres above its impact site that releases an aerosol cloud which ignites to destroy everything within a 25 metre radius.  In those years the use of equally indiscriminate ‘barrel bombs’ – aerial IEDs – dropped by Syrian helicopters was more common in Aleppo, but their use became more widespread against the Ghouta from the summer of 2015.  Amnesty International, citing the Violations Documentation Center, reported:

Syrian government air strikes killed 2,826 civilians in Damascus suburbs between 14 January 2012 and 28 June 2015.  Of these, according to the VDC, more than half – 1,740 civilians – were killed in Eastern Ghouta. In the same period, according to the VDC, Syrian government air strikes killed 63 anti-government fighters in Eastern Ghouta, indicating the indiscriminate and disproportionate nature of government air attacks on the area.

There are few eyewitness reports during this period, but Amnesty investigated ten air strikes in detail that took place between December 2014 and March 2015.  Here is one student describing the aftermath of an attack by a parachute bomb on Douma on 5 February 2015:

Usually the Syrian government does not start its aerial attacks before 10am or 11am. On that day the strike was carried out at 8.20am. I woke up to the sound of the fighter jet. I looked out and saw the MiG. I heard explosions a few seconds later. I was 200 metres away from the strike. I arrived at the site after five minutes. When I arrived I saw the site had been hit four times 50 metres apart. One of the bombs totally destroyed a residential building and damaged the buildings around it. Residents told me that they had seen a rocket strapped to a parachute but they had not had time to run.

The targeted residential buildings are located next to Taha mosque in Khorshid neighbourhood [see image above]. It was a bloody morning. Injured people were scattered everywhere… I don’t remember the exact number of bodies but I saw at least 10 bodies on the street. I saw other bodies but I don’t know if they were alive or dead. I also saw old people among the injured.

Over the same period the region also came under artillery fire from Syrian batteries launching missiles and rockets from Mount Qassioun and from other ground forces firing mortars from positions much closer to the front lines.

The situation worsened over the summer, and August was one of the bloodiest months of all.  Hospitals in East Ghouta supported by Médecins Sans Frontières treated at least 150 cases of violence-related trauma per day between 12 and 31 August 2015:

“This is one of the bloodiest months since the horrific chemical weapons attack in August 2013,” said Dr. Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations.  “The hospitals we support are makeshift structures, where getting medicine is a dangerous and challenging endeavor, and it is unthinkable that they would have been able to cope with such intense emergency traumas under such constraints. The Syrian doctors’ continued unswerving effort to save lives in these circumstances is deeply inspiring, but the situation that has led to this is totally outrageous.”

The data for the mass casualty influxes at six of the 13 MSF-supported hospitals in East Ghouta reveal 377 deaths and 1,932 wounded patients in August. Among them, 104 of the dead and 546 of the wounded were children younger than 15. The intensity of the bombings temporarily cut some communication channels, but based on initial reports from other MSF-supported facilities, it is clear that at least 150 war-wounded patients were treated per day from August 12 to 31.

The misery of the civilian population was heightened by simmering tensions between the armed opposition groups, which erupted into open conflict at the end of April 2016 when around 300 people were killed in fighting between Jaish al-Islam (JAI) and a Free Syrian Army group Failaq al-Rahman.  The fighting became so intense that nearby clinics and pharmacies could only open for an hour or so each day; some of them were attacked and looted.  According to the same report, the bloody climax was reached

when Jaish al-Islam stormed and took control of the towns of Misraba and Mudira, both held by Failaq al-Rahman, using tanks. The attack prompted Failaq al-Rahman to accuse JAI of “leading East Ghouta into a sea of blood.”

When a deal was reached to end hostilities several days later Misraba was declared a ‘neutral area’ and both JAI and Failaq al-Rahman agreed to withdraw.  But by the end of July residents protested that their town was still a military zone ‘surrounded by earthen berms and security checkpoints’ and demanded that all armed groups leave along with their ‘heavy weaponry’.  A group of brave women led a demonstration against the continued (para)militarization of the town – according to Syria Direct men did not join ‘because they were afraid of being arrested, beaten or shot’ – and the local (civilian) council backed their demands:

We left Bashar al-Assad for freedom and dignity.  It doesn’t make sense for another group to come along and revoke our freedom.

Those last three words are freighted with meaning; the men had good reason to fear detention.  JAI had previously paraded regime prisoners taken during skirmishes on the front lines through the streets and placed some of them in cages on rooftops as human shields against air strikes (see here and here, and the statement by Human Rights Watch here), but its cruelty extended to opponents of the regime who failed to support or submit to its own authority too.

One young man who survived incarceration in JAI’s notorious al-Tawba (‘Repentance’) prison in Douma (above, after JAI’s withdrawal) described what happened to Syria Deeply:

The young man said he was interrogated and tortured by being electrocuted and beaten with metal wires while hanging from a wall. “I was detained at the regime’s air force security prison once, and I found no difference between the two, except that Jaish al-Islam claims to be part of a revolution,” he said.

“I was determined that no matter what they did, I would never admit to something I had not done. I believe my stubbornness frustrated them, so they started a new cycle of torture – they starved me.”

After two months of torture, Saeed was transferred to another cell, where he spent another six months. He was never brought before a judge nor allowed to have any visitors.

He recalled: “[Six months later] they finally called me to the interrogation room again. There, one of them said to me, ‘This was a lesson, so that you learn not to criticize Jaish al-Islam’s leaders. If you do it again, your punishment will be serious.’”

At least one commentary claims there was a difference between the prisons that formed part of the criminal justice system introduced by the armed opposition groups and these  nominally secret jails for political prisoners, but in practice the distinction did not always amount to much.  In August 2016 two young brothers, desperate for food, stole a pair of shoes from outside a mosque during prayers; their plan was to sell them for bread, but they were caught by JAI and tried in its regular court.  The older boy – like many other ‘ordinary’ criminals – was sentenced to one month’s hard labour, which involved cementing and transporting dirt as part of ongoing tunnel construction.  The younger was imprisoned in an underground cell at al-Tawba with adult prisoners for a month; he was just ten years old (details here).  Arbitrary arrests were also common; in another report Syria Deeply interviewed one man who was imprisoned in al-Tawba over a mundane dispute with a neighbour who, unfortunately for him, had high-level connections with JAI.  He was inside for a month and tortured.

These violations and abuses mirrored the still greater excesses that were the lifeblood of the regime’s vastly more extensive carceral archipelago – see for example Amnesty International‘s report on Saydnaya Prison (which it describes as a ‘human slaughterhouse’) here and here and its collaboration with Forensic Architecture here and here – but when besieged Ghouta was so often described as a giant prison many of those trapped inside were understandably sickened to discover that their jailers were not only on the outside.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Arab Army supported by Hezbollah had capitalised on the internal fighting to break through the front lines to the south in May and capture the Marj, an agricultural landscape of farms, small towns and villages that had served as the Ghouta’s breadbasket throughout the siege.  JAI had supposedly withdrawn 800 of its fighters from the district a few days before, leaving other ‘rebels scrambling to fill the void‘, but JAI protested that it had been forced to do so because Jabhat al-Nusra (an ally of Failaq al-Rahman) had blocked the road to the Marj and prevented the evacuation of wounded and the resupply of its fighters.

The loss of al-Marj was a body blow to the Ghouta’s siege economy, exacerbating the immiseration of the population, and the recriminations that followed did little to assuage tensions between the armed opposition groups.

These spilled over into open violence again less than a year later.  At the end of April 2017 Aron Lund reported renewed clashes between Jaish al-Islam and Failaq al-Rahman and allied rebel groups.  In the first five days of fighting more than 95 people were killed and hundreds wounded.  In short order Médecins Sans Frontières was forced to suspend medical support to East Ghouta when armed men stormed one of its hospitals ‘to seek out specific wounded patients’ belonging to an opposing faction – in direct violation of the medical neutrality required by international humanitarian law – and could not safely restore its provision until June.  There were dozens of peaceful public demonstrations calling for an end to the in-fighting, but in response to one such protest in Irbin some of JAI’s fighters opened fire on the crowd and wounded 13 people:

This was a grim realisation of the fears of would-be demonstrators the year before, and another dismal echo of the regime and the response of its security forces to peaceful demonstrations in 2011 that did so much to spark the civil war in the first place.  It’s as unsurprising as it is regrettable that the office of the Violations Documentation Center in Douma should have been raided by a mob from the ‘Popular Movement’ of JAI in August, which stole equipment and attacked the staff, and that JAI’s local police should have done nothing to protect the building or its occupants.

These roiling divisions within the armed opposition combined with the regime’s pyrrhic victories over Homs (whose siege ended in May 2014) and Aleppo (whose recapture was completed by December 2016) to allow two renewed offensives that affected East Ghouta.  Both government campaigns were considerably strengthened by direct support from Russian armed forces (which had started in September 2015).

Offensive II: al-Qaboun, Barzeh and the violence of ‘de-escalation’

On 18 February 2017 pro-government forces abandoned the truce and attacked al-Qaboun and Barzeh without warning and with extraordinary ferocity.  One of the defining dimensions of siege warfare is that its victims have precious few escape routes from its indirect or direct violence.  Here is one resident from al-Qaboun speaking to Syria Direct:

“The bombardment came out of nowhere,” [Abu Ahmad] al-Halabi … told Syria Direct on Sunday morning. “We were working, living our daily lives. We didn’t sense anything until the rockets began to fall.”

Al-Halabi says that he and his seven children tried to flee their neighborhood after the shelling began on Saturday, but they were prevented from passing through regime checkpoints and leaving the area.

Many people fled through the tunnels, seeking sanctuary in East Ghouta.  By the end of March the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that more than 17,000 people had fled into the Ghouta, and that the situation for the 25 – 30,000 who remained in al-Qaboun and Barzeh was increasingly precarious.  The neighbourhoods were in ruins, barely recognisable, and still the bombing and shelling continued.

The ground and air offensive reached its peak during May – the image above shows pro-government forces in al-Qaboun – and surrender agreements were rapidly concluded.  Convoys of buses started the process of forcible transfer of fighters and civilians to Idlib; the Free Syrian Army had already described the campaign as a ‘systematic strategy of ethnic cleansing’.  Some people remained in Barzeh, but if the wretched cleric to whom I referred earlier really wanted to see a ‘ghost town’ she should have looked outside the Ghouta and after the Assad regime’s assault on al-Qaboun.  Siege Watch reported:

After the final buses left Qaboun, leaving the neighborhood depopulated, photos emerged of what appeared to be rampant looting and vandalism by pro-government forces and the burning of remaining property. The looted property was sold in the government-controlled Mezze 86 neighborhood in so-called “Sunni Markets.”

By then pro-government forces had breached all the tunnels, and the siege of the Ghouta was absolute (more here).  Those who had escaped into East Ghouta soon found they had been forced from the frying pan into the fire, and now – like thousands of residents in the Ghouta – they faced multiple displacements.  For these attacks prepared the ground for the third and final offensive, the endgame that was played out during the winter of 2018.

Yet in May 2017, as the attacks on Barzeh and al-Qaboun escalated, East Ghouta was recognised as one of four ‘de-escalation zones‘ through an agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran (al-Qaboun, which was described by the Russian Foreign Ministry as ‘controlled by insurgents of Jabhat al-Nusra’ [reconstituted as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)], was explicitly excluded from the agreement).  The Ministry’s briefing was a surreal affair, conjuring up a world in which there was no siege at all: ‘In the morning, most civilians leave Eastern Ghouta for Damascus for earning money, and, in the evening, they come back.’

The officer providing these fanciful details, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy (the first Deputy Chief of the Russian General Staff) acknowledged that the enclave was far from being a ghost town: ‘About 690,000 civilians live in Eastern Ghouta.’ The estimate was roughly twice that of the UN and most NGOs, but the recognition that the Ghouta was overwhelmingly inhabited by civilians (‘about 9,000 insurgents are controlling it’) should be remembered in the light of what followed.

Failaq al-Rahman accepted the terms of the de-escalation agreement in August 2017 but, like Jabhat al-Nusra/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, JAI was explicitly excluded from the provisional truce and was regarded as a legitimate target by pro-government forces.  This did nothing to de-fuse tensions between the armed opposition groups, but in any case the agreement was moot.  The slow violence of the siege accelerated and within months the military offensive had started to gear up too.  In mid-November Failaq al-Rahman and its allies were accused of attacking the Military Vehicles Administration base near Harasta, a key government strongpoint, and in response both shelling (including ground-launched cluster munitions) and air strikes intensified; by early December the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that 200 civilians had been killed in East Ghouta by these attacks.  De-escalation had only existed on paper and it was evidently now a dead letter.  Human Rights Watch claimed that a number of the attacks were indiscriminate and so were also violations of international law – war crimes – but its protestations were ignored.

The bombing, the shelling and the killing continued, and by January residents were reported to be ‘moving from town to town with little more than the clothes on their backs to escape an amorphous frontline.’  Some found lodging (but rarely shelter) with family and friends; the more fortunate might be able to rent rooms, but these were often on the upper floors of buildings so that their fortune was short-lived: these were highly vulnerable to an air strike, and many people were already moving down to the basements.

Offensive III: The endgame

The endgame started with a cataclysmic storm of aerial violence on 18 February 2018.  Abudlmonam Eassa, a local photographer, kept a diary of the first days of the assault. ‘A strike hits very close today,’ he wrote on 19 February (a day when 19 air strikes killed at least 127 people):

The whole area seems to have been burned. During the first few seconds, you think no one is dead, you just see ashes and destruction. That’s because people hide as soon as they hear the sound of a rocket or a plane.

Two days later, scorched earth and rubble as far as his eyes could see:

I climb to the rooftop to get a better view. Everything is burning. It seems like everywhere was shelled – Saqba, Misraba, Douma, Kafr Batna… it seems like the whole area is burning.

By the end of the week:

People are cowering in shelters. Everyone is in shock. We can’t understand anything. Everything is out of service. I can’t believe the difference four days of bombardment has made. The whole area has been changed, erased. The streets aren’t there anymore. They’re full of dust, rubble.

A broken landscape of flames and ash, dust and rubble: and already the Syrian government was claiming there were ‘few civilians left in eastern Ghouta‘.  The UN and most NGOs estimated there were at least 350,000 of them still trapped in the enclave.   Many, perhaps most, were in basements, shelters and tunnels, too scared to leave even to search for food in many cases: ‘just a cup of water or a piece of bread may cost a man his life.’  ‘It’s not a war, it’s a massacre,’ exclaimed one exhausted local medic.  An official with UOSSM [an international coalition of humanitarian and medical NGOs] described the bombardment as ‘hysterical’ – ‘a humanitarian catastrophe … the mass killing of people who do not have the most basic tenets of life’ – while the Russian ambassador to the United Nations presented his own diagnosis of hysteria, airily dismissing accounts of civilian casualties as ‘mass psychosis’ and images of terrified families huddling in makeshift shelters as merely ‘propagandistic scenarios of catastrophe.’  Rejecting calls for a ceasefire, he continued:

You get the impression that all of eastern Ghouta consists only of hospitals and it is with them that the Syrian Army is fighting…  This is a well known method of information warfare.

In fact hospitals were key targets – 13 of them were hit in the first 48 hours alone, four of them destroyed completely – and the same doctor claimed that aircraft were circling overhead and following ambulances (there were never enough of them) to locate clinics and medical centres.  

That might seem fanciful given the speed at which fighter jets streak across the sky, but Syrian Arab Army helicopters laden with barrel bombs were perfectly capable of executing such a manoeuvre.  In addition, many different drones were in operation above the Ghouta.  These ranged from small commercial drones used by the Syrian Arab Army (see below; also here) to much larger Russian and Iranian drones, all of them relaying real-time video to facilitate targeting from other platforms and some of them (like the Shahed-129) carrying their own weapons.  A senior officer explained that the drones ensured the Army ‘was well aware of all the fortifications, defenses, warehouses and logistics routes’ and established ‘coordination between command and the advancing forces.’  Targeting was directed at more than those military objectives.  Humam Husari, a Douma film-maker, explained: ‘Usually people could move a little bit at night and sometimes during the day, but now because of the drones they capture any movement and will be targeted immediately.’

Precision intelligence doesn’t count for very much without precision weapons, and there were persistent reports that both Russian and Syrian aircraft were using unguided ‘dumb’ bombs. Subsequently Robert Fisk seemed to confirm the indiscriminate nature of the bombardment:

[T]his from a Russian source – outside Syria, but all too familiar with Russian military operations inside the country – who knows about the trajectory of rockets: “The bombs we used in Ghouta were not “smart” bombs with full computer guidance. Maybe some. But most had a variable of 50 metres off target.” In other words, you can forget the old claim of “pin-point” accuracy… These Russian bombs launched against eastern Ghouta had a spread pattern of 150 feet each side of what the pilots were aiming at; which means a house instead of an anti-aircraft gun. Or one house rather than another house. And anyone inside.

