1418 strikes and you’re still in…

The Syrian Archive has announced the release of a database of Russian-led airstrikes on civilian targets in Syria between September 2015 and September 2018.

Several years of monitoring alleged Russian airstrikes in Syria reveals a pattern of indiscriminate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. In an analysis of 3303 videos documenting alleged Russian airstrikes from 116 sources between 30 September 2015 and 9 September 2018, Syrian Archive has identified 1418 incidents in which Russian forces allegedly targeted civilians or civilian infrastructure of little to no military value. Content included in this database can be viewed, analysed and downloaded.

While data presented in this collection does not include all incidents of alleged Russian airstrikes on civilians between 2015 and 2018 [my emphasis], it presents all incidents for which visual content was available and verifiable as of the date of publication. Syrian Archive hopes this will support reporting, advocacy, research, and accountability efforts…

This open source database is fully searchable and queryable by date, location, keyword, relevance, and confidence score..

The database includes more than 3,000 videos of 1,400 incidents (some taken by citizens and activists, some by human rights organisations, and some by the Russian Ministry of Defence); its compilation involved a series of negotiations with YouTube over the removal of some of the video evidence (see here and my extended discussion of visual evidence here).

Airwars continues to do stellar work documenting civilian casualties from the US-led coalition’s military operations in Syria and elsewhere, but the Syrian Archive’s contribution is particularly valuable since, as Airwars notes:

Airwars maintains an extensive database of all known allegations in which civilians have been reported killed by Russian forces in Syrian casualty events since September 30th 2015. Our published month by month records include a case report on each known alleged event; photographs, videos, names of the dead where known; archived links to all known sources; and our provisional assessment as to whether Russian forces were likely responsible.

Due to the scale of the Russian campaign and the number of reported civilian casualty allegations, our team rolls out monthly assessments as we are able to complete them. Much of our deep assessment work had to be suspended in early 2017 given the high number of alleggations against the US-led Coalition.

Chemical weapons in Syria

A new, detailed report from the BBC investigates the Assad regime’s strategic deployment of chemical weapons.  The joint investigation by the Panorama team and BBC Arabic determined ‘there is enough evidence to be confident that at least 106 chemical attacks have taken place in Syria since September 2013, when [President Assad] signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and agreed to destroy the country’s chemical weapons stockpile‘ (my emphasis).

The BBC team considered 164 reports of chemical attacks from September 2013 onwards. The reports were from a variety of sources considered broadly impartial and not involved in the fighting. They included international bodies, human rights groups, medical organisations and think tanks.

In line with investigations carried out by the UN and the OPCW, BBC researchers, with the help of several independent analysts, reviewed the open source data available for each of the reported attacks, including victim and witness testimonies, photographs and videos.
The BBC team had their methodology checked by specialist researchers and experts.
The BBC researchers discounted all incidents where there was only one source, or where they concluded there was not sufficient evidence. In all, they determined there was enough credible evidence to be confident a chemical weapon was used in 106 incidents.

Almost half the documented attacks were in Idlib and Hama; most casualties were recorded in Kafr Zita (in Hama) and Douma (in East Ghouta).  Aircraft were used in almost half the attacks, and the experts consulted by the BBC concluded that in the majority of cases it was overwhelmingly likely that the Syrian Arab Air Force was responsible.  In this connection, it is telling that:

Many of the reported attacks occurred in clusters in and around the same areas and at around the same times. These clusters coincided with government offensives – in Hama and Idlib in 2014, in Idlib in 2015, in Aleppo city at the end of 2016, and in the Eastern Ghouta in early 2018.

The report pays particular attention to the use of chemical weapons during the offensive against East Ghouta earlier this year – see my detailed analysis here; see also here – and provides a detailed map:

Panorama: Syria’s Chemical War will be broadcast in the UK on Monday 15 October on BBC One at 20:30. It will be available afterwards on the BBC iPlayer. It will also be broadcast on BBC Arabic on Tuesday 23 October at 19:05 GMT.

Trauma Geographies online

My Antipode Lecture on Trauma Geographies is now available online via YouTube.

(If you wonder why I’m hunched over my laptop, the microphone was fixed to the podium….).  Since I’m now turning this into an essay, I’d welcome any questions, comments or suggestions.

You can find more details  including open access to a series of related articles – at the Antipode Foundation website here.