I say ‘seemed’ to confirm, because in the same report Fisk added this bizarre rider:

There are streets in Ghouta, incredibly enough, whose buildings are still standing relatively unscathed. They were spared during the bombardment because their inhabitants said – by mobile phone – they wanted to stay in their homes and would not resist the Syrian army.

So all those inaccurate, unguided bombs that could not distinguish between ‘one house rather than another house’ were nevertheless able to distinguish between the location of one cellphone and another?  I doubt it (and I’ve seen no other reference to those phone calls).   Other observers noted that Syrian pilots were not trained in the use of smart weapons – which were far more expensive – and suggested that Russian pilots followed suit either to make attribution more difficult or simply as ‘a tactic aimed at scaring civilians.’  That rings true; the most common way to compensate for a lack of precision is through volume – hitting the target area with multiple strikes – which, in the Second World War, was sometimes called ‘terror bombing’.  Targets in East Ghouta came under fire from aircraft and from artillery.  

In consequence:   

“We stopped comprehending where the bombing is coming from, either from the sky or the ground,” Khalid Abulwafa, an ambulance driver and member of the Syrian Civil Defence, told Al Jazeera. “We arrive at a site that has been hit, and immediately another attack follows… we just run to pull out as many people as possible before it’s too late,” he said. “Multiple raids hit different areas at the same exact time… we don’t have the ability to rush to all the areas at once.”

Another doctor told the Syrian-American Medical Society:

Hospitals are overwhelmed. Floors are overflowing with injured and blood. Those patients we discharged a couple of days ago are now back with more serious injuries.

In the first six weeks of the year, before the onslaught began, hospitals and clinics supported by Médecins Sans Frontières had recorded 180 dead and more than 1,600 wounded (up to 18 February); in the next three days alone a further 237 dead and 1,285 wounded were reported, ‘extraordinary mass-casualty influxes’, and this was only a partial accounting.

It was as difficult and dangerous to attend to the dead as it was to the injured.  According to one report on 21 February:

Pathologists and gravediggers in the [Ghouta] said before the violence accelerated that they had 20 to 50 graves on standby at any given time. This week, they said that was not enough.  “We are overwhelmed. We are throwing body parts in mass graves. It’s all we can do,” said one man.

The next day one grieving relative confirmed the enormity of what was taking place:

Abdullah was desperate to bury his uncle quickly in line with Muslim practice. He spent an hour retrieving the corpse from the bombed wreckage of the family home. But for a day he could not lay it to rest. By daylight, the constant Syrian regime air strikes were too heavy to risk going out. By night, he feared the graveyard would be deadly. “If they [the regime] caught any light or movement, we could be immediately targeted,” says Abdullah, his voice trembling. “I don’t think the situation can be worse — there is no ‘worse’ left.” Abdullah, who asked not to be identified by his full name, entrusted the body to the undertakers, to be buried in darkness with no loved ones nor final rites.

The aerial assault deployed the full arsenal of the Syrian military and its allies, including barrel bombs, cluster munitions, ‘elephant’ rockets and missiles; there were also reports of  chlorine gas.

A young mother, Nivin Hotary, kept a diary of those desperate weeks confined to a basement (see also here) and like a prisoner – ‘detained in this prison, under house arrest’ – marked the days of her incarceration on the wall (above).  Here is part of her entry for 22 February:

Detained… we know that our crime is that we called for freedom, but we don’t know the sentence.  Detained… we are tortured in so many ways. For example, rest.

For so many people in this tiny basement, sleep is forbidden. The regime’s rockets fall every ten minutes, ensuring that nobody is allowed to sleep…

From a small window in my group prison cell, the basement, I look at the world! The sky is so far away and hard to see, blocked by fighter-jets, MiGs, Sukhoi warplanes, and bombers. Our weather forecast is filled with barrel bombs and rockets, with a heavy hail of shrapnel.

During a lull in the bombing one of the mothers in the shelter took her son outside for some fresh air.  When he returned he announced: ‘I saw them in the sky! One was black and the other white. The planes have eyes, and they were watching us.’

Somehow the front lines held through the first three weeks of February, and the map below (from Le Monde) shows the territories then still controlled by the main opposition groups: Jaish al-Islam on the east, centred on Douma; Failaq al-Rahman further west (the so-called ‘Central Section’), including the towns of Ayn Tarma, Irbin, Jobar and Zamalka, with some pockets under the sway of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS); and Ahrar al-Sham, which controlled Harasta.

But on 25 February – hard on the heels of a UN Security Council Resolution calling for a ceasefire from which unspecified ‘terrorists’ were excluded – the aerial assault was joined by a ground offensive spearheaded by tanks and armoured vehicles, and the situation changed rapidly and dramatically.  The first map below plots major strikes by Russian and Syrian aircraft between 18 and 23 February; the second map (also from Le Monde) superimposes on this the direction of the initial ground attack.

This was a calculated change of strategy.  Nawar Oliver explained that over the preceding six years the rebels had become experts in urban warfare (the photograph below shows JAI commanders working with a detailed map of the Ghouta); they knew every square metre of towns like Jobar and Ain Tarma in the west, where pro-government forces had tried time and time again to break through without success: so the Syrian Arab Army and its allies staged this new assault from the east and across open country.  The rebels were ready for this too, but JAI accused Failaq al-Rahman of cutting water from the Barada River that was to have flooded a defensive trench system and so accelerating the advance of the Syrian Arab Army.  In response, Failaq al-Rahman claimed to have been ‘stabbed in the back’ by JAI which, so it complained, had failed to hold the front line.

As the map from Le Monde shows, the rapid advance of pro-goverbment forces across a widening front was accompanied by a second, more concentrated assault from the west on the Harasta Farms area.

Realising that the ‘cease-fire’ was already a dead letter, thousand of people abandoned their homes.  Here is one teacher, Sarah, describing the flight of her family:

When night fell [on 25 February], Sarah and her family decided to flee to a nearby basement that they hoped would be safer. To ensure the survival of some family members, they divided into three teams taking separate routes. When one missile fell, and then another, and another, they took shelter. “A missile hit the roof of the building where we were hiding, and the children cried more and more… We decided to run: whatever happens, never stop . . . . We ran, missiles came again, a child fell down. I carried her and kept running.” They finally made it to the basement, but it reminded her of one of “the regime’s prisons.” “There were about a hundred persons in a 150-square meter basement … No lighting, no water, no food…

The same stories were repeated, endless variations on a single theme: families running together and leaving virtually everything behind them.  Here is a farmer from al-Shifouniyeh describing how his family fled to Douma from the rapidly advancing eastern front:

“The forces advanced into the farms…We lifted the kids and ran in the night… We don’t even have clothes…  The warplanes and rocket launchers pounced. The bullets were reaching our building.” With their three children, he and his wife also live in a basement. “It’s disgusting,” Abu Firas added. “We want to return home…We have our lands. We abandoned them, our cows, our sheep.” The army now controls the village.

 

Not everyone abandoned their animals (above).  According to the New York Times:

[S]ome [were] accompanied by their livestock as agricultural areas were lost… “The smell of rotten garbage is all around, in addition to animals’ smell,” said Thaer al-Dimashqi, an anti-government activist in Douma who uses an alias for safety, adding that 100 families had flooded into his neighborhood alone. “Sheep and cattle are surrounding my house — imagine, cows are being kept inside houses.”

Amidst this mounting chaos Syrian Arab Air Force helicopters were dropping thousands of leaflets (original and translation below) on Douma and the surrounding area calling on civilians to leave through a ‘humanitarian corridor’ that would be opened via the al-Wafideen crossing during a daily truce between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., starting on 27 February:

Despite the risibly contrary claims from Damascus and Moscow that the Ghouta had been abandoned to ‘terrorists’, this was a clear admission that civilians were present and in grave danger.  And, as Halim Shebiya underscored, issuing a warning did not nullify the legal requirement for attacks to be proportionate and confined to military targets.  Although their tempo was reduced during the ‘pause’, however, air strikes and shelling continued – prompting one activist to demand how people could trust the forces carrying out the bombing to ensure their safety if they chose to evacuate – and there were also reports that rebels had shelled the corridor to prevent civilians from leaving.  In any event, nobody did so.

Three days later the ceasefire collapsed.  Fierce fighting continued to rage across the Ghouta: between 18 February (when the military offensive kicked off) and 3 March at least 1,000 people had been killed and 5,000 injured, many of them suffering acute trauma.  These are minimum estimates, derived only from medical facilities supported by MSF (and even then, not all of them had reported), ‘meaning that the overall toll [was] significantly higher.’

Satellite imagery confirmed the extent of the physical devastation (see also here).  The first map shows new physical damage between 3 December and 23 February; the orange cells show ‘minor damage’ caused between those dates, the red cells ‘major damage’.  Analysis showed ‘29% of the cells were affected by major new damage, with presence of buildings completely destroyed or severely damaged between 3 December 2017 and 23 February 2018.’

This second map shows new physical damage between 23 February and 6 March, when ‘14% of the cells were affected by major new damage’.  You can see the locus shifting from the west to the east with the ground offensive.

It bears repeating that these maps plot only new damage.  To give you some idea of the base figures, in December 2017 analysis of satellite imagery revealed that 93 per cent of all the buildings in Jobar had been destroyed or damaged; 71 per cent in Ain Terma; 59 per cent in Zamalka (Douma was not included in the December survey).

As the perimeter of devastation widened, people continued to flee from the front lines and deeper into Ghouta, many of them displaced multiple times, but always more and more people crowding into a smaller and smaller space.

By 12 March pro-government forces had shrunk the space controlled by rebel groups in East Ghouta and the two ground offensives – across the wide front to the east and through the deepening wedge from the west – bisected and then rapidly trisected the area.  They left behind scorched earth and towns of rubble.

Thousands of civilians had been displaced, but as this map from OCHA (dated 12 March) shows, virtually nobody had moved through the ‘humanitarian corridors’.  A second had been opened from the zone controlled by Failaq al-Rahman to the south four days earlier, but there were reports that rebel snipers had ‘slammed shut’ both escape hatches.

The aerial assault never slackened, and the death toll mounted.  As this map shows, the focus of air strikes and artillery bombardments shifted again, back from the east to the west, focusing on Harasta and the area to the south controlled by Failaq al-Rahman:

But conditions were also bleak to the north.  By 12 March Ahmad, a member of a specialized team charged with collecting bodies – and body parts – from hospitals and clinics described scenes of utter horror in Douma:

Usually the family of the deceased is responsible for burying their relatives, but now the situation is catastrophic. Bodies are piling up at medical facilities as the bombings make it difficult for residents to go out and collect them. It doesn’t make sense for somebody to be killed because they are transporting and burying the dead….[so] there is more pressure on the transport teams and the civil defense…

Funeral ceremonies and services are now a forgotten matter. Even a proper grave is a luxury. Increasingly, we are resorting to mass graves…

The people of Ghouta are prevented from saying goodbye to their loved ones. The deceased arrives at the cemetery alone, or accompanied by one family member. Getting a white shroud for the deceased is just a dream. We are wrapping bodies in whatever we can get our hands on: cloth, blankets or plastic bags.

One week later and it was too dangerous to reach the graveyards even at night, and the dead were being buried in parks and backyards.

Eventually the pressure proved too much for many people to bear.  Social media started to register the bone-weariness of the survivors – writing on Facebook from a basement crammed with 200 people, most of them women and children,  Ward Mardini wrote ‘They’re all tired of shelling and siege’; ‘We believe that the Ghouta is precious for you,’ she told rebel commanders, ‘but we’re tired and the situation demands a realistic solution that stanches the waterfall of blood’ – and there were protests in Kafr Batna and Hammouriyeh calling on the rebels to leave.

 On 15 March Josie Ensor reported:

Hammouriyeh’s residents have borne the brunt in the last few days with a relentless onslaught of barrel bombs, mortars and chemical strikes, until surrender looked to be the only remaining option. The last of the messages from inside Hammouriyeh came in the middle of the night on Wednesday [14 March]. “More than 5,000 people are at risk of annihilation,” a doctor in the town said via [WhatsApp] text. “Please get our voice out to the world, this might be the last message I’m able to send. The wounded are in the streets and cannot be moved and the planes are targeting any movement. I witnessed an entire family getting killed in front of me by air strikes, I’m by a basement trying to send this message.” The internet connection in the town went down shortly after and their fate is unknown.

The barrage was so intense that for most people escape to other areas in the Ghouta was blocked, and the dam burst early the next morning.  On 15 March thousands of civilians started to stream out from Hammouriyeh on foot – as many as 15,000 by nightfall – running the gauntlet of Syrian television cameras:

Throughout the day, Syrian state television broadcast live coverage of columns of families walking out of the town toward Syrian government lines, clutching children, suitcases and plastic bags of belongings. Men were bowed under heavy suitcases. Women carried children and torn plastic bags of clothes. An injured, blood soaked man was carried on a stretcher. An elderly man pushed his wife in a wheelchair, another walked with a herd of cows….

Some walked silently past the camera, turning their faces away and refusing to talk….

Later Thursday afternoon, state television began broadcasting from inside the recaptured town, where many thousands of people were milling in the streets with suitcases and bundles, preparing to leave. Pick up trucks, Syrian army vehicles and buses then arrived and residents piled furniture and mattresses on board as they were escorted out of the town.

The refugees streamed east towards Hawsh al-Ashaari and newly-occupied government territory aiming for Adra:

Elsewhere, the assault continued without slackening, and people continued to flee the onslaught.  Those who managed to escape Hammouriyeh for shelter elsewhere in the Ghouta found respite but few found refuge.  ‘We don’t know what will happen,” one exhausted man told the New York Times in a voice message, ‘the sound of rocket fire in the background. “I run to Hammouriyeh, they bomb it. I run to Zamalka, more bombing is ahead of us”’ (he was right; the photograph below by Abdulmonam Eassa shows Zamalka on 24 March).

Everywhere the refugees were met by new horrors.  Nivin and her son and daughter were forced to leave their basement and flee again on 16 March:

It’s like Judgement Day… people are running and screaming. People in their nightgowns and people barefoot. Cars loaded with people, speeding around at over 100 [km/h].  And I too am screaming, looking at what I see around me.  Usually these kinds of posts end with me waking up and realizing it was all just a nightmare. I wish it were a nightmare. But it’s not. Our days are worse than nightmares.  I’m running while holding my daughter’s hand, my eyes are on my son. A five-year-old girl is crying out and yelling: “Tell them, tell them not to kill us!” But I don’t have any answer to calm her down.

There is a helicopter directly over our heads right now, and it seems to be spinning slowly as it showers the neighborhood with bombs.

The photographer Abdulmonam Eassawriting from Ain Terma on 21 March (he was transferred from Arbin to Idlib two days later):

I have been moving from one area to the next since March 15, when I left Hammouriyeh, my hometown. The bombing wasn’t even the main reason why I left – it was the clashes and the regime’s advance. I spend most of my time cowering in basements.
I am walking in a neighbourhood of Ain Terma. The road is very narrow and there is a woman and her child walking near me. A shell hits. It’s three or four metres away from me, but very close to the woman and the child. I don’t feel anything for several minutes. Then I feel a massive shock. I look around. The child is on the ground, crying. I pick him up. There is no one else around. His mother is on the ground. She is dead. I pick him up and run to the entrance of a nearby building. Another shell hits. I put the kid on the ground. His foot is almost detached. I try to hold it in place.  I pick him up and run with him through the streets. They are truly the streets of death.

The net continued to close.  By then the Syrian Arab Army and its allies had captured around 80 per cent of East Ghouta, and that same day (21 March) Russian forces brokered a deal between Ahrar al-Sham and the Syrian government to allow fighters and their families to be removed from Harasta to rebel-held Idlib; buses started to arrive early the next morning for the forcible transfer of thousands of people. Those who elected to stay were given guarantees ‘that no harm [would] come to them.’

Two days later (23 March) Failaq al-Rahman concluded a similar agreement covering the towns of Arbin, Zamalka, Ain Terma and Jobar.  The sick and wounded would be evacuated immediately.  Then fighters, their families and any civilians who wanted to leave with them would be taken by bus to Idlib – al Jazeera explained that ‘other civilians are leaving as well, people who were involved in opposition activities like media activists, medics, civil defence volunteers’ because they ‘are considered terrorists by the Syrian government so they cannot stay’ – while those who chose to remain were assured that they would not be prosecuted provided they ‘reconciled‘.

These were difficult, traumatic decisions that often divided families, and in a later post I’ll discuss the fate of the deportees, those who moved to nearby resettlement camps and government shelters (usually with the desperate hope of returning to Ghouta in an uncertain future), and those who stayed in what was left of their homes.  But these capitulations left Jaish al-Islam isolated in its stronghold of Douma.  There were reports that JAI was preventing civilians from leaving the town, who were caught between the fear of being shot and the fear of being bombed, but small groups of exhausted people fled on foot through the al-Wafideen corridor.  According to a spokesperson for the International Committeee of the Red Cross,

“People are very exhausted, as they spent days on the move before reaching the shelters, with the clothes they wear as sole belongings.  One woman was telling me that she had to throw on the road the few clothes she managed to bring for her and her children, as it became too heavy to carry them while walking for many hours before reaching the crossing point.”