‘The Bomb and Siege Routine’

I’ve been on the road – I’m in London now for more archival work at the Wellcome, after a wonderful conference on “Drone imaginaries” at Odense – but I hope to post the next essay in my series on siege warfare in Syria shortly.  It will address medical care under siege – a continuation and extension of my wider work on ‘surgical strikes’ on hospitals and medical facilities (see for example here: more under the GUIDE tab) – but in the interim here is a short post from Jonathan Whittall at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF Analysis; also at al Jazeera here) on the ‘bomb and siege routine’:

Medicine and medical workers have also been sucked into the violence. This can be seen in the attempts by the Syrian government to control the provision of healthcare in opposition-held areas by denying humanitarian access, threatening or arresting medical staff, and damaging or destroying medical infrastructure.

Early on in the conflict, medical facilities went underground, forming the beginning of a network of field hospitals such as the ones I visited in Homs. The international backers of the Syrian armed opposition on their part imposed stringent sanctions on the Syrian government which contributed to the decline of the government healthcare system.

As the war raged on, we saw indiscriminate bombing and shelling that did not differentiate between civilian and military targets. In some cases, civilians were considered military targets based on the fact that they had remained in areas controlled by groups designated as “terrorist”.

Hospitals have regularly been hit. This is the new norm. We no longer know if they are struck accidentally or intentionally or destroyed as part of a general rampage of violence. Either way, the infrastructure that sustains life is being eliminated….

From Syria to Iraq and from Yemen to Gaza, the armies and their backers use the trump card of the “fight against terrorism” as the ultimate justification for any atrocities committed against civilian populations under siege.

Indiscriminate bombing is never acceptable, no matter who the enemy is. Nor is targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. Humanitarian supplies must always be exempt from the military tactic of siege.

The wounded and civilians wishing to escape the violence must always be allowed safe passage. The civilians who stay behind do not become legitimate targets. Providing treatment to patients – both civilians and wounded combatants alike – is never an act of “terrorism”, nor is it a form of support for “terrorism”. It is a legally protected act of humanity.

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

Gas Masques

This is both an interruption of and a supplement to my series of essays on the siege of Ghouta in Syria (‘Mass Murder in Slow Motion’): you can find the first (‘East Ghouta’) and second (‘Siege Economies’) here and here, and there are two more to come.  My focus here – and hence my title (in sixteenth-century Europe a masque was a theatrical entertainment staged to glorify the royal court) – is on two performances staged after the mass casualty attacks on Douma on 7 April 2018: the first by the United States, France and the United Kingdom when they launched air strikes on 14 April against three sites that they claimed were central to Syria’s chemical weapons programme, and the second by Syria, Russia and their proxies on the right and the left who insisted that the reports of the original attack were ‘chemical fabrications’.  Both performances, I suggest, are deeply suspect.

 I begin by setting the scene – the immediate preconditions to the attack – and then draw on testimony from witnesses on the ground to document what happened in Douma on the evening of 7 April.  I then consider each performance in detail: the process through which the US and its allies decided that, on the balance of probabilities, the Assad regime had used chemical weapons in Douma, determined their military response, and justified their actions; and the mobilisation of what Bethania Palma called ‘disinformation machines’ by Syria, Russia and its proxies to proclaim ‘fake news’ and erect ‘false flags’.

Under the bombs

The joint military offensive against East Ghouta proved to be an extraordinarily violent campaign.  Over the summer of 2017 the Ghouta had been designated a ‘de-escalation zone‘, but attacks by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies and proxies resumed during the autumn and intensified spectacularly from January 2018.  Here’s a snapshot summary from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED):

The siege was now absolute; hospitals were repeatedly bombed, and hundreds of civilians killed during a devastating onslaught of bombs, shells and missiles.  ‘It’s not a war, it’s called a massacre’, one doctor told the Guardian in February 2018:

“The bombing was hysterical,” said Ahmed al-Dbis, a security official at the Union of Medical and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), which runs dozens of hospitals in areas controlled by the opposition in Syria. “It is a humanitarian catastrophe in every sense of the word. The mass killing of people who do not have the most basic tenets of life.”

UNICEF issued a blank page as a statement to condemn the relentless assault – it had no words left to describe what was happening:

Sonia Khush, an official with Save the Children, described the situation as “absolutely abhorrent.” “The bombing has been relentless, and children are dying by the hour,” she said. “These families have nowhere left to run – they are boxed in and being pounded day and night.”