They were taking precious advantage of an uneasy truce that lasted for ten days – broken by intermittent air strikes – while JAI negotiated terms.  Some of its members wanted to fight on, while others wanted to leave with their families but refused to go to Idlib: not only was the rebel-held area widely regarded as Assad’s next killing ground, an elaborately constructed shooting gallery where the offensive would soon be resumed, but JAI had a ‘blood feud’ with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham which controlled much of the area.

Some medical evacuations of the sick and wounded were successfully completed, and there were reports that transfers of some JAI fighters to Jarablus (in the Turkish-occupied north of Syria) had taken place too, but further negotiations stalled and eventually broke down.  JAI reportedly placed new conditions on subsequent transfers and refused to release prisoners it had held captive for several years, and on the afternoon of 6 April it shelled Damascus, killing four and wounding another 22. The assault by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies immediately resumed with a vengeance.  A ground offensive was launched under the cover of a sustained air and artillery bombardment broadcast live on state TV.

Haitham Bakkar sent this urgent message from Douma:

We are being wiped out right now. We are being bombarded with barrel bombs and rocket launchers. The town is overcrowded and many people have no place to hide.

Meanwhile, against the grain of the preceding paragraphs – every single one of them – here is Robert Fisk reporting from the territory regained by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies in East Ghouta on 4 April.  Comparing its soldiers to the French poilus on the Western Front (the geopolitics of that metaphor bears reflection), Fisk was nonetheless puzzled by their failure to dig any trenches, a staple of wars of attrition – and yet, he continued, that explained their shock when they burst through the front lines.  Here is one of them:

I have never seen so many tunnels. They had built tunnels everywhere. They were deep and they ran beneath shops and mosques and hospitals and homes and apartment blocks and roads and fields. I went into one with full electric lighting, the lamps strung out for hundreds of yards. I walked half a mile through it. They were safe there. So were the civilians who hid in the same tunnels.

Think, now, of the weight of that last sentence pressing on my previous paragraphs.  Fisk had already prepared the ground for it: ‘Why the wasteland of homes and streets,’ he asked, ‘and how did so many of the civilians survive…?’  And in case you missed it, he repeated the conclusion of his informant without qualification: the tunnels ‘are deep and dank and glisten with moisture. But they are safe.’

Fisk (above) was not wrong about the rebels’ mastery of underground operations.  As the Syrian Arab Army advanced from the east it encountered a formidable trench system cutting across the rural landscape, and as this satellite image reveals there were trenches carved across the heart of Ghouta too (those brown scars):

Here is a ground view of a trench connecting Harasta and Ain Terma:

The trenches would obviously have been exposed to air attack, but the tunnels were a different story.  Those dug to connect East Ghouta with Barzeh and al-Qaboun were common knowledge (more here, including maps); they had all been blown by pro-government forces during their offensive the previous year.   But there were also tunnels inside Ghouta.  When Jobar, Ain Terma and Zamalka fell, Syrian troops discovered ‘a spider’s web’ of tunnels running for 5 km between the three towns, excavated under the orders of Failaq al-Rahman.  The major ones were 15 metres deep, their walls reinforced with steel rods and fitted with lights and even surveillance cameras.  These were wide enough to drive a vehicle through; others were accessible only on foot.

During the negotiations with Jaish al-Islam, one of the Russian demands was for maps of its tunnel system, which supposedly linked Douma with al-Shifouniyeh to the east and Misraba to the south-west (one of the tunnels is shown under construction below).

I haven’t been able to discover how extensive the system was (or, given the friction between the rebel groups, whether it was a system at all).  It may be that some of the tunnels and trenches were connected, and the basements of new buildings in Douma were often connected to the subterranean grid.   Still, I suspect that the Army officer who told CNN that ‘all of Ghouta is connected by tunnels’ was exaggerating; there must have been huge swathes of territory outside the networks.   And given the often ambivalent and sometimes antagonistic relations between rebels and civilians, it’s unlikely that many people found sanctuary in the tunnels with the rebels: first-person testimonies describe, almost without exception, families leading a wretched existence in crowded, unsanitary basements and shelters.

Fisk’s report never mentions the shelters in which most of the besieged population sought refuge of sorts but instead elaborates the safety of the tunnels.  You might wonder why, if the people of East Ghouta were so safe and had so little to fear from the advancing Syrian Arab Army and its allies, they should have risked their lives to flee not once but multiple times.

For most people it was about degrees of danger: as the offensive intensified, being outside and above ground was to court almost certain death – ‘a suicide mission‘ according to Bayan Rehan, a member of the Women’s Council in Douma, ‘like playing Russian roulette‘, according to Ahmad Khanshour, another community activist in Douma – but being underground was far from safe.  Most of the shelters were makeshift affairs.  Here is one young mother who fled with her husband and daughter to ‘the only underground shelter’ in Saqba:

The dusty basement they now shared with 14 other families was once used as a warehouse by a furniture merchant. After removing useless furniture, they laid out mattresses and hung up curtains for a bathroom. The men tried to fortify the basement with sandbags meant to help absorb the blasts or shrapnel from barrel bombs.

Across Eastern Ghouta, which contains three cities and 14 towns including Saqba, residents worry whether their underground shelters will be sturdy enough to protect them…

Other families hastily dug shelters underneath their homes; the scene below is from a house in Hammouriyeh:

Unlike the tunnels, shelters like these had few if any facilities – no electricity, running water or sanitation and poor ventilation – and they were not reinforced with steel (or very much at all):

Under cracked ceilings that bulge downwards from the force of previous strikes, they string sheets across the basement to partition off rooms for entire families.

“Look at it. It is completely uninhabitable. It is not even safe to put chickens in. There is no bathroom, just one toilet, and there are 300 people,” said a man in a shelter in the region’s biggest urban centre, Douma….

Overhead, steel rebars were visible in the large cracks and depressions of a concrete ceiling that seemed poised to collapse over the shelter’s terrified inhabitants at any new blast nearby.

Apart from the fear of being buried alive if the building collapsed – many called the shelters ‘graves’ or ‘tombs’ – there were other dangers.  ‘It is the closest place considered safe,’ said one young teacher.  ‘But it is not safe. The barrel bomb sometimes lands at the shelter. Either at the door or inside, injuring or killing many.’  Even if people were too scared to go outside, they often stood near the entrance to get air (or cellphone reception) and were exposed to danger.  Here is Nivin Hotary again:

I was standing by the cellar door trying to get cellphone reception. A cluster bomb fell and there were explosions all around me. One explosion was only about a meter from the cellar door. I saw a big fire and heard a deafening sound. I ran down the steps, and the fire followed me…. On a night not long ago, rockets fell somewhere nearby. The pressure of exploding iron spins you around.

And of course buildings did collapse – Nivin explained that ‘they tried everything to bury us alive in the basements’ – but even if the concrete and breeze-block withstood the blast from the bombs and shells, death could still penetrate the interior.  There was the ever-present fear of chlorine gas, and in anticipation of another attack – the possibility was on everyone’s lips – people in the basements made improvised masks with charcoal.  

The danger was acute because chlorine gas is heavier than air and seeps into basements and cellars.  Nivin again, on 22 March:

A white wave – I saw it from my spot – descending the stairs and filling the whole width of the staircase.  Afterwards it entered through the door of the room where we were, and spread.  And it entered the men’s room.  In seconds it filled the space, such that those around me started shouting: who switched off the light!  The light didn’t switch off but the white wave filled the space..

From the moment it entered through the door, the man yelled to us one word: “Chloooride”..

Neither were those in the basements and shelters shielded from other, still more deadly weapons.  Thermobaric bombs were used throughout the offensive; they disperse an explosive cloud into the air that detonates in an intense fireball accompanied by a high-pressure shock wave that can reverberate,  ‘hitting the people inside at high force over and over again.’ Perhaps that is what Nivin described in her first report (above), in which case she had an extremely narrow escape.  

Phosphorus and napalm (above) were used time and time again, and on 23 March al Jazeera reported:

“An air strike targeted one of the underground cellars in Irbin last night where between 117 to 125 people, mostly women and children, were hiding,” Izzet Muslimani, an activist in Eastern Ghouta, told Al Jazeera.

Abul Yusr, an activist and citizen journalist in Irbin told Al Jazeera that the death toll was 45, and that the air raid had hit two shelters connected to one another by a corridor, leading to one becoming completely destroyed.

“The air strike entered through one shelter, where it exploded and killed everyone in it. The fires spread through to the second shelter, which soon became totally engulfed in flames,” Abul Yusr told Aljazeera.

“Some people managed to escape the fire in the second shelter, but their injuries are quite severe.”

 

On 7 April one of the most feared weapons of all was used against people sheltering in two buildings in Douma (though Fisk was at pains to cast doubt on that too).  I’ve discussed this in detail in ‘Gas masques‘, so I will simply repeat that the ‘shelters’ afforded no protection against chemical weapons either (in fact, the basement of one of the buildings turned out to be a death-trap).  JAI capitulated almost immediately, and another round of forcible displacements was set in train.

Dying and mourning

The trauma experienced by the residents of East Ghouta did not end with the siege (if it has indeed ended), and I’ll explore its continued slow violence in a later post.  When I wrote ‘The everywhere war’ I emphasised ‘the emergent, “event-ful” quality of contemporary violence, what Frédéric Gros saw as “moments of pure laceration” that puncture the everyday’, but I’d now want to qualify that (and will do so in a subsequent essay) because it privileges particular modalities of later modern war and marginalises others.  Siege warfare in Syria and elsewhere has been punctuated by moments of spectacular excess – the chemical weapons attacks, the cataclysmic bombardments, the attacks on hospitals – but it has also been characterised by a constant, background rhythm of violence (bombing and shelling, deprivation and malnutrition) that became ‘the everyday’, a ‘new normal’ endured by the besieged population but more or less accepted by outside observers.  

Yet that compromised everyday also included ways of being in the world that were precious, freighted with communion and compassion, which became occasions for mourning when it was time to leave.  Some of those forcibly displaced described leaving as itself a form of dying.  Here is Muataz Sameh, originally from Hammouriyeh, who worked as a nurse in a field hospital:

Leaving, it is as though I have died.

I will miss my home. I will miss my mother and my sister, who have left for the shelters [in Damascus]. I have heard nothing from them, no news to console me.

I will remember my brother, who died on the frontlines one week ago, and my friends who died in the bombings. I will remember the lives we lived, our gatherings and our peaceful protests…

Something has died inside us. We are leaving, running away from the reality that the regime won and we lost. I should have died before leaving. It would be more merciful.

   And here is Umm Muhammad, another nurse:

All of Zamalka is grieving. Mothers are saying goodbye to their sons, who [are leaving] so as not to be detained by the regime. Siblings bid each other goodbye.

I will miss everything here—the trees, the breeze. I will miss my children’s graves, which I must leave behind. They were taken from me in life, and now in death.

I visited my children’s graves to tell them what happened. I asked my sons to forgive me for leaving them behind in Zamalka. I told them they are blessed to remain entombed in this earth. Stay here, as witnesses.

There were other, less sombre memories: but these too were sources of mourning.  And so, finally (for now), here is a message from the Syria Campaign on ‘Leaving Ghouta‘:

When the bombs started falling on neighbourhoods its teachers and doctors took schools and hospitals underground and ordinary residents put on white helmets and rushed to rescue their friends and neighbours. The people of Ghouta launched inspiring civil society projects, often women-led. They created new media platforms and produced award-winning photojournalism. They created alternative energy resources and introduced new farming techniques…

Ghouta has set the ultimate example of civil resistance and what a society can be when neighbour helps neighbour. It is up to all of us continue living by that example every day.

To be continued

Mass Murder in Slow Motion (II): Siege Economies

This is the second in a series of posts on East Ghouta (Damascus); the first, providing essential background, is here.

The logic of the siege warfare pursued by Syria and its allies has been to cordon off areas under rebel control; to restrict, disrupt and ultimately prevent movement across the siege lines (including food, fuel and medical supplies); to subject the besieged population to sustained and intensifying military violence from aircraft, ground ordnance (artillery, missiles and mortars) and sniper fire; and to outlaw the provision of medical aid to those inside the besieged areas and limit the evacuation of the sick and wounded.

You can find more on the reincarnation of siege warfare as a tactic of counterinsurgency in later modern war herehere, here and here.

Precarious lines and precarious lives

In this post I examine the siege economies that emerged in East Ghouta from 2012 and their transformation over the next six years (to March 2018).

The restrictions on movement imposed on the besieged population varied in time and space.  This map from the New York Times plots incidents between the Syrian Arab Army and various rebel groups from September to November 2012:

As the clashes intensified the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies established a series of checkpoints in November-December to regulate the movement of people and supplies between Damascus and East Ghouta, though Amnesty International reported that anyone crossing ‘ran the risk of being detained or shot by government snipers’ and there were also reports of goods being confiscated or pilfered.  Access to those crossing points was also controlled from within the besieged area by armed opposition groups whose actions affected both entrance and exit.

The restrictions increased, along with the dangers, until in August 2013 the two crossing points at al-Mleha and Douma were closed by the SAA.  One woman recalled how she ‘didn’t understand’ what was happening when the road out of Ghouta was first blocked::

What did it mean that we were trapped? Then stores’ shelves gradually went empty. Food, fuel, the most basic essentials … everything began to vanish.

But some trucks were still allowed through a third crossing point at al-Wafideen, and the ensuing geography of closure was intricate.

A series of semi-clandestine routes was established between East Ghouta and the suburban towns of al-Qaboun and Barzeh on the other side of the Damascus-Homs highway; an uneasy truce was concluded with rebels in those two towns in January and February 2014, and these routes became vital conduits for smuggling goods into East Ghouta.

People in al-Qaboun and Barzeh relied on conditional access to regime-controlled neighbourhoods beyond the checkpoints.  ‘The residents of al-Qaboun and Barzeh live as though they are trapped in a limbo,’ wrote Rafia Salameh, ‘at the mercy of checkpoints.’

The ʻmoodʼ of these checkpoints is measured in the distance between the guards’ pockets – as they are hungry and poor – and their strict application of the law within the presence of superior officers, punishing those who try to smuggle past them simple materials for survival…

Lighters, batteries, light bulbs and any other electrical devices are forbidden. Salt and citric acid, which may be used in the manufacture of explosives, are also forbidden. Gas, milk bottles, and diapers are allowed through if the family carries around the proper documentation in which checkpoint transits are recorded by date, to prove they are not smugglers. However, all these regulations frequently fell silent by paying a bribe at the Barzeh checkpoint.

Salim, a 13-year-old young merchant of sugar says: “They beat us and chase us when the main officer is present.” He went on to explain how his sales decisions are driven by what he can or cannot afford to pay at the checkpoint. His profit per kilogram of sugar is 100 Syrian pounds (SYP), or $0.20 on the black market. He can carry eight kilograms of sugar, and he dips into his profits to purchase a pack of cigarettes for the security officers to allow him through their inspection. The cigarette pack costs 300 SYP, or $0.60. That means he ends the day with less than 500 SYP of profit, which amounts to one US dollar.

Some of these goods ultimately found their way through the tunnels into East Ghouta, but the price differentials between Damascus (which was not without economic problems of its own) and the Ghouta were stark.  Aron Lund posted this chart for March 2015 (prices are all in Syrian Pounds):

On 17 February 2017 the Syrian Arab Army backed by the Russian Air Force opened a new offensive against al-Qaboun (below) and Barzeh and eventually sealed them off from the Ghouta.

The only route that remained open was the al-Wafideen crossing; it had been subjected to intermittent, temporary closures, but on 21 March 2017 it too was finally sealed.  The siege of East Ghouta immediately became absolute until the cordon was breached by the renewed SAA offensive in February 2018 and, the following month, by evacuation corridors for the besieged population.

The closure of al-Wafideen had a catastrophic effect.  Here is a second price comparison, this time for May 2017 (when the exchange rate was 500 SYP to $1):

Such price comparisons are inevitably difficult and shot through with all sorts of difficulties, but similar data on food security from the World Food Programme makes it clear that price inflation on this scale made life immensely precarious for those inside the besieged areas – lives then made even more precarious by the escalation of military and paramilitary violence (my next post) and the disruption of medical provision (my final post in this series).  According to the WFP in October 2017:

Since the Al-Wafideen crossing closed in September, all food supply routes to eastern Ghouta have been completely closed. Food prices have soared as a consequence, with particularly grave consequences for the poorest and most vulnerable people. During the WFP market assessment conducted in Kafr Batna (in eastern Ghouta) at the end of October, the remaining food stock was found to be very limited, with severe shortages of staple foods such as rice, pulses, sugar and oil.