Many of them sought refuge in basements and improvised subterranean shelters. Here is a report on 21 February from Megan Specia and Hwaida Saad:

All of eastern Ghouta is underground. That is how one aid worker described the situation as thousands of people fled into basements and makeshift shelters in the rebel-held suburb of Damascus this week. Eastern Ghouta is under a brutal aerial assault by Syrian government forces that has left more than 200 people dead in recent days, including many children. As the war on the outskirts of the capital reached a new level of intensity, families huddle underground. For hours on end, they wait out the bombing, which shows no signs of slowing….

Many see the basements as the only haven in a hostile environment. They had little chance to evacuate, as the area has been blockaded for months. For Shadi Jad, a young father who has been in a basement since the beginning of the week, his shelter is a mixed blessing. “Honestly, I feel the shelter is a grave, but it’s the only available way for protection,” he said when reached on Tuesday. But Mr. Jad, who is hiding with his wife and eight other families, said that being in close quarters had also drawn his community together. “We share stories, try to keep the fear away by telling some jokes,” he said. “The shelter makes the relationships deeper”…

Hoda Khayti, 29, has lived in eastern Ghouta her whole life, and said her family, like most of their neighbors, had spent much of the week in a basement. Twelve other families joined them in one cramped space. They could hear planes constantly passing overhead. “The scariest moments are when rockets land, then silence follows,” Ms. Khayti said when reached Wednesday on a Facebook video call. “We feel our souls are leaving our bodies when the plane gets close, and we feel relieved after it goes away.” They fear the bombs outside, but like Mr. Jad, Ms. Khayti said the shelter has become a place for the community to come together. They share food, blankets and stories while they wait for the sounds of planes overhead to trail off….

Conditions rapidly deteriorated; the basements and shelters were hopelessly overcrowded, most with no heating or electricity, sanitation or running water.  Listen to Neemat Mohsen in Saqba in early March:

“In our street, over 500 metres there are only three basements. They have to house all the families there. We feel the prison shrinking. We were first besieged in an enormous prison called eastern Ghouta, now we are trapped in shelters similar to tombs… We are living real terror 24 hours a day.”

By the middle of March the offensive had succeeded in dividing the enclave into three:

Russia brokered a series of evacuation deals and prisoner exchanges with the major rebel groups, first with Ahrar al-Sharm who agreed on 21 March that its fighters, their families and others would leave Harasta, and then with Faylaq ar-Rahman who agreed on 23 March to leave Ayn Tarma, Irbin, Jobar and Zamalka.  Over the following days convoys of buses left for Idlib, while thousands of people fled on foot through so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’ to government camps on the outskirts of Damascus; still others elected to stay in their shattered neighbourhoods under the terms of a security deal to be enforced in the first instance by Russian military police.

That left Douma, where an uneasy truce lasted for ten days – broken by intermittent air strikes – while Jaish al-Islam (JAI) negotiated terms.  These were complicated by divisions within JAI.  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 an elaborately constructed kill-box where the Syrian Arab Army would soon resume its offensive, but JAI had a ‘blood feud’ with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham which controlled much of the area.

Negotiations stalled and eventually broke down.  JAI reportedly placed new conditions on evacuation and refused to release prisoners it had held captive for several years, and on the afternoon of Friday 6 April JAI shelled Damascus, killing four and wounding another 22. The assault by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies resumed with a vengeance.  A ground offensive was launched under the cover of a sustained air and artillery bombardment broadcast live on state TV.  There were 50 air raids during the afternoon and evening, and a medic inside one local hospital – desperately short of trained staff and supplies – described the chaos as the dead and wounded were brought in:

The hospital is in a state of panic… Dentists are carrying out emergency surgeries. Dead bodies are being brought in pieces and are unrecognisable.

That afternoon Hosein Mortada (above), a reporter for Press TV and al-Alam and a vocal supporter of the Assad regime, released a video from Mount Qalamun where he was embedded with the artillery batteries that were pounding Douma, with columns of smoke towering into the sky behind him.  His commentary:

These are appetizers… The story is bigger than a ground invasion. There is something they will see today if the story continues. They will feel something very strong.