Based on the market assessment data, the cost of the standard food basket in October 2017 reached SYP327,000, which is 204 percent higher than in September and more than five times higher than in August 2017 (before the crossing closed). The eastern Ghouta food basket currently is almost ten times more expensive than the national average.

According to key informants, the only available cooking fuel in eastern Ghouta is liquid melted plastic, which costs SYP 3,500/litre – ten times more than the national average price of diesel. Some households also reported burning animal remains and even used diapers to boil vegetables.

A bundle of bread in Kafr Batna is being sold at SYP2,000, which is more than 35 times the average price in accessible markets.

Food security is likely to deteriorate rapidly in the coming weeks if the siege continues. It is estimated that food stocks will be totally depleted by end November 2017.

Local resources and improvisations

Faced with the shortages and high prices imposed by the siege, the people of East Ghouta had limited resources to fall back on (see my previous post here), and these contracted sharply after the Syrian Arab Army finally seized control of the rich agricultural lands in the south of the Ghouta (the Marj) in May 2016, near the start of the harvest season.  People throughout the besieged area were forced to improvise and to devise ever more exacting economies.

The survival strategies listed by the WFP included reducing the number of meals, reducing portion size and limiting adult consumption, but once the siege became absolute – crossings closed, tunnels blown – many were reduced to far worse than those.  The designation of East Ghouta as one of four ‘de-escalation zones’ during the summer of 2017 only opened what Reuters called ‘the doors of starvation’:

‘When people in the Ghouta learned of the deal and thought it would bring relief, many began using up their food reserves at home, said Khalil Aybour, head of the local council in the town of Douma. “After they saw it was all rumors,” he said, “the misery grew immensely.”

Here is a report from November 2017:

The sight of a woman weeping as she drags her malnourished children into a clinic is not rare in eastern Ghouta…. But when one mother told Abdel Hamid, a doctor, that she had fed her four starving children newspaper cutouts softened with water to stop them from screaming into the night, even he was stunned.  “I could try to describe to you how terrible the conditions are in which we are living, but the reality would still be worse,” [he] said.

Another young widow described how she rationed food between her three young daughters:

My girls take turns eating now. We barely have any food so each one eats one meal every three days. It breaks my heart because they go to bed hungry and wake up with no energy.

Stories like these are what lie behind the distanced prose of an interagency assessment of food security conducted for the World Food Programme that same month, which reported:

Due to the lack of available food and the high food needs, a food basket meant to support a five member household for a month [supplied by the UN] is being shared among six different households (approximately 30 people).

Due to lack of staple food commodities and severe shortfall of cooking fuel (firewood, diesel and gas) in addition to their high prices, residents have been reduced to subsist on raw vegetables such as maize corn, cabbage and cauliflower with no more than one meal per day. In many households with multiple mouths to feed, priority is given to children with adults often skipping entire days without eating. Some households are even resorting to rotation strategies whereby the children who ate yesterday would not eat today and vice-versa.

Cases of severe acute malnutrition among children were identified by the UNICEF team…

Three months later, once the offensive started in deadly earnest, the situation deteriorated still further.  By March 2018, when thousands of people were huddled in basements and cellars sheltering from the incessant bombing and artillery fire, some of those that could find food were reluctant to eat in front of other people in the face of such widespread hunger.  Others shared what little they had.

In fact food was the central concern throughout the siege.  In the beginning some residents started to grow vegetables on their roofs to supplement local production and avoid the soaring prices in local markets:

“The blockade has forced us to find alternatives, especially in towns like al-Buwaidah, hijjera, and al-Sbeneh, where all the surrounding farming lands were destroyed, and many farmers were killed,” said Ahmad Abu Farouq, a 19-year-old who lives in Ghouta with his family of nine.

Ahmad said he and his family have turned their 1,600-square-foot (150 sq meter) rooftop into a year-round farm, planting zucchini and pumpkin in the winter, and lettuce and parsley in the summer [see the image below]. “I throw in a mix of eggplant, peppers and cucumbers when I can,” he added.

Eastern Ghouta is frequently and heavily hit by government airstrikes. To protect themselves and their crops, according to Ahmad, most people who have chosen to take up alternative farming find ways to hide their box planters so as not to make them entirely visible from up above.

This proved to be a short-term solution: when the Assad regime cut electricity supply to the Ghouta it had serious spill-over effects, and ‘on rooftops, as in the agricultural fields, the [consequent] lack of an irrigation system providing clean water caused the end of this semi-autonomous way of surviving the siege.’

So fuel was a second major concern, but there too there were improvisations. Mark Hanrahan and Bhassam Khabieh described an elaborate scheme in Douma to convert plastic waste into fuel.  Using methods he learned from YouTube videos, Abu Kassem and his family collected plastic bottles, rubble from damaged buildings, plastic cooking utensils, even plastic water and sewage pipes; they burned them all in a makeshift refinery, and sold the gas for domestic and commercial use or condensed the gas and refined the liquid into fuel for generators and vehicles.

At its height the workshop was running 15 hours a day six days a week; on an average day it burned 800 – 1,000 kg of plastic waste to produce around 850 litres of fuel. This was a dangerous, noxious business:

“Working here is very tiring, but we feel that we are providing a great service to people. I have been working here for a short time and have begun to adapt to the atmosphere here,” said Abu Ahmed, 28, [one] of the workers.

And the products were snapped up:

“When the siege began on eastern Ghouta at the end of 2013 fuel prices rose madly and we were no longer able to water crops as in the past,” Abu Firas, 33, an agricultural worker in the district told Reuters. “When we started producing local fuel, and water engines could be powered by this fuel, … life returned to agricultural land.”

Abu Talal had the same idea:

“We get plastic materials from areas and buildings that are deserted after being shelled by the regime forces. We collect all the plastic we find, such as water tanks and drainage pipes.”

After Talal and his team gather the plastic, they cut it into smaller pieces and put 50 kilograms in each barrel, along with 20 meters of piping to cool the water that runs in and out of the barrel. They contain narrower tubes, which contain the fumes that come from the burned plastic. Then they light a fire.

“It takes two to three hours to extract as much as possible from one batch of plastic,” he says. “In the last stage, we get the temperature to 100 to 115 degrees to extract a kind of diesel. The temperature must be accurate for the diesel to come out and for it to burn well, so it can be used in cars and motorcycles.”

Ammar al-Bushy described a similar operation at Erbin here.  ‘People are aware that the fuel extracted from burning plastic [is of a lower] quality than that extracted from oil,’ he reported, and it ’causes long-term problems for engines, but it meets the purpose for people living in a dire situation, in addition to the lower cost than fuel extracted from oil.’

The economics of the operation were explained by Abu Hassan:

“Gasoline reached the price of 4000-4200 Syrian Pounds ($20-$21), and the amounts available were minimal. However, we found a substitute by heating plastic and extracting methane, gasoline, and diesel.

“The price of diesel was 3200-3500 Syrian Pounds ($16-$18.50) per liter, which is considered very expensiv. So people were no longer able to purchase it, but after we started operating on plastic and started extracting diesel from it, the price decreased to 1200-1500 SP and it became more available.”

There were other manufactories too: there is a remarkably detailed analysis of the manufacture of weapons by Jaish al-Islam here, including improvised mortars, rockets, grenades and rifles.

But my focus here is on those resources basic to civilian survival in the besieged area. There were all sorts of other substitution strategies in East Ghouta  – I’ll deal with the improvisation of medical supplies and anaesthetics in the final post in this series – but the two examples I’ve provided show concerted attempts to devise solutions to the supply shortages and high prices that were the immediate products of the tightening siege.

Those economic conditions were also affected by cross-cordon transactions: by merchants who were allowed to bring goods in through the al-Wafideen checkpoint, and by smugglers who (until the offensives against Barzeh and al-Qaboun) operated a series of clandestine tunnels that gave access to markets on the suburban fringe.  I’ll consider each in turn, but in both cases there was an elaborate administration of precarity: an apparatus of permissions and permits, exactions and kick-backs, through which the local economy was manipulated and political and (para)military relations were managed.

There was another set of cross-border transactions: these were non-commercial flows of humanitarian aid.  The Syrian government put in place an intensely bureaucratic system  to regulate aid convoys which was also part of the administration of precarity.  It proved to be (and was intended to be) so restrictive that these flows had precious little sustained impact on economic conditions in Ghouta.  But, as I’ll show, these transactions were entangled in a wider and intrinsically partisan geography of precarity that magnified the marginality of Ghouta and effectively enlarged the power of the regime to dictate the terms of its ‘surrender or starve‘ strategy.

Merchants and the Million Checkpoint

One of Amnesty International‘s informants described how the importation of food into East Ghouta was slowly restricted:

By April  2013, you were not allowed to take any food into Eastern Ghouta. Security forces would beat women and men when they found bread or vegetables hidden in the boot of the car or under clothes. As I passed by a checkpoint, I remember seeing food piled up and people being beaten up or humiliated. The Syrian authorities did not allow any bread, vegetables, fruits, pasta, sugar or eggs to enter.

As individual transactions were banned, so selected merchants were allowed to organise much larger shipments. The al-Wafideen crossing became the most important external source of food and fuel for East Ghouta – often described as the ‘lung’ through which the Ghouta breathed – and the central figure in commercial transactions through the checkpoint was Mohyeddin al-Manfoush (‘Abu Ayman’), one of what the Economist called ‘Syria’s new war millionaires’: the ‘dairy godfather’.

Before the war Manfoush lived in Mesraba near Douma, where he owned a small herd of cows and a cheese factory, and traded as al-Marai al-Dimashqiya (Damascus Pastures).  Once the siege began he quickly struck a deal with the Syrian government.  The Economist again:

He began to bring cheap milk from rebel territory in Eastern Ghouta to regime-held Damascus, where he could sell it for double the price. The regime received a cut of the profit. Mr Manfoush reinvested his share. He snapped up the region’s best cows and dairy machinery from farmers and businessmen whose livelihoods had been hammered by the siege. As the business evolved, the trucks that left Ghouta with milk and cheese came back laden with the barley and wheat he needed to feed his growing dairy herd there and run the bakeries he bought.

It was immensely profitable; with a captive market of 400,000 people and runaway prices Manfoush not only expanded his business (under the umbrella Manfoush Trading Company) but also moved to a new house in Damascus and even established his own private militia.

Others profited too.  The security forces controlling the crossing (above, in February 2018) received ‘extra payments’ from Manfoush; there have been reports that they charged 200-300 Syrian pounds ($1 – $1.40) and sometimes as much as 750 Syrian pounds for each kilogram of goods passing through the checkpoint.  Local people came to refer to al-Wafideen as ‘the Million Crossing’ because it supposedly generated one million Syrian pounds per hour in bribes for its soldiers and security officers.  In March 2015 researchers were told a fee of one million Syrian pounds allowed a vehicle to pass through the checkpoint.  And Manfoush dispatched convoys not single trucks:

But the kickbacks almost certainly went much higher than those operating the checkpoint.  Roger Asfar has claimed that Manfoush’s web of companies is linked to the business empire of President Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad (who also usefully heads the Republican Guard).  Be that as it may, the regime had more than a commercial interest in Manfoush’s transactions because it was able to leverage its control over al-Wafideen and ‘exploit its ability to turn trade on and off in order to sow enmity among [different] rebel [groups].’

The state’s ability to goad its enemies in this way depended not only on the rivalries between different rebel groups, however, but also on those groups’ own stakes in the siege economy.  These derived, in part, from the revenues generated through their ancillary checkpoints.  Many informants testified that another set of ‘fees’ were exacted there, though what eventually became the major rebel group in Douma, Jaish al-Islam [JAI], denied having any stake in Manfoush’s operations at al-Wafideen:

“Manfoush does not serve the Islam Army [JAI], he serves the Ghouta in its entirety,” said the Islam Army official Mohammed Bayraqdar. “Our interests are in harmony with the interests of the people and our relationship is merely that of facilitating his services. If there were another person [who performed the same function], we would provide the same services to him in return for his services to the people of the Ghouta.”

Those ‘facilitations’ and ‘services’ involved granting Manfoush’s convoys safe passage into East Ghouta, and it seems highly unlikely that this was a purely philanthropic gesture.  In June 2015 one of Amnesty International‘s informants explained:

Since the end of 2014, the Army of Islam [JAI] has controlled the supply route from al- Wafedine camp and Ajnad al-Sham, the underground tunnels in Harasta. The Army of Islam is responsible for regulating the prices. During the winter, the Army of Islam collects most of the food supplies from the market, increasing the prices threefold. You sleep one night and wake up the next day to find there is no food and prices are high.  The Army of Islam in collaboration with suppliers store food and non-food items in [its] warehouses. 

Siege Watch was even more blunt in its assessment for May-July 2017: ‘the corrupt trading monopoly run by al-Manfoush at the al-Wafideen checkpoint lined the pockets of the Syrian miilltary and JAI’.

There is no doubt that Jamash al-Islam’s provision of ‘services’, whether corrupt or not, was far from disinterested: facilitating the importation of food, fuel and other supplies gave it leverage over the besieged population. It was able to extend its control over the local labour market in Douma – determining which shops were allowed to open, for example – and gave those on its payroll privileged access to imported goods from its own warehouses. JAI was not the only group to take advantage of the siege economy.  In Harasta, Fajr al-Umma reportedly ‘gave away free food and a tank of propane … in [an] attempt to strengthen its popularity in the area.’  In short, food and fuel became vital currencies not only for the counterinsurgency but also for the insurgency.  ‘Joining one of the armed groups can provide a monthly salary of an average of USD 50,’ Rim Turkmani and her collaborators in the LSE’s ‘Security in Transition’ programme (including Mary Kaldor) found, ‘in addition to food parcels.’  And at times, they continued, ‘fighters are only paid in food.’

Putting all this together, Rim produced this diagram which traces the journey of a loaf of bread from Damascus into East Ghouta and shows how extensive was the system of exchange whose fulcrum was al-Wafideen:

Underground economies

In his detailed analysis of the tunnels excavated and operated by the armed opposition groups in the Ghouta, Aron Lund explains:

Apart from the Wafideen Crossing, the Eastern Ghouta has been supplied through a system of secret tunnels and semi-informal frontline crossings. While the crossings can bring in a far greater volume of trade, the tunnels serve to import goods that are restricted or banned by the government (including fuel, medical supplies, and arms), to move people in and out of the enclave, and to challenge and undercut food prices set by the Wafideen monopolists.

Digging the tunnels was difficult and dangerous work – but in a place where the economy was collapsing, where there were so few jobs to be had, and where some rebel groups resorted to more directly coercive methods of recruitment the work proceeded apace:

Men of Douma work in three shifts a day to finish their job, using primitive tools. “Each worker has one meal – either breakfast with an egg and a piece of bread, or lunch with rice and bread. The digging never stops. When we hit a large rock or anything like it, we turn on the generator and use a jackhammer,” said Abdullah, a tunnel digger. When asked about the reason that men take this job and whether it pays well, Abdullah said: “Many have lost their job because of the ongoing war, so we have no means to earn money to buy food. Prices are also very high because of the prolonged siege. They pay around 1,000 Syrian pounds per worker, which covers the price of a kilo of flour….”

“When we first started digging tunnels, we faced many difficulties; however, we found solutions and continued the operation. For example, we pumped oxygen at certain points inside the tunnels, which is very important for the workers. We also set up pillars inside the tunnel to prevent them from collapsing over the workers, which had happened often earlier, and killed and trapped many workers for many hours before we could rescue them,” said Abu Mahmoud.

There were five main tunnels (I’ve taken most of these details and the maps from a report by Enab Baladi‘s Investigative Unit on ‘The economic map of Ghouta‘).  

The first (the Zahteh or Central Tunnel) ran 800 metres from Harasta under the Damascus–Homs highway to Qaboun; construction was started by Fajr al-Umma towards the end of 2013, and the tunnel opened the following summer.  It soon emerged as ‘the primary [clandestine] artery for the Eastern Ghouta’s siege economy’.

In January 2015 Jaish al-Umma opened a second, parallel tunnel, but Fajr al-Umma soon controlled this route too:

In May 2015 two other rebel groups, Failaq al-Rahman and al-Liwan al-Awwal, dug the so-called ‘Mercy Tunnel’ from Arbin to Qaboun; this was much longer than the previous two (2,800 metres) and wide enough to allow the passage of cars and even Kia 2400 trucks.

In June 2015 Jaish al-Islam constructed a 3km tunnel from Arbin and Zamalka to Qaboun; it too was wide enough to accommodate small trucks.

In September 2015 Falaq al-Rahman joined with Jabhat al-Nusra in Qaboun to establish a third tunnel under its control, the ‘Nour [Light] Tunnel’, from Arbin to Qaboun for foot traffic only.

These were the main tunnels, but several smaller tunnels were dug between the Ghouta and Jobar, and others were dug primarily for (para)military purposes to move personnel, ammunition and armaments.  Other tunnels were dug within the Ghouta as defences against air strikes; they served multiple purposes, not least connecting the dispersed facilities of underground field hospitals (more on this in a later post).  One SAA informant described to Robert Fisk what he saw when he entered Douma in March 2018:

I have never seen so many tunnels. They had built tunnels everywhere. They were deep and they ran beneath shops and mosques and hospitals and homes and apartment blocks and roads and fields. I went into one with full electric lighting, the lamps strung out for hundreds of yards. I walked half a mile through it. They were safe there. So were the civilians who hid in the same tunnels.

The main cross-line tunnels were used for multiple purposes too: but commercial traffic was always an important consideration.

I describe this as commercial not only because the goods were sold at stores inside Ghouta but also because the tunnels provided the groups that controlled them (often through nominally civilian front organisations or ‘foundations’) with income and resources.  This caused considerable jockeying between them;  Aron Lund provides a superbly detailed analysis of the rivalries, deals and counter-deals that ensued.

The tunnels were considerable undertakings.  The director of the organisation set up to operate the Mercy Tunnel told Enab Baladi that it cost 30,000,000 Syrian Pounds each month to cover ‘the expenses of nine Kia 2400 trucks that work between 3 p.m. and 6 a.m. and the salaries of 450 employees, including drivers, workers, administrators, officials and custodians, in addition to security officials.’

There were three streams of commercial transactions.  The first involved the passage of civilians and, like all movement through the tunnels, was closely controlled by the rebel groups.  One of Enab Baladi‘s informants outlined the rules:

Those passing through the tunnels must be born before 1970, since the factions are in need of young fighters.

The person passing must provide clearance from the Unified Judiciary, to prove that there are no cases outstanding against him or her, and a clearance from the Housing Bureau.

Fighters must provide an official permit  (below) from their faction.

All documents must be submitted to the Crossing Office, which will assign the person a date to pass.

Medical emergencies are exempted from the waiting period, but must provide a report from the Unified Medical Bureau.

Under no circumstances are weapons allowed to leave Ghouta.

No goods other than clothes and basic supplies are allowed (not to exceed two bags).

Abu Ali described how he and his family made their escape:

The process of applying to use the tunnel, he said, was strangely bureaucratic for such a risky method of escape: He submitted an official request at a Jaish al-Islam office and was informed two weeks later that it had been granted… [He] and three other families granted access to the tunnel started their journey on a bus from the city of Hamouriyya.

“The bus took us to the city of Arbin. In Arbin, the bus took side streets, so that we wouldn’t be noticed. We finally arrived at a house where our identification cards were checked, and our luggage was searched. We were told that we had to be very careful, so no one would discover where the tunnel was,” he said.

The tunnel “was very tight – there was barely enough room for two people to walk side by side and it was about two meters in height. In addition to lights, the tunnel had turbines for ventilation purposes.”

These rules were never set in stone, still less once the co-operation implied by the ‘Unified Medical Bureau’ and the ‘Unified Judiciary’ [established in the summer of 2014] broke down and in-fighting between the groups controlling the tunnels became commonplace.  Despite the age restrictions, some of them were willing to allow young people to pay for a permit: the cost varied between 100,000 and 200,000 Syrian pounds.  If they wished to escape Qaboun or Barzeh, they would then pay further bribes to the soldiers and security officers controlling the regime’s checkpoints into Damascus.

There was one constant: the rules allowed for the evacuation of medical emergencies but no medical staff – doctors, nurses, pharmacists – were permitted to leave.  In fact it seems unlikely that many serious medical cases were evacuated through the tunnels either. They would not have found better treatment in Barzeh or Qaboun, but during the early stages of the truce some patients were allowed to cross from those besieged districts into Damascus.   Dr Immad al-Kabbani testified that ‘for a period beginning in September 2014 we were able to evacuate a minimum of 20 patients and their families each week’ through the tunnels (and even ‘to send biopsies from cancer patients to cooperative labs in Damascus for diagnosis’) but by March 2016 the clandestine system was already failing. One cancer patient was allowed to leave for radiation therapy which was unavailable at the Dar al-Rahma Center for Cancer in Ghouta, but her journey turned out to be fruitless:

 I received no care at hospitals [in Damascus] so I relapsed and the tumour returned to its previous status. I decided to go back to Eastern Ghouta through the same tunnels to have the chemical doses.

That same month patients were travelling in the opposite direction.  A doctor from the Syrian-American Medical Society testified:

Now, as access to Damascus has been cut off, the 35,000 civilians inside Barzeh have extremely limited access to healthcare, and must travel to East Ghouta to obtain treatment. Even the dialysis patients in Barzeh are traveling to East Ghouta [via the tunnels] to obtain treatment with the extremely limited supplies.

For a time the tunnels were a two-way street of sorts for cancer patients: those who needed chemotherapy were treated at the Dar al-Rahma Center in Ghouta, using medical supplies smuggled through the tunnels [below], while those needing radiotherapy were taken through the tunnels to al-Nawawi hospital in Damascus.  According to the director of the Dar al-Rahma, ‘after the closure of the tunnels, there is no possibility of providing either of the treatments.’

By the time the tunnels were closed in February 2017 the UN estimated that around 80 patients out of 700 estimated to be in need of urgent treatment had been evacuated from East Ghouta through the tunnels.  Some were transferred because there were no specialists available inside the besieged area, others because clinics there had been denied the medicines and equipment needed to treat them.  But the numbers were small when set against the extensive record of seriously injured or ill patients being placed on evacuation lists from the Ghouta only to have their doctors’ requests refused or ignored by the Syrian government.  Once the tunnels were closed ‘all movement of patients was halted.’

The second stream of traffic involved everyday supplies of all kinds, including food and fuel.  Some rebel groups limited their dealings to particular merchants but in every case a tunnel ‘tax’ was levied.  The usual fee seems to have been 10 per cent but there were times when 25 per cent and even 45 per cent of the value of the goods was levied.  The ‘tax’ was paid in cash or in kind: the different factions maintained their own warehouses and usually gave their own fighters and supporters privileged access to the supplies they skimmed from the shipments.  During the first two months that the Mercy Tunnel was in operation, for example, Falaq al-Rahman allegedly ‘filled its warehouses with more than 12 tons of goods, claiming that it had to secure its fighters first.’  As this implies, the totals involved were small – they paled into insignificance alongside the commercial shipments through al-Wafideen – but they provided the armed opposition groups with significant financial gains.  Enab Baladi again, citing one of the directors of the Mercy Foundation:

“Everyone finds in the tunnel the perfect opportunity to make money. Since the very first tunnel was completed, Fajr al-Umma, the faction that had dug the tunnel, took control of all incoming goods and sold them for extremely high prices. In 2014, for example, 1kg of sugar was sold for 60-70 Syrian pounds [around 30 cents] in Damascus, but Fajr al-Umma sold it for 3, 500 Syrian pounds [more than $16] within Ghouta.”

These exactions – and the subterranean monopolies that underwrote them – prompted endless negotiations (and worse) between the groups over shared access.  Kholoud al-Shami suggested that Jabhat al-Nusra planned the Nour Tunnel explicitly to undercut its rivals, bring prices down, and so boost its support among the besieged population.  One local resident told her:

It appears that Nusra’s goal is to reduce the suffering of the besieged residents, who had begun cursing the revolution and the rebels because of Falaq al-Rahman and Fajar al-Umma keeping prices high. All factions want to build up their popular support, which is what Nusra is doing… Local residents have viewed the drastic drop in prices positively and stood in solidarity with Jabhat a-Nusra when Falaq al-Rahman prevented them from selling gasoline at reduced prices when they were still sharing a tunnel.

Similarly, Jaish al-Islam apparently pressured Fajar al-Ummah to lower its prices. It was an intricate and constantly changing story, but running through all these deals was the imbrication of the political with the economic.  The attempts to lower prices were all about more than the high-minded desire to ‘reduce suffering’: they were also aimed at boosting support for one faction over another.

The third stream of traffic consisted of medical supplies.  I have separated these from other supplies because they were categorically barred from the al-Wafidden crossing; even UN convoys with the appropriate authorisations had them removed at the checkpoint.  Yet they were vital.  Inside Ghouta doctors were struggling with often catastrophic injuries from shelling and bombing, and doing their best to treat seriously ill patients with chronic conditions (how often we forget that people still get sick in war zones).  With no provision possible through the overland crossings, doctors had to use the tunnels.  A team from the Union of Free Syrian Doctors worked around the clock in Barzeh to obtain vital medical supplies for hospitals and clinics in Ghouta, but by the time they had paid Syrian Arab Army soldiers controlling checkpoints on the highway and then the tunnel tax – medicines were not exempt but were charged ‘only’ 5 per cent – the costs of even routine medications had soared.  Students from the Columbia School of Journalism reported:

By the time all the fees are paid, the price of medical supplies in Eastern Ghouta “is three times higher, sometimes as much as five times, than what’s in the north or south of Syria,” said [Mahmoud] al-Sheikh [director of the Unified Revolutionary Medical Bureau in Eastern Ghouta]. A liter of serum, which is used to help the body replenish lost blood, goes for about $1 in regime-controlled areas (one liter is about one fluid quart). But health workers say they’ve paid anywhere from $3.50 to $10 for one liter of serum brought in from Barzeh.

[Osama] Abu Zayd [a medical equipment engineer with the Union of Free Syrian Doctors] estimates that Ghouta, with its many neighborhoods, needs about 10,000 liters (more than 2,600 gallons) of serum per month.

Whatever came through the tunnels, it was never enough, and all three traffic streams came to a juddering halt as the offensive against Barzeh and Qaboun was renewed.  During the winter of 2016-17 the regime sought to amend the terms of the truce, stipulating that the smuggling trade had to stop; then in February 2017 it peremptorily closed the checkpoints so that supplies from Damascus dried up, and within days nothing was moving through the tunnels to Ghouta.

The fighting that followed was protracted and bloody, and thousands fled through the tunnels to find refuge in East Ghouta.  But by the end of February the Syrian Arab Army occupied the warehouse concealing the portal to the Zahteh Tunnel, and by the middle of May, when the remaining opposition fighters in Barzeh and Qaboun had surrendered and the population was forcibly evacuated, all the major tunnels had been breached.  

State media published videos showing the army cutting the tunnels and carrying out controlled explosions.  The ultimate objective was not only to take down Barzeh and Qaboun but ‘to strangle the Ghouta … by closing off the crossings and tunnels,’ a spokesman for Jaish al-Islam explained.  ‘Trade through the tunnels has completely stopped.’

The loss of the tunnels triggered panic buying in Ghouta, driving prices still higher, and triggered a new round of fighting between the two major blocs of rebel fighters (Jaish al-Islam based in Douma and Falaq al-Rahman in fractious and as it turned out temporary alliance with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, which later became Jabhat al-Nusra, which were based in the so-called ‘Central Section’ to the south and the west).

Residents of the Ghouta demonstrated against the infighting – and, in a displaced and horrifying repetition of the tactics employed by regime’s security forces, Jaish al-Islam opened fire on the crowd – and the deepening tension served only to aggravate the economic crisis.  In July 2017 Alaa Nassar reported:

Dozens of recently erected checkpoints and berms split the suburbs [of East Ghouta] in half. For residents trapped inside the Central Section, this means a lack of access to the Wafideen crossing and, therefore, to outside resources.

By September 2017 the Syrian-American Medical Society‘s report on the siege of East Ghouta described a truly dreadful predicament:

In a report for the Middle East Institute, ‘Sieges in Syria: Profiteering from misery‘ (2016) Will Todman summarises the two sets of cross-cordon transactions I’ve described so far – overt commercial transactions through al-Wafideen and clandestine transactions through the tunnels – like this:

It’s an effective summary but, as I now need to show, the bottom line (sic), in which UN convoys are described as ‘an effective means to get goods to civilians at a lower price,’ is problematic.

Aid convoys

Like the commercial convoys of merchandise that were allowed in to East Ghouta, humanitarian aid came in through al-Wafideen (above).  Unlike the commercial flows, however, humanitarian aid was rigorously policed, strictly limited and utterly spasmodic. In Douma, for example, which had been under siege since 2013, the first UN interagency aid convoy did not arrive until 10 June 2016 (below). Its 36 trucks provided emergency food, wheat flour, and nutrition supplies for only 17 per cent of the population.  Those stocks were supposed to last for one month, but the next convoy did not arrive until 19 October 2016, with 44 trucks carrying food supplies for 24 per cent of the population (baby milk had been removed at the checkpoint).  Those supplies were also intended to last for one month, and a third convoy duly arrived at al-Wafideen with supplies for 49 per cent of the population on 17 November 2016.  But the mission was aborted because ‘it lacked specific approval needed to proceed without dog searches and unsealing of the trucks.’  The next UN convoy arrived on 30 October 2017.

I have extracted most of these details from a report prepared by Elise Baker for Physicians for Human Rights with the dismally appropriate title Access Denied.  The report describes a system of deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid by the Assad regime that imposed – by design, remember – ‘slow, painful death by starvation’ on populations in areas besieged by its forces: what the report also calls ‘murder by siege’.

There have been two main modalities of obstruction.  The first has involved a byzantine process through which UN agencies have been required to obtain formal permission from the government to deliver humanitarian aid.  Following the establishment of a joint working group to facilitate (sic) the process in 2014, it was agreed that each convoy would need approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ‘facilitation letters’ from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Syrian Arab Crescent and (in the case of medical supplies) the Ministry of Health.  The process was described by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator as ‘extremely complex and time-consuming’, and matters were not improved by the introduction of additional clearance requirements from the High Relief Committee and the National Security Office.

After repeated protests from the UN the Syrian government finally agreed to ‘simplified procedures for the approval of interagency convoys across conflict lines‘ in March 2016, that should have reduced an eight-step process to a two-step process, with all approvals (or refusals) being issued within seven working days.  In practice, the two-step became a ten– or even eleven-step process.  In January 2017 the UN Security Council was advised of ‘subsequent administrative delays on the part of the government, including in the approval of facilitation letters, approval by local governors and security committees, as well as broader restrictions by all parties [that] continue to hamper our efforts’ to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged populations.  Even with approvals from the authorities in Damascus, protocols were routinely violated at checkpoints.   Stephen O’Brien elaborated:

We continue to be blocked at every turn, by lack of approvals at central and local levels, disagreements on access routes, and by the violation of agreed procedures at checkpoints by parties to the conflict. Are these important? Yes. We can’t – and if I may quote – “just plough on” or “just get on with it” as I’ve heard one member sitting around this say table to me. Because if one brave aid worker drives through the checkpoint without the facilitation letter and the command transmitted down the line, the check-point guard or their sniper takes the shot.

In a statement two months later he bluntly declared: ‘The current bureaucratic architecture is at best excessive and at its worst, deliberately intended to prevent convoys from proceeding.’

The second modality of obstruction was to withhold permission altogether.  The chart below was compiled for PHR’s Access denied; notice the substantial differences between the populations for whom the UN requested access and the populations for whom access was approved, a difference that was the product of both outright rejection and a calculated failure to respond.

Notice too the still smaller population eventually reached by the aid convoys:

From May through December 2016, on average, Syrian authorities authorized UN interagency convoys to deliver aid to approximately two thirds of the besieged and hard-to-reach populations that UN authorities requested access to each month – a figure which, in itself, represents a fraction of the entire besieged and hard-to-reach population. However, UN convoys only reached 38 percent of that smaller approved population, due to additional approval procedures and other delays imposed overwhelmingly by government officials…  At worst, this pattern reflects an effort by Syrian authorities to appear cooperative while still ensuring that access to besieged areas remained blocked.

The approval process allowed the authorities not only to veto the populations permitted to receive humanitarian aid but also to restrict the amount and composition of that aid.  In November 2017, for example, a UN convoy of 24 trucks was allowed in to Douma – the first since August – with food for an estimated 21,500 people (the original request had been for supplies for 107,500); medical supplies had been removed from the convoy.  In March 2018 another, much delayed convoy reached Douma with food for 27,500 people (below); deliveries were interrupted by renewed shelling and 10 of the 46 trucks were forced to return with their loads.  Marwa Awad, who accompanied the convoy with the World Food Programme, described what she found:

Volunteers gathered to help offload the aid from the trucks, including WFP’s wheat flour which the men were offloading into underground cellars. Speaking with the local council, we learned that there were more than 200,000 people in Douma, many of them displaced from nearby villages and other areas within Eastern Ghouta, and all of them needing food and medicine….

Leaving the devastation above, we took a long and narrow staircase deep into Douma’s underworld: a network of basements that has become fertile ground for disease and infection.  Many residents are forced to live underground, crammed together in packed spaces to avoid airstrikes…

There we met Mustafa, a man in his twenties.

“The food aid trickles in very slowly, drop by drop. Many families here are struggling. I hope whoever is hungry gets help,” he said. Because of the increasing demand for food and limited quantities allowed inside, residents of Douma have had to split the food assistance WFP delivered during an earlier convoy in order to reach as many people as possible.