It’s impossible to say whether Mortada knew what was coming – he certainly enjoyed close access to the Army – or whether he was merely continuing the gloating and goading style of ‘reporting’ that had become his signature.  Or perhaps he was riffing on the terrifying warning issued in February by Brigadier-General Suheil al-Hassan, the officer commanding Syria’s elite Tiger Force which was now leading the assault on Douma:

I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire… You won’t find a rescuer.  And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You’ll be rescued with blood.

The air and ground assault intensified throughout the next day (above), and most people returned to or remained in the basements and shelters that had been their wretched homes for weeks that had dragged into months.  Then, on Saturday night, there were suddenly multiple reports of mass casualties.

‘Gas!  Gas!’

In a preliminary analysis the Violations Documentation Centre zeroed in on three strikes on 7 April involved in what it described as a ‘suspected chemical attack’.

The first, at 1200, targeted a Syrian Arab Red Crescent medical centre with guided missiles and barrel bombs; the centre was virtually destroyed along with its complement of ambulances (hospitals have long been a target of the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces: see here).  Although the strike had a paralysing effect on the medical response to later strikes, I’m not sure why it was included; an early report from the Syrian-American Medical Society claimed that a ‘chlorine bomb’ had hit a Douma hospital but no time was given, and a subsequent joint statement from SAMS and the Syrian Civil Defence (‘White Helmets’) addressed the situation later that evening:

On Saturday, April 7th, at 7:45 PM local time, amidst continuous bombardment of residential neighborhoods in the city of Douma, more than 500 cases – the majority of whom are women and children – were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent. Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odor.

During clinical examination, medical staff observed bradycardia, wheezing and coarse bronchial sounds. One of the injured was declared dead on arrival. Other patients were treated with humidified oxygen and bronchodilators, after which their condition improved. In several cases involving more severe exposure to the chemical agents, medical staff put patients on a ventilator, including four children. Six casualties were reported at the center, one of whom was a woman who had convulsions and pinpoint pupils.

The casualty figures were subsequently revised upwards, but those cited here seem to have been victims of the other two strikes on the list, which were unambiguously attributed to ‘chemical weapons’.

The second, at 1600, targeted the Saada Bakery on May Ibn al-Khattab (bakeries have long been a staple of Russian-Syrian air strikes too as part of the ‘starve or surrender’ strategy of siege warfare).

The third, at 1930, targeted an apartment building near al-Shuhada Square near al-Numan Mosque.

The many eyewitness accounts are not easy to reconcile with the map: the experience of an air strike fragments both experience and language, and at first it was difficult for rescuers to pinpoint the sites that had been attacked (one rescuer told the VDC: ‘At the start of the chemical attacks, the smell of chlorine reached the center of the city of Douma. We could not determine the area where the chlorine rocket had fallen.)

Nevertheless a common narrative does emerged from multiple sources scattered across different locations inside Douma.  Here are its main outlines.

A network of flight monitors – which warns people of impending attacks and which has also been used to identify the perpetrators of previous air strikes (see for example here) – tracked Syrian Mi-8 helicopters flying southwest from the Dumayr airbase towards Douma.  I’m not sure how significant this is, and I haven’t been able to obtain more details; the intensity of the strikes suggests multiple aircraft were involved.  But Syrians opposed to the Assad regime have become hideously accustomed to barrel bombs dropped from Syrian Arab Army helicopters (see above: Arbin, 20 February 2018), and one report claimed that the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate was also intimately involved in targeting East Ghouta with chlorine gas dropped from its helicopters.  That night several people in Douma reported hearing the whirring of helicopter blades overhead followed by the sound of objects falling from the sky.  There were also witnesses who saw the projectiles descend; they described a ‘green gas emanating from the canisters falling from the sky’ and rushed down to the basements to warn those huddled in the shelters below to evacuate immediately.

As I read these accounts, I remember the words of Hoda Khayti that ended the report from Ghouta I cited above: ‘I don’t want to die in the basement.’  One rescuer underlined the urgency of escape:

There were basements in other buildings with people who didn’t see the gas in time. We entered those buildings and found bodies on the staircases and on the floor – they died while attempting to exit.

He made repeated forays to help people out:

By his third frantic dash down the stairs, with a wet piece of cloth over his mouth and a little girl in each arm, everything went dark for Khaled Abu Jaafar. “I lost consciousness. I couldn’t breathe any more; it was like my lungs were shutting down…”

Quick actions like these saved many people’s lives, but their escape was fraught with danger.

“Someone yelled chemical” Umm Nour recalls. “I felt my throat close, my body go limp as if I had just had everything sucked out of me.”  She reenacts how her arms tensed up, how she could barely muster the strength to grab her daughters’ arms and claw her way up the stairs. They made it to the fourth floor when artillery rounds or rockets – she’s not sure what – slammed into the building, shaking it. “It was like we were between two deaths,” she says. “The chemical attack on the lower floors or the other strikes hitting the upper ones.”

 

But for some people in locations closer to the deadly canisters this proved to be the wrong choice:

Another canister landed on a bed on the upper floor of a damaged building and did not explode, according to a video shot by an activist who found it. A third canister was found on the roof of a crowded, four-storey apartment building near the city center, according to a video of the canister and an activist who visited the building the next day. Rescue workers …  found dozens of men, women and children lying lifeless on the floor below… It appeared that when the smell entered the basement, some people had tried to go upstairs to get fresh air, unknowingly getting closer to the source.

Cellphone videos of the canisters and the aftermath of the attack on the apartment building near al-Shuhada square were uploaded to social media platforms, and you can find a preliminary but none the less detailed analysis of them – including geo-location (below) – from Eliot Higgins and his team at Bellingcat here.

For those working in makeshift clinics the scenes were no less horrifying:

“We were 12 people, and before the attack you can imagine, we had been working perhaps 30 hours or more without stopping,” said one paramedic who treated the victims. “Then you start getting a lot of people who are suffocating, and they smell of chlorine, and imagine after all that exhaustion you get this huge number of people, around 70, targeted while they were in bomb shelters.” He added: “We gave them whatever we had, which wasn’t much, just four oxygen generators and atropine ampoules so they could breathe … Most of them were going to die. You can imagine now our psychological state. It’s tragic. I’ve been working in this hospital for five years and those last two days, I haven’t seen anything like it.”

A local reporter described what he saw at one field hospital as apocalyptic:

I went to a medical point that is an underground hospital, and in the tunnels the dust was filling the area and there were women, children and men in the tunnels. When I arrived at the medical point it was like judgment day, people walking around in a daze, not knowing what to do, women weeping, everyone covering themselves with blankets, and the nurses running from victim to victim. There were entire families on the floor covered in blankets, and there were around 40 dead in shrouds lying between the families, their smell filling the place. The situation, the fear and the destruction are indescribable.

These first accounts are saturated – in image and in word – with the sensations of an attack by chemical weapons (CW).  The people of Ghouta, and of rebel-held areas in Syria more generally, are no strangers to such attacks: they know their smells, their signs and their symptoms.

In fact on 4 April, just three days earlier, Human Rights Watch had followed up its previous forensic investigations of the use of chemical weapons against rebel-held neighbourhoods in West Ghouta and East Ghouta on 21 August 2013 – Attacks on Ghouta (2013; above) – and the ‘widespread and systematic’ use of CW by the Assad regime –  Death by Chemicals (2017) – with an inventory of 85 confirmed CW attacks between 21 August 2013 and 25 February 2018:

HRW concluded:

Of the 85 chemical weapon attacks analyzed …  more than 50 were identified by the various sources as having been committed by Syrian government forces. Of these, 42 were documented to have used chlorine, while two used sarin. In seven of the attacks, the type of chemicals was unspecified.

The … Islamic State group (also known as ISIS) carried out three chemical weapon attacks using sulfur mustard. One attack was by non-state armed groups using chlorine. Those responsible for the remaining attacks in the data set are unknown or unconfirmed.

This graphic, based on the work of the Violations Documentation Centre, charts the cumulative number of deaths from suspected CW attacks in Syria:

Some of these previous investigations had attracted fierce controversy and criticism, but even so it’s difficult to make a credible case that those who observed the aftermath of the air strikes on 7 April 2018 would not have known what they were talking about.

Their immediate impressions were supported by remote experts who subsequently examined the reports and the videos.  Most concluded that the symptoms of the victims of the strike on the Saada Bakery and its vicinity were consistent with a chlorine gas attack, but the casualties from the strike on the apartment building exhibited even more troubling symptoms that suggested chlorine had been used in concert with a nerve agent like sarin.