The convoy took place at the height of the final military offensive against the Ghouta: yet the World Health Organisation said that Syrian government officials had ordered the removal of 70 percent of the medical supplies it had prepared for the convoy, including all trauma kits, surgical supplies, dialysis equipment and insulin.

The control exercised by the Assad regime over humanitarian aid derived not only from formal procedures, or the subsequent ‘deletions’ and on occasion, even contamination of supplies at checkpoints; it also depended on the system of clandestine intelligence built in to the architecture of the authoritarian state. The head of one UN agency working out of Damascus told one US/UK investigation team:

We were spied on, followed, our computer traffic was monitored, our notebooks stolen, they knew what we were doing. I’m not sure anyone appreciates how hard all of this was . . . the daily grind of getting a tiny concession of access or movements of goods. The SARC [Syrian Arab Red Crescent] were used as a proxy to control and spy on us and contain us.

So many controls.  And yet UN Security Council resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014) and 2258 (2015) authorized the unconditional delivery of humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, to besieged and hard-to-reach communities countrywide.  The emphasis is mine; the wording is the UN’s.  But the Assad regime clearly called the shots and imposed the most exacting conditions on the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas like the Ghouta.  The UN even deferred to the Syrian government over the identification of what constituted a siege; its mappings of besieged and ‘hard-to-reach’ areas were far more restrictive than those conducted by Siege Watch or the Syrian-American Medical Society.  Its in-country contracts had to be approved by the government, and not surprisingly many of them – individually worth tens of millions of dollars for accommodation, trucks, fuel, and cellphone service – were with businesses closely tied to the Assad regime.   As Reinoud Leenders put it, ‘the Syrian regime’s aggressive assertions of state sovereignty have locked UN aid agencies into a disturbingly submissive role.’

A report from the Syria CampaignTaking Sides – found that humanitarian aid delivered under the auspices of the UN was disproportionately directed towards areas under the direct control of the Assad regime.  Here is the distribution of aid through the World Food Programme – the largest UN agency handling food aid – shortly after the passage of UNSC 2139, revealing what John Hudson described as ‘Assad’s starvation campaign’:

The following month (April 2014) 75 per cent of food aid delivered from inside Syria went into government-controlled areas.  Two years later (April 2016) 88 per cent of food aid delivered from inside Syria went into government-controlled territory; once cross-border deliveries from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey were taken into account – now authorised by further UN Security Council resolutions – the (dis)proportion going into government-controlled territories fell to 72 per cent.  But by April 2017 it had increased to 82 per cent.  

Still, these raw figures conceal as much as they reveal; humanitarian aid for government-controlled areas has not been subject to the same restrictions, deletions and delays as aid for areas outside the regime’s direct control.  Convoys were far more frequent, loads were larger, and medical supplies were not removed.  The Assad regime frequently represented aid to areas under its control as both a gift from the government (through granting access to international agencies) and a gift of the government: at its highest levels, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (a central and compulsory actor in these deliveries) is a de facto arm of the state.  There was and continues to be an undoubted need for aid throughout Syria, but according to the UN’s own figures 54 per cent of the population in need lived in government-controlled areas in 2016.  Accordingly, Taking Sides argues that 

The effective subsidy of government areas releases resources that are likely used by the government in its war effort. The UN has enabled one side in the conflict to shift more of its resources away from providing for the needs of its people and into its military campaign.

The official position was always that the UN had to comply with the Assad regime’s predilections and stipulations as a necessary price for access to the besieged areas, but David Miliband (President of the International Rescue Committee) countered that ‘the Assad regime can’t afford to kick the UN out of Damascus [because] the UN is feeding so many of [Assad’s] own people.’  

Conversely, the carefully calibrated restrictions placed by the regime on flows of goods through al-Wafideen into the Ghouta amounted to an assertion of continued control over the besieged population.  Esther Meinghaus [‘Humanitarianism in intra-state conflict: aid inequality and local governance in government and opposition-controlled areas in the Syrian war’, Third World Quarterly 37 (8) (2016) 1454-82] argues that in those areas where the regime was not able to maintain military control it exercised effective ‘humanitarian control’ by continuing to dictate the parameters within which the population lived (and died).  In consequence, like Esther, José Ciro Martinez and Brett Eng [‘The unintended consequences of emergency food aid: neutrality, sovereignty and politics in the Syrian civil war, 2012-15’, International Affairs 92 (1) (2016) 153-73; also available here] describe besieged areas like the Ghouta as spaces of exception.  They reveal a persistent attempt by the Assad regime to separate those ‘included in a juridical order and those stripped of juridical-political protections – a separation between life that is politically qualified and one that is “bare” or naked.’  But as José and Brett emphasise, actors inside the Ghouta (and outside) have repeatedly called into question the actions of the Syrian government and its allies and sought to confound them.   The political salience of those counter-strategies is itself compromised, they insist, by treating humanitarian aid as a ‘neutral’ and essentially technical matter of alleviating physical distress and deprivation – the register within which UN agencies conceive their interventions – because that is to become complicit in the reduction of besieged populations to ‘bare life’: ‘Those receiving assistance are valued strictly in terms of their biological life not their political voice’ (p. 165).

The administration of precarity

Throughout this essay I’ve written about ‘the administration of precarity’ because – following David Nally‘s wonderful example – the siege economy was administered by multiple actors whose regulations and restrictions made them responsible for delivering precarity to the besieged population.  That the Assad regime and its allies had a direct interest in doing so followed directly from their strategy of ‘surrender or starve’, and there was an elaborate web of exactions and extortions reaching from the highest levels of the state down to the foot soldiers who controlled the checkpoints and crossings.  The rebel groups were involved too, but they had a more direct interest in the subterranean smuggling economy, levying fees in cash or in kind on flows through the tunnels to boost their coffers and secure their own supporters.  But the United Nations and its agencies were also culpable in acceding to the demands of the Assad regime, allowing it to funnel most humanitarian aid to areas under its control and condemning the civilian populations in besieged areas to half-chance lives of ever increasing precarity.

Yet precarity does not mean passivity, and a ‘siege economy’ is always more than a political economy: it is also and always what E.P. Thompson would have called a moral economy.  The rebel groups in the Ghouta were chronically incapable (or uninterested) in finding common ground, and their support amongst the besieged population was uneven and variable.  As the siege wore on, protests against their exactions and impositions – and the infighting amongst them – multiplied.  For all that, many (and probably most) civilians remained opposed to the Assad regime, and we should remember too that the war emerged out of the violent response of the state to peaceful protests by ordinary people in the Ghouta and elsewhere calling for democratic reforms.  This matters because as I worked on this essay – watching the videos, reading the reports, unearthing the testimonies – I became aware of an extraordinary resilience and communal solidarity forged within the population.  I think of the ingenuity of the rooftop farmers, the fuel distillers, and the makers of gauze and medicines; the dedication of the doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and rescue workers faced with so many grievously wounded and seriously ill people; the courage of mothers sharing blankets and what little food they had and singing songs and sharing stories as they huddled with their children in the crowded basements sheltering from the bombs and missiles (see here).

I wrote those words last night; this morning I read this moving letter from the Syria Campaign on ‘Leaving Ghouta‘:

Over the past five years, Ghouta has faced terrible violence including the sarin gas chemical attack that took the lives of hundreds in their sleep. And despite it all they have taught the world a lesson in courage and resilience. When the regime lost control of Ghouta its people built new forms of local governance and held free elections for the first time in Syria’s history. When the bombs started falling on neighbourhoods its teachers and doctors took schools and hospitals underground and ordinary residents put on white helmets and rushed to rescue their friends and neighbours. The people of Ghouta launched inspiring civil society projects, often women-led. They created new media platforms and produced award-winning photojournalism. They created alternative energy resources and introduced new farming techniques.

But after this latest, relentless onslaught, people were truly left with no choice. If they remained in Ghouta they risked being detained and tortured as the Syrian regime closed in, particularly the ones who decided to teach, treat the wounded, or post updates to Facebook. So now many are leaving behind everything they’ve ever known to go to a place that isn’t that much safer. The province of Idlib, home to more than two million, is also being struck from the air by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally.

If only the ‘international community’ had been even half the community created by these brave men and women.

To be continued

Mass Murder in Slow Motion (I): East Ghouta

This is the first of a series of posts – continuing my discussions of Cities under Siege in Syria here, here and here – that will examine the siege of East Ghouta in detail.

Today I begin with some basic parameters of East Ghouta, and in subsequent posts I’ll focus on three issues: the siege economy and geographies of precarity; military and paramilitary violence, ‘de-escalation’ and the endgame; and – the hinge linking these two and continuing my work on ‘the death of the clinic‘  – medical care under fire.

From paradise to hell on earth

Eastern Ghouta (‘Ghouta Orientale’ on the map from Le Monde above; ‘Damas’ is of course Damascus) has often been extolled as ‘a Garden of Eden’, ‘an earthly paradise’ and an ‘oasis’.  In the fourteenth century Ibn al-Wardi described the Ghouta as ‘the fairest place on earth’:

. . . full of water, flowering trees, and passing birds, with exquisite flowers, wrapped in branches and paradise-like greenery. For eighteen miles, it is nothing but gardens and castles, surrounded by high mountains in every direction, and from these mountains flows water, which forms into several rivers inside the Ghouta.

Before the present wars much of the Ghouta was a rich, fertile agricultural landscape, a mix of small farms producing wheat and barley, fruits and vegetables (notably tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini), and raising herds of dairy cattle whose milk and other products fed into the main Damascus markets.  Most arable production depended on irrigation delivered through a de-centralised network of water pumps, pipes and channels.

The agrarian economy was seriously disrupted by the siege imposed by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies and proxies from 2012.  The siege varied in intensity, but in its first report Siege Watch described the importance – and insufficiency – of these local resources:

While much of the population in Eastern Ghouta has become dependent on local farming 
for survival, the volume and variety of crops that are being produced is still insufficient for 
the population, since modern mechanized farming methods to water and harvest crops are unavailable and new seeds must be smuggled in. Some of the main crops being produced include wheat, barley, broad beans, and peas. The communities closest to Damascus are more urban areas with little arable land, so there is an uneven distribution of locally produced food within besieged Eastern Ghouta. Humanitarian conditions deteriorate in the winter when little locally produced food is available and prices increase.

Cutting off the electricity supply and limiting access to fuel also compromised vital irrigation systems (and much more besides), and many local people had to turn to wood for heating and cooking which resulted in extensive deforestation.

By November 2015 the price of firewood had soared:

Abu Ayman, an official in the Kafr Batna Relief Office, said that a family consisting of six people usually requires about 5 kg of firewood per day, costing up to 15,000 Syrian pounds (around $50) a month.
Fruitless trees are our first source of firewood, as well as the destroyed houses in the cities of Jobar, Ain Tarma and Harasta,” says Asaad, a firewood seller in the town of Jisreen…
Abu Shadi, the Director of Agricultural Office, said: “The orchards of Ghouta, known historically for their intense beauty, are on their way to desertification. Another year of the siege is enough to do so, especially since the urgent need for fuel prompted some people to cut down these trees without the knowledge of their owners.”

 

The military and paramilitary campaigns, the threats from mortars, snipers and bombs to workers in the fields, combined with a worsening drought (which made those irrigation pumps all the more important) to reduce agricultural production.  And as the regime’s forces advanced so the agricultural base available to the besieged population contracted.  (The reverse was also true: the regime desperately needed to regain access to its old ‘breadbaskets’, most of which were in rebel areas outside its control).

Much of the destruction of food resources was deliberate.  This from Dan Wilkofsky and Ammar Hamou in June 2016, shortly after the Syrian Arab Army captured wheat fields in the south of the region:

Residents of East Ghouta, where a half-million people have been encircled by the Syrian military and its allies, say the government is targeting their food supply as much as it is trying to gain ground. They say that weeks after capturing the area’s breadbasket, a stretch of farmland hundreds of acres wide, the government is using airstrikes and mortar attacks to start fires in the fields that remain in rebel hands [see photograph below].

“People gather the wheat and heap it up, only for the regime to target the piles and burn them,” Khalid Abu Suleiman…  said on Thursday from the al-Marj region.

Fires have spread quickly through wheat fields sitting under the June sun. “When wheat turns yellow, the regime can spot it easily and a small shell is enough to burn the harvest,” Douma resident Mohammed Khabiya said on Thursday.

 

I’ll have much more to say about all this – and the survival strategies and smuggling routes that emerged in response – in my next post, but memories of the bounty of the region haunt those who inhabit its now ruined landscape.  ‘The area was once known for its intense carpet of fruit trees, vegetables and maize,’ wrote a former resident last month, but today ‘Ghouta is a scene of grey death.’  And here is a local doctor talking to the BBC just last weekend:

The place where Dr Hamid was born and raised had been abandoned to its own slow death…  It was a place that people came to from Damascus, with their wives and husbands and children, for weekend picnics, or to shop for cheap merchandise in the bustling markets.  “They came here from all around to smell the fresh air and the rivers and the trees,” he said. “To me it was a paradise on the Earth.” Now he prays in his cramped shelter at night that his children will one day see the place he can still conjure in his mind, “as green as it was when I was a boy”. “It may be too late for me,” he said, “but God willing, our children will see these days.”

Political rebellion and political violence

In the 1920s the Ghouta was a springboard for Syrian nationalism and its ragged, serial insurgency against French colonial occupation –  ‘its orchards and villages provided sustenance for the insurgency of 1925’, wrote Michael Provence in his account of The Great Syrian Revolt, while hundreds of villagers in the Ghouta were killed or executed during the counterinsurgency.  He continued:

Despite months of agitation and countless pamphlets and proclamations, the French bombardment of Damascus ended any organized mobilization in the city. The city’s destruction indelibly underscored the inability of the urban elite to lead resistance. But the effects of the bombardment were not what [French] mandate authorities had hoped. Resistance shifted back to the Ghuta and the surrounding countryside. The destruction of their city failed to pacify the population with fear and led to an outraged expansion of rebel activity, especially among the more humble inhabitants. Guerrilla bands soon gained control of the countryside on all sides of the city. They continually cut the lines of communication by road, telephone, and train, on all sides of the city Damascus went days on end virtually cut off from outside contact. Large areas of the old city were in rebel hands night after night. Contemporary sources document that the southern region was completely under the control of the insurgents. It took more than a year, and massive reinforcements of troops and equipment, for the mandatory power to regain effective control of the countryside of Damascus.

(You can find much more on French counterinsurgency and colonial violence in David Nef‘s Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: insurgency, space and state formation (Cambridge, 2012)).

Abu Ahmad, an activist from Kafr Batna, recalling that ‘Eastern Ghouta has always been at the heart of revolutionary struggles in Syria’, drew a direct line of descent from the Syrian Revolt to the mass mobilisations against the Assad regime during the Arab Spring.  He insisted that the contemporary rebellion in the Ghouta had retained its independent spirit:  keeping its distance from international power-brokers, so he claimed, it was ‘one of the last arenas of a real civil war’ – so much so, that its fall ‘would spell the end of the original battle between the government and the opposition.’

This time around these have been vigorously urban as well as rural movements.  After independence from France in 1946, in the north and west of the Ghouta, closer to Damascus, agriculture gave way to a peri-urban fringe: a scatter of hard-scrabble, cinder and concrete block towns (above).  Aron Lund takes up the story:

Wheat fields were crisscrossed by roads and power lines, while factories, army compounds, and drab housing projects spread out of the city and into the countryside. The ancient oasis seemed destined to disappear.

Douma, which had for hundreds of years been a small town of mosques and Islamic learning, grew into a city in its own right. Many villages were swallowed up by the capital, with, for example, Jobar—once a picturesque multi-religious hamlet where Muslims and Jews tended their orchards—transformed into a series of mostly unremarkable city blocks on the eastern fringes of Damascus….

Throughout the first decade of the new century, slum areas around Damascus expanded rapidly as the capital and its satellite towns took in poor migrants, while spiraling living costs forced parts of the Damascene middle class to abandon the inner city for a congested daily commute. It was as if every driver of anti-regime resentment in the late Assad era had congregated on the outskirts of Damascus: political frustration, religious revanchism, rural dispossession, and downward social mobility.

When the Arab uprisings swept into Syria in March 2011, the comparatively affluent and carefully policed central neighborhoods of the capital hardly stirred—but the Ghouta rose fast and hard in an angry, desperate rebellion.

The scenario was a bleakly familiar one, and followed the script established by the security forces in response to protests in Dara’a, close to the border with Jordan, in February 2011 (see here and here).  One of the most serious incidents took place after Friday prayer on 1 April, when protesters emerged from the Great Mosque in Douma to join a demonstration against the regime (above) in the central square.  They were greeted by hundreds of riot police, who fired teargas into the crowd, beat protesters with sticks and shocked bystanders with cattle prods.  Towards the middle of the afternoon the violence escalated; rocks were thrown by some demonstrators, and the police (including snipers on the rooftops) opened fire with Kalashnikovs: 15 and perhaps as many as 22 people were killed and hundreds injured.  According to one local journalist:

“This was the systematic killing of peaceful and unarmed citizens by security forces,” said Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights, one of several organisations that has collated matching witness accounts of the incident.

Witnesses [said] that thugs were bussed in by government forces to attack demonstrators [These armed thugs act as a private pro-Assad militia, known in Syria as al- Shabeha, ‘the ghosts’]. Journalists and diplomats were prevented from reaching the area over the weekend, and phone lines to Damascus have been disrupted.

In another familiar response, the same journalist reported that state news agencies had claimed that ‘armed groups’ had opened fire and that some of the demonstrators ‘had daubed their clothes with red dye to make foreign reporters believe that they had been injured.’

Local people encircled the Hamdan hospital to try to prevent the security forces gaining access to the wounded seeking treatment.  One local source told Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand:

“This is the last way we have to protect our wounded from being kidnapped by secret service…

“We held the line until live fire was used and we had to run and hide. I saw the secret police break into the hospital and later when I went back to the hospital some of the bodies and some of the injured were missing.”

The National Hospital and the al-Noor Hospital were also raided by security forces on 1 April searching for injured protesters.  And, taking another leaf from the Dara’a playbook, all doctors were ordered to refuse treatment to the wounded; those discovered to have disobeyed were arrested, including the director of Hamdan.

The protests gathered momentum, and by September the first brigades of the Free Syrian Army had formed in Eastern Ghouta – ‘ostensibly’, Amnesty International said, ‘to protect the protesters from Syrian government forces.’

By the time Christine Marlow reported from Douma in December 2011 the city was cordoned off from Damascus by six military checkpoints (above: a Syrian Arab Army checkpoint at Douma in January 2012) and the town was effectively under martial law:

Military trucks stood parked at the end of the dark empty street. The electricity was cut, the phone signals out and apartment windows boarded up with whatever wood or metal people could find. It was to stop the bullets, activists explained. Shouting and chanting of “down down Bashar al Assad” could be heard in the distance, interspersed with the crackle of gunfire.  This is not Homs, Idlib, or any of those Syrian towns that for months have been in the throes of rebellious unrest and violent crackdown. This is Douma, a large satellite town on the edge of Damascus, the heartland of support for President Assad’s regime.

Damascus Old City continues in relative normality with the bustle of daily life. Occasional power cuts and a shortage of gas are the principal signs that all is not well.  But less than seven miles away, Douma is in lockdown. Every Friday – when protests traditionally take place after prayers in the mosques, the suburb is under a military siege.

… Residents had flooded the side streets and mud paths that riddle the town. Doors of homes were left ajar, an invitation of shelter to the demonstrators. Locals passed warnings to each other; “there are dogs in that street”, they said, referring to the army.

 The military was on edge – protesting voices of just 10 or so people was enough to prompt gunfire….

She visited a central hospital – I don’t know whether this was the Hamdan again – and found it dark and empty.  She was told that soldiers had stormed the hospital in the dead of night.  Again, I don’t know if this refers to the previous incident; I do know that Hamdan was raided several times, but so too were other hospitals in Douma: see the Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria here.

Staff, who had been tipped off, ran to hide the wounded protesters.  “We grabbed the injured, we dragged them from the back door and down the side streets,” he recalled. “We kept some in the homes of sympathisers, others – those who could move – fled. Others hid inside cupboards in the hospital. Otherwise we think they would be killed.”

Activists say hundreds of people have been injured in the months of protests. Now they are tended by volunteers working in secret clinics inside sympathisers’ homes, with whatever medicine can be smuggled in. It is not enough. Mohammed, whose name has also been changed for his protection, received a heavy blow to the head from a security official during a protest in May. With no utensils or materials, doctors in the home clinic to which he was taken were forced to staple together the gaping, bleeding wound using a piece of old wire.

This too, as I will show in a later post, was a harbinger of the desperate future, in which hospitals would be systematically bombed,  medical supplies routinely removed from humanitarian convoys, and doctors – like everyone else – thrown back on their own limited resources and improvisations.

The siege of Douma – and of East Ghouta more generally – tightened, and by early 2013 the region was under the control of 16 armed opposition groups.  Theirs was a complex and volatile political geography and, as I will show in my next post, their fortunes were closely tied to their involvement in the siege economy.  They enjoyed considerable though not unconditional nor unwavering support from local people, but this too was a complicated and changing situation.  The Assad regime, its allies and agents have often portrayed the besieged population as homogeneous,  particularly after displacement reduced East Ghouta from 1.5 million to around 400,000 inhabitants at the height of the siege.  In another iteration of ‘the extinction of the grey zone‘ practiced across the absolutist spectrum – from right-wing radicals in the US to Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – they all became ‘terrorists’.  That term was made to cover a lot of baggage, including anyone who was involved in any form of resistance to the authority of the state. But even within that shrivelled sense of political legitimacy, it’s important to remember throughout the discussions that follow that there were also hundreds of thousands of civilians who were caught in the cross-fire between pro-government forces and the armed opposition groups.

Dying and the Douma Four

I do not mean that last sentence as a standard disclaimer, and the most direct way I can sharpen the point is by giving space to the (too short) story of a small group of courageous activists who made their home in Douma during the siege:

The savage repression of the Assad regime had made it impossible for the people to continue with their non-violent protests. They started to carry arms, and with that, their need for an ideology of confrontation and martyrdom started to eclipse their earlier enthusiasm for forgiveness and reconciliation.

For many civilian activists, the transformation of the Syrian uprising into what seemed like a full-blown civil war was unbearable. Of those who escaped death or detention, many decided to flee the country; and, from the bitterness of their exile, they began to tell a story of loss and disillusionment. But for Razan, Wael, and many of their close friends, these same developments called for more, not less, engagement. They argued that civilian activists had the responsibility now to monitor the actions of the armed rebels, to resist their excesses, and to set up the institutions for good governance in the liberated parts of the country. They also believed, much like their friend the renowned writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, that their task as secularists was not to preach ‘enlightenment’ from a safe distance, but to join the more ordinary and devout folk in their struggle for a life lived with dignity. Only then could liberal secularism earn its ‘place’ in Syrian society and truly challenge its primordialist detractors.

It was these beliefs that set Razan Zaitouneh on her last journey in late April 2013. After two years of living underground in Damascus, she followed the example of Yassin al-Haj Saleh and moved to the liberated town of Douma. There, among a starving population that was constantly under shelling by the regime forces, Razan launched a project for women empowerment and a community development center, all while continuing her work in documenting and assisting the victims of the war. By August, al-Haj Saleh had already left for the north, but his wife Samira al-Khalil, Razan and her husband, and their friend, the poet and activist Nazem Hammadi were all settled in Douma, sharing two apartments in the same building. In the middle of the night of December 9 [2013], they were abducted from their new homes by a group of armed men that were later linked to Al-Nusra front and the Army of Islam. To this day, their fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

You can find out more about the Douma 4 here and here.  Samira al-Khalil‘s diary of the siege of Douma in 2013 has already appeared in Arabic, and will be published in English translation later this year.

Samira wrote this in her diary:

“The world does not interfere with the fact that we are dying, it controls the ways we are dying: it does not want us dead with chemical weapons but does not protest our killing by starvation, closes the borders in the face of those who are escaping certain death with their children.  It leaves them to drown in their flimsy boats—a communal death in the sea, similar to the communal death by the chemical weapon.”

And those who remained inside East Ghouta, as the header to this post says, were all dying slowly.  As one aid worker inside East Ghouta put it yesterday, what has happened since has been ‘wholesale slaughter witnessed by a motionless world.’

To be continued.

Digital breaches

In my latest posts on the wars in Syria – Cities under Siege here and here – I tried to open a space for the voices of those inside the siege lines.  To supplement those discussions, I want to notice two other digital breaches of siege lines, one in Mosul in Iraq and the other in East Ghouta in Damascus.

Although the Syrian regime has been either unwilling or unable to prevent digital access to the world outside its barricades (no doubt for a variety of reasons), Islamic State has persistently sought to isolate the communities it controls from within.  For example:

In Mosul, Omar Mohammed – a 31 year-old ‘stealth historian‘ – risked his life to chronicle life under IS in a remarkable series of posts: Mosul Eye.  When he lost his job teaching ancient history at the university in June 2014 he started an anonymous blog and became the eponymous ‘Mosul Eye’.

Lori Hinnant and Maggi Michael reported for AP:

Anonymous for more than three years, Mohammed wandered the streets of occupied Mosul by day, chatting with shopkeepers and Islamic State fighters, visiting friends who worked at the hospital, swapping scraps of information. He grew out his hair and his beard and wore the shortened trousers required by the extremists. He forced himself to witness the beheadings and deaths by stoning, so he could hear killers call out the names of the condemned and their supposed crimes.

By night, he was Mosul Eye, and from his darkened room he told the world what was happening. If caught, he knew he would be killed.

Writing in the New Yorker in October 2016,  Robin Wright explained that Mosul Eye

provided details about life under the caliphate—initially offering hourly reports regarding roads around Mosul that were safe to travel, and then, in the following weeks, reporting on the dawning anxiety about the heavily armed ISIS fighters, the power blackouts, the rising prices, the chaos in local markets, the panic over food shortages, and the occupiers’ utter brutality. Over the next year, Mosul Eye expanded into a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The posts were determinedly stoic—melancholic and inspiring at once.

For the past two weeks, as Mosul has become the epicenter of a new U.S.-backed offensive to defeat ISIS—also known as ISIL—Mosul Eye has been posting dozens of times a day on its social-media outlets. On Monday, it tweeted, “Today, Mosul has entered the atmosphere of the war. The bombardment is continuous on many areas of the city, specifically the southern and northeastern outskirts of the city.”

Mohammed paid smugglers to arrange his escape, and once outside of Mosul he eventually revealed his identity; it was not an easy decision but once he had made it, he said, he finally felt free.

Most of the published interviews with Mohammed took place once he was outside Mosul and his identity was known, but Wright managed to reach him over social media inside the besieged city and her report addressed the key questions of provenance and credibility:

Iraqis and Mideast scholars believe that the site is for real. Rasha al Aqeedi, a scholar from Mosul who now writes from Dubai, told me that “the information is reliable,” and added, “The perspective and ideology, however, reflect Mosul’s young intelligentsia: the will to review Islam and question religious texts and the fault lines along historic narratives.”

But the same questions dogged the two AP journalists en arrière, once they had met with him and he revealed his identity.  Here is their detailed response:

Omar gave us databases from his hard drive tracking the dead, noting daily events in Mosul. Each one was a separate file — totaling hundreds of files. The origin dates on each matched the date of the file, or at most was one or two days away from it. For his account of the day on the Tigris, he gave us multiple photos and a video from the day, each with an origin date in March 2015, which was when he said the events had happened. On Google Maps, he showed us the curve in the river where he picnicked, and zoomed on the marshy areas to show how it matched up with his account. As for himself blogging inside a dark room in his house in Mosul, he provided a video that AP used. He used maps to show his escape route. He showed on Google a list of the top students from his high school in Mosul, and his name was among the top five.

On the third day, just before we filmed over the course of about 90 minutes, he stepped away to make a phone call, in English, to announce that in a few minutes he would be shedding his anonymity as he didn’t want to be anonymous anymore. He showed us footage from his thesis defense, in which one of the professors accused him of secularism.

After the meetings, we asked Omar for contact information for his thesis advisor, who was among the few to figure out his identity during the early days of Mosul Eye; his younger brother, who he had told over the summer; activists and volunteers he worked with in Mosul; an American history professor he was in touch with via Skype since 2012, who knew his real identity. He provided all of this, and we spoke with all of them, including one person who, as it turns out, also figured out who he was and discovered that they have mutual friends. Omar provided us with links to his own scholarly work on Mosul. He sent over screen grabs of exchanges with a reporter from another news organization who he had worked with during the airstrikes to try and extract trapped civilians. He explained that, by that point, people were just messaging Mosul Eye in hopes he could help them. He acknowledged one other person had administrator access to the account: a Mosul woman now living in the U.S. who helped him with some of the interviews in English.

Omar explained to us how he cross-checked his information, and we put some of that into the story, but Mosul Eye isn’t an infallible source any more than anyone else, especially in a chaotic war environment. His death toll numbers, especially during the final months of the battle, are unconfirmed but in line with other estimates.That said, some of his unpublished notes read by Lori and Maggie, with origin dates from 2014 and 2015 and early 2016 especially, showed knowledge of IS that would only be published later. The leaflets he was collecting and publishing, the photos he was using to offer biographies and diagrams of their leadership showed a historian’s desire for documentation.

Several activists whom AP interviewed said that Mosul Eye was the only window to the outside world and that they have been closely following but fearing to even “like” or “share,” knowing that IS keeps an eye on social media.

I have cited this passage in its entirety because in the deformed world of “fake news” (which plainly did not start with Donald Trump, even if he embodies its digital metastasis: see also here and here), where today the alt.left is as pernicious as the alt.right in disparaging stories they don’t like, questions of veracity – and, to be sure, of positionality – have assumed a new and profoundly political importance  The vomit-inducing denial of systematic Russian and Syrian air strikes on hospitals and medical facilities across Syria is a case in point; the disingenuous disparagement of the work of MSF, the Syrian Civil Defence (the White Helmets) and a host of other non-government agencies is another.

It’s a complicated terrain, of course, and my second example illustrates something of what is at stake.  It comes from East Ghouta.  I’m preparing a major post on recent events there – it should be ready next week – and, as in my previous work, here too I’ve drawn on voices from inside the siege.  Many newsrooms and digital platforms have reported the extraordinary videos posted on Twitter and YouTube by 15 year-old Muhammad Najem: see here and here.

CNN reported:

Najem’s videos have a common theme: an appeal to the world to bear witness to what is happening in Syria.
“People should know about everything happening in Syria,” he told CNN. “I want to follow my studies. I want to become a reporter when I grow up. “Our blood begs every day. You watch it daily without any reaction from you,” Najem says in one video, wearing a Syrian flag draped around his neck like a scarf. “Our hunger, cold, and displacement have become a common sight. Save our people in Ghouta.”
In one of his most powerful videos, Najem stands on a rooftop as explosions echo in the distance. “We are killed by your silence,” he says.”

 

(If you read some of the comments below his videos on YouTube, you will discover the killing is not only accomplished by silence.)

The CNN report added the by now standard disclaimer – ‘CNN cannot independently verify the authenticity of these videos – but the tone and texture of their coverage makes it plain that CNN doubts neither their authenticity nor their accuracy.  There is no single, plenary Truth – Donna Haraway debunked the ‘God Trick’ ages ago – but passion and partiality do not automatically disqualify someone’s voice: still less so, when their position is so precarious.

But listen to this exchange from the state-owned France 24.

 

In one of the videos, Najem says he wants to become a reporter “when I am grown up”. But for Franco-American [photo]journalist Jonathan Alpeyrie, who covered the Syrian conflict (in 2013, he was held captive by an Islamist group for 81 days), “a journalist shouldn’t be seen… Otherwise he becomes the subject,” he told FRANCE 24. To Alpeyrie, the teenager is more activist than journalist. “He is hostile to Bashar al-Assad but the role of the press isn’t to take a stance….”

Although several news outlets have relayed the teenager’s testimony, Alpeyrie thinks it’s dangerous to do so: “We can’t confirm the provenance of these videos. He says that he’s filming in Eastern Ghouta, but we don’t know anything.”

 

Describing Najem’s videos as a series of ‘selfies’, France 24’s reporter asked philosopher-psychoanalyst Elsa Godart for her take on them:

If a teenager is behind the account, his reliance on the selfie can have different motivations, said Godart. In the worst situation, aside from manipulation: “We can envision an extreme narcissism, where one plays on a tragic event under the sympathetic guise of defending humanity.”

And if we assume that the gesture is real and sincere on the part of an adolescent on the ground? “Then this could be just as it appears: a selfie as an act of resistance. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei documented his 2009 arrest with a selfie that he later exhibited as a work of art,” said Godart.

To her, the selfie taken at war is similar: “It denounces something extraordinary. It is a testimony of something that one feels a duty to report. ‘I am attacked, and here is the photographic evidence.’”

I hope it’s obvious what I think too.

Cities and War

This week the Guardian launched a new series on Cities and War:

War is urbanising. No longer fought on beaches or battlefields, conflict has come to the doors of millions living in densely populated areas, killing thousands of civilians, destroying historic centres and devastating infrastructure for generations to come.

Last year, the world watched the Middle East as Mosul, Raqqa, Sana’a and Aleppo were razed to the ground. Across Europe, brutal attacks stunned urban populations in Paris, London and Berlin, while gang warfare tore apart the fabric of cities in central and south America.

In 2018, Guardian Cities will explore the reality of war in cities today – not merely how it is fought, but how citizens struggle to adapt, and to rebuild stronger than ever.

The series opened on Monday with a photographic gallery illustrating ‘a century of cities at war’; some of the images will be familiar, but many will not.  When I was working on ‘Modern War and Dead Cities‘ (which you can download under the TEACHING tab), for example, I thought I had seen most of the dramatic images of the Blitz, but I had missed this one:

It’s an arresting portfolio, and inevitably selective: there is a good discussion below the line on what other cities should have made the cut.

The first written contribution is an extended essay from Jason Burke, ‘Cities and terror: an indivisible and brutal relationship‘, which adds a welcome historical depth and geographical range to a discussion that all too readily contracts around recent attacks on cities in Europe and North America, and suggests an intimate link between cities and terrorism:

[I]t was around the time of the Paddington station attack [by Fenians in 1883]  that the strategy of using violence to sway public opinion though fear became widespread among actors such as the anarchists, leftists and nationalists looking to bring about dramatic social and political change.

This strategy depended on two developments which mark the modern age: democracy and communications. Without the media, developing apace through the 19th century as literacy rates soared and cheap news publications began to achieve mass circulations, impact would be small. Without democracy, there was no point in trying to frighten a population and thus influence policymakers. Absolutist rulers, like subsequent dictators, could simply ignore the pressure from the terrified masses. Of course, a third great development of this period was conditions in the modern city itself.

Could the terrorism which is so terribly familiar to us today have evolved without the development of the metropolis as we now know it? This seems almost impossible to imagine. Even the terror of the French revolution – Le Terreur – which gives us the modern term terrorism, was most obvious in the centre of Paris where the guillotine sliced heads from a relatively small number of aristocrats in order to strike fear into a much larger number of people.

The history of terrorism is thus the history of our cities. The history of our cities, at least over the last 150 years or so, is in part the history of terrorism. This is a deadly, inextricable link that is unlikely to be broken anytime soon.

Today Saskia Sassen issued her ‘Welcome to a new kind of war: the rise of endless urban conflict‘.  She begins with an observation that is scarcely novel:

The traditional security paradigm in our western-style democracies fails to accommodate a key feature of today’s wars: when our major powers go to war, the enemies they now encounter are irregular combatants. Not troops, organised into armies; but “freedom” fighters, guerrillas, terrorists. Some are as easily grouped by common purpose as they are disbanded. Others engage in wars with no end in sight.

What such irregular combatants tend to share is that they urbanise war. Cities are the space where they have a fighting chance, and where they can leave a mark likely to be picked up by the global media. This is to the disadvantage of cities – but also to the typical military apparatus of today’s major powers.

The main difference between today’s conflicts and the first and second world wars is the sharp misalignment between the war space of traditional militaries compared to that of irregular combatants.

Irregular combatants are at their most effective in cities. They cannot easily shoot down planes, nor fight tanks in open fields. Instead, they draw the enemy into cities, and undermine the key advantage of today’s major powers, whose mechanised weapons are of little use in dense and narrow urban spaces.

Advanced militaries know this very well, of course, and urban warfare is now a central medium in military training.  Saskia continues:

We have gone from wars commanded by hegemonic powers that sought control over sea, air, and land, to wars fought in cities – either inside the war zone, or enacted in cities far away. The space for action can involve “the war”, or simply specific local issues; each attack has its own grievances and aims, seeking global projection or not. Localised actions by local armed groups, mostly acting independently from other such groups, let alone from actors in the war zone – this fragmented isolation has become a new kind of multi-sited war.

This is, in part, what I tried to capture in my early essay on ‘The everywhere war’, and I’m now busily re-thinking it for my new book.  More on this in due course, but it’s worth noting that the Trump maladministration’s National Defense Strategy, while recognising the continuing importance of counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency, has returned the Pentagon’s sights to wars between major powers – notably China and Russia (see also here)– though it concedes that these may well be fought (indeed, are being fought) in part through unconventional means in digital domains.  In short, I think later modern war is much more complex than Saskia acknowledges; it has many modalities (which is why I become endlessly frustrated at the critical preoccupation with drones to the exclusion of other vectors of military and paramilitary violence), and these co-exist with – or give a new inflection to – older modalities of violence (I’m thinking of the siege warfare waged by Israel against Gaza or Syria against its own people).

The two contributions I’ve singled out are both broad-brush essays, but Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has contributed a two-part essay on Mosul under Islamic State that is truly brilliant: Part I describes how IS ran the city (‘The Bureaucracy of Evil‘) and Part II how the people of Mosul resisted the reign of terror (‘The Fall‘).

Mosul fell to IS in July 2014, and here is part of Ghaith’s report, where he tells the story of Wassan, a newly graduated doctor:

Like many other diwans (ministries) that Isis established in Mosul, as part of their broader effort to turn an insurgency into a fully functioning administrative state, the Diwan al-Siha (ministry of health) operated a two-tier system.There was one set of rules for “brothers” – those who gave allegiance to Isis – and another for the awam, or commoners.

“We had two systems in the hospitals,” Wassan said. “IS members and their families were given the best treatment and complete access to medicine, while the normal people, the awam, were forced to buy their own medicine from the black market.

“We started hating our work. As a doctor, I am supposed to treat all people equally, but they would force us to treat their own patients only. I felt disgusted with myself.”

(Those who openly resisted faced death, but as IS came under increasing military pressure at least one doctor was spared by a judge when he refused to treat a jihadist before a civilian: “They had so few doctors, they couldn’t afford to punish me. They needed me in the hospital.”)

Wassan’s radical solution was to develop her own, secret hospital:

“Before the start of military operations, medicines begun to run out,” she said. “So I started collecting whatever I could get my hands on at home. I built a network with pharmacists I could trust. I started collecting equipment from doctors and medics, until I had a full surgery kit at home. I could even perform operations with full anaesthesia.”

Word of mouth spread about her secret hospital.

“Some people started coming from the other side of Mosul, and whatever medicine I had was running out,” she said. “I knew there was plenty of medicine in our hospital, but the storage rooms were controlled by Isis.

“Eventually, I began to use the pretext of treating one of their patients to siphon medicine from their own storage. If their patient needed one dose, I would take five. After a while they must have realised, because they stopped allowing doctors to go into the storage.”

The punishment for theft is losing a hand. Running a free hospital from her home would have been sedition, punishable by death…

When Wassan’s hospital was appropriated by Isis fighters [this was a common IS tactic – see the image below and the Human Rights Watch report here; the hospital was later virtually destroyed by US air strikes] her secret house-hospital proved essential. More than a dozen births were performed on her dining table; she kicked both brothers out of their rooms to convert them into operating theatres; her mother, an elderly nurse, became her assistant.

As the siege of Mosul by the Iraqi Army ground on, some of the sick and injured managed to run (or stumble) the gauntlet to find medical aid in rudimentary field hospitals beyond the faltering grip of IS, while others managed to make it to major trauma centres like West Irbil.

But for many in Mosul Wassan’s secret hospital was a lifeline (for a parallel story about another woman doctor running a secret clinic under the noses of IS, see here).

Yet there is a vicious sting in the tail:

For Wassan, the ending of Isis rule in Mosul is bittersweet. After many attempts to reach Baghdad to write her board exams for medical school, she was told her work in the hospital for the past three years did not count as “active service”, and she was disqualified.

“The ministry said they won’t give me security clearance because I had worked under Isis administration,” she said.

This, too, is one of the modalities of later modern war – the weaponisation of health care, through selectively withdrawing it from some sections of the population while privileging the access and quality for others.  ‘Health care,’ writes Omar Dewachi, ‘has become not only a target but also a tactic of war.’  (If you want to know more about the faltering provision of healthcare and the fractured social fabric of life in post-IS Mosul, I recommend an interactive report from Michael Bachelard and Kate Geraghty under the bleak but accurate title ‘The war has just started‘). 

The weaponisation of health care has happened before, of course, and it takes many forms. In 2006, at the height of sectarian violence in occupied Baghdad, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shi’a militia controlled the Health Ministry and manipulated the delivery of healthcare in order to marginalise and even exclude the Sunni population.  As Amit Paley reported:

 ‘In a city with few real refuges from sectarian violence – not government offices, not military bases, not even mosques – one place always emerged as a safe haven: hospitals…

‘In Baghdad these days, not even the hospitals are safe. In growing numbers, sick and wounded Sunnis have been abducted from public hospitals operated by Iraq’s Shiite-run Health Ministry and later killed, according to patients, families of victims, doctors and government officials.

‘As a result, more and more Iraqis are avoiding hospitals, making it even harder to preserve life in a city where death is seemingly everywhere. Gunshot victims are now being treated by nurses in makeshift emergency rooms set up in homes. Women giving birth are smuggled out of Baghdad and into clinics in safer provinces.’

He described hospitals as ‘Iraq’s new killing fields’, but in Syria the weaponisation of health care has been radicalised and explicitly authorized by the state.

You may think I’ve strayed too far from where I started this post; but I’ve barely moved.  For towards the end of her essay Saskia wonders why military and paramilitary violence in cities in so shocking – why it attracts so much more public attention than the millions murdered in the killing fields of the Congo.  And she suggests that the answer may lie in its visceral defilement of one of humanity’s greatest potential achievements:

Is it because the city is something we’ve made together, a collective construction across time and space? Is it because at the heart of the city are commerce and the civic, not war?

Lewis Mumford had some interesting things to say about that.  I commented on this in ACME several years ago, and while I’d want to flesh out those skeletal remarks considerably now, they do intersect with Saskia’s poignant question about the war on the civic:

In The Culture of Cities, published just one year before the Second World War broke out, Mumford included ‘A brief outline of hell’ in which he turned the Angelus towards the future to confront the terrible prospect of total war. Raging against what he called the ‘war-ceremonies’ staged in the ‘imperial metropolis’ (‘from Washington to Tokyo, from Berlin to Rome’: where was London, I wonder? Moscow?), Mumford fastened on the anticipatory dread of air war. The city was no longer the place where (so he claimed) security triumphed over predation, and he saw in advance of war not peace but another version of war. Thus the rehearsals for defence (the gas-masks, the shelters, the drills) were ‘the materialization of a skillfully evoked nightmare’ in which fear consumed the ideal of a civilized, cultivated life before the first bombs fell. The ‘war-metropolis’, he concluded, was a ‘non-city’.

After the war, Mumford revisited the necropolis, what he described as ‘the ruins and graveyards’ of the urban, and concluded that his original sketch could not be incorporated into his revised account, The City in History, simply ‘because all its anticipations were abundantly verified.’ He gazed out over the charnel-house of war from the air — Warsaw and Rotterdam, London and Tokyo, Hamburg and Hiroshima — and noted that ‘[b]esides the millions of people — six million Jews alone — killed by the Germans in their suburban extermination camps, by starvation and cremation, whole cities were turned into extermination camps by the demoralized strategists of democracy.’

I’m not saying that we can accept Mumford without qualification, still less extrapolate his claims into our own present, but I do think his principled arc, at once historical and geographical, is immensely important. In now confronting what Stephen Graham calls ‘the new military urbanism’ we need to recover its genealogy — to interrogate the claims to novelty registered by both its proponents and its critics — as a way of illuminating the historical geography of our own present.

It’s about more than aerial violence – though that is one of the signature modalities of modern war – and we surely need to register the heterogeneity and hybridity of contemporary conflicts.  But we also need to recognise that they are often not only wars in cities but also wars on cities.

Bombing Raqqa

I picked up a copy of The Raqqa Diaries while I was in the UK; you can read extracts here and here, but they were originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Today program and you can find more extracts (and videos) here and here.

The diaries were written by a young man, a member of an activist group, who courageously describes the horrors and humiliations inflicted by Islamic State on ordinary people.  He explains:

I had the idea just before the revolution began, when the Arab Spring started unfolding. Syrian people knew that the winds of change were approaching, but the idea truly manifested itself after Islamic State took over Raqqa. Diaries are normally private, and are mostly only read after the passing of the diarist. But, as I detail in my diaries, because of the crimes and oppression that Isis were committing against our people, I felt I had to fight back by telling the world what they are continuing to do to us.

But those who cheer the war from the air might also reflect on this passage:

My brothers, sisters and I had planned a small party for Mother’s Day. It was a cold March morning and I heard the sound of warplanes. I immediately set out for home.

As the taxi got closer, clouds of smoke filled the air. The regime’s planes had hit our street. Our neighbour’s roof had collapsed on to ours. There were ambulances everywhere, and people running around carrying the dead and the injured.

One of my neighbours told me that my parents were hurt and had been taken to the general hospital. The feeling I had was indescribable. Judging by the way our house looked, I was expecting the worst. The top floor was completely destroyed and much of the ground floor was badly damaged too. Our neighbour’s house was in a similar state.

When my brothers, sisters and I arrived at the hospital, the smell of blood and death filled the place. We were asked to look at the bodies laid out in front of us to see if our parents were among them.

I was in such a state of shock at that moment that I suddenly couldn’t remember anything. As I stood beside my father, it was like nothing that had happened before that moment mattered. There was my dad. His body was littered with injuries. They had covered most of his corpse with a white sheet, but his face was still showing. I could see blood seeping through the sheet from numerous cuts. The telltale sign of shrapnel wounds.

I was overwhelmed with a sense of absolute loneliness and collapsed on the floor. I had lost my mentor, my guide in life, the man who always had an answer to everything. This was one of the darkest moments of my life. My father’s death has continued to haunt me. It’s changed something in me.

“Your mother is being treated in here,” a voice said quietly, “but don’t go in yet.” Two hours passed and finally a doctor came out. I told him that I was her son. “I’ve managed to save her life, but she’s very sick,” he said.

Samer describes a raid by the Syrian Arab Air Force but, as one exile now living in Turkey told the Guardian in November 2015:

“Can someone really be happy if his city is bombed by everyone? No,” Abu Ahmad said, with the bleak humour that many exiles share. “Everybody bombed Raqqa. Anyone who was just annoyed by their wife decided to come and bomb Raqqa. Jordan, UAE, US, Russia, France.”

NOTE: My cascade of posts on Syria does not mean I’m ignoring the unremitting Us-led coalition airstrikes on Mosul and their civilian toll: I’ll post on that as soon as I can.

Unimaginative geographies

In my commentary on the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris in November 2015, I drew attention to Islamic State’s desire to extinguish what it called ‘the grey zone’.  As Jason Burke explained at the time:

In February this year, in a chilling editorial in its propaganda magazine, Dabiq, Isis laid out its own strategy to eliminate what the writer, or writers, called “the grey zone”.

This was, Isis said, what lay between belief and unbelief, good and evil, the righteous and the damned. It was home, too, to all those who had yet to commit to the forces of either side.

The grey zone, Isis claimed, had been “critically endangered [since] the blessed operations of September 11th”, as “these operations showed the world” the two camps that mankind must choose between.

Over the years, since successive violent acts had narrowed the grey zone to the point where by the end of 2014 “the time had come for another event to … bring division to the world and destroy the grey zone everywhere”.

I noted then that ‘The imaginative geographies of Islamic State overlap with those spewed by the extreme right in Europe and North America and, like all imaginative geographies, they have palpable effects: not fifty shades of grey but fifty versions of supposedly redemptive violence.’

Syrian artist Khaled Akil has captured this congruence perfectly in “Hate Loves Hate“:

khaled-akil-hate-loves-hate

Amnesty International‘s latest report (2016/17) on Human Rights around the world confirms that this is fast becoming generalised:

Politicians wielding a toxic, dehumanizing “us vs them” rhetoric are creating a more divided and dangerous world, warned Amnesty International today as it launched its annual assessment of human rights around the world.

The report, The State of the World’s Human Rights, delivers the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights around the world, covering 159 countries. It warns that the consequences of “us vs them” rhetoric setting the agenda in Europe, the United States and elsewhere is fuelling a global pushback against human rights and leaving the global response to mass atrocities perilously weak.

“2016 was the year when the cynical use of ‘us vs them’ narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s. Too many politicians are answering legitimate economic and security fears with a poisonous and divisive manipulation of identity politics in an attempt to win votes,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

2016-us-vs-them-001

“Divisive fear-mongering has become a dangerous force in world affairs. Whether it is Trump, Orban, Erdoğan or Duterte, more and more politicians calling themselves anti-establishment are wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people.

“Today’s politics of demonization shamelessly peddles a dangerous idea that some people are less human than others, stripping away the humanity of entire groups of people. This threatens to unleash the darkest aspects of human nature.”…

“In 2016, these most toxic forms of dehumanization became a dominant force in mainstream global politics. The limits of what is acceptable have shifted. Politicians are shamelessly and actively legitimizing all sorts of hateful rhetoric and policies based on people’s identity: misogyny, racism and homophobia.

“The first target has been refugees and, if this continues in 2017, others will be in the cross-hairs. The reverberations will lead to more attacks on the basis of race, gender, nationality and religion. When we cease to see each other as human beings with the same rights, we move closer to the abyss.”