Dr Raphael Pitti, a former military doctor and now professor of Emergency Medicine in War Zones at Nancy and a Board Member of UOSSM-France asked to be supplied with digital photographs and metadata to establish their provenance (date, time sequence and location), together with close-up images and video of the victims’ eyes.  The casualties from the Saada area had trouble breathing, irritated eyes and other symptoms consistent with chlorine poisoning, he said, but those who died in the apartment building seemed to have been struck down with a speed that was totally inconsistent with even a high-concentration chlorine attack, and they exhibited convulsions and other symptoms usually associated with sarin or a similar nerve agent.  In his view, it was likely that chlorine had been used in that attack too – but to mask the presence of another toxin.

Similarly, Dr Alastair Hay, professor of toxicology at Leeds, speaking to the Washington Post on 10 April after watching the videos on line:

“It’s just bodies piled up. That is so horrific… There’s a young child with foam at the nose and a boy with foam on its mouth. That’s much, much more consistent with a nerve-agent-type exposure than chlorine…. Chlorine victims usually manage to get out to somewhere they can get treatment… Nerve agent kills pretty instantly.”

Or again, from Martin Chulov‘s report in the Guardian on 12 April:

Jerry Smith, who led the [OPCW-UN] mission to supervise the withdrawal of the Syrian government’s stockpile of sarin in late 2013, said the symptoms displayed by patients could suggest exposure to an agent in addition to chlorine. “It’s worth elucidating the knowns,” he said. “Casualty rates, apparent speed of death and the shaking.” Organophosphate-based poison, including sarin, causes such symptoms. Pinpoint pupils and severe mouth foaming have been telltale signs in past attacks.

A guilty verdict

These were the stocks of knowledge in the public domain that most commentators and analysts in North America and Europe drew upon in the aftermath of the attacks on 7 April.  The evidence, to many, was compelling – the Assad regime’s (criminal) record of CW use, first-hand testimonies and videos, and the submissions of expert witnesses – but it was still not conclusive.

Raphael Pitti emphasised that the only way to establish definitively what agents had been used was through laboratory examination, which was one of the central task’s of the investigation team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  In an interview with France 24 Olivier Lepick, a researcher from the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique in Paris, explained:

“The inspectors will be able to do two things on the ground: they can get physiochemical samples from places affected by the attack – on the walls, on the ground – and they can take biological samples from victims, either wounded or dead, to look for metabolic evidence of a chemical agent in their fluids [urine and blood in particular].”

But time was of the essence; blood and urine samples will only show traces of chemical contamination for a week or so at most.

“Every day that passes makes the results of any investigation less clear, and in this case the relevant area is controlled by the main suspects, who will be tempted to cover up the evidence,” Lepick continued. The researcher said that “bleach-style” cleaning is enough to remove traces of toxic agents on the spot, while the evidence in biological samples from victims becomes increasingly hypothetical with time and can be removed by the Syrian army. That is why the OPCW’s policy is to send teams 24 to 48 hours after the incident.

The arrival of the OPCW team in Douma was repeatedly delayed; the reasons ranged from maladministration (the nine team members supposedly did not have the necessary clearances from the UN, an excuse flatly denied by the UN) to security concerns.  The Russian and Syrian authorities who controlled access to the city did not permit the investigators to begin their ground inspection until 21 April, when they successfully obtained samples from one site which were sent to the OPCW laboratory at Rijswik in the Netherlands for onward transmission to designated independent labs for analysis (for details see here).  There were fears that in the two weeks since the alleged attacks took place any chemical residues (especially chlorine) would have degraded, and allegations were also made that the sites had been compromised or sanitised – though at least one expert maintained that it would be extremely difficult to remove the signs of removal! – and that potential witnesses had been intimidated and coerced.

In anticipation of these obstacles efforts had already been made to fast-track the process of verification outside the OPCW.  Here is Martin Chulov again on 12 April:

In Jordan, officials prepared to receive biological samples from some of the estimated 42 dead and the hundreds more who survived. Smuggling routes in and out of Damascus are well travelled, and makeshift crossings along the watertight Jordanian border can suddenly open whenever there’s a need. Getting samples, especially corpses, to laboratories has been a top priority this week as the US has tried to establish if the gas that was dropped contained more than chlorine.

Other reports claimed that activists had smuggled blood, urine and hair samples across Syria’s northern border into Turkey for analysis.

The route followed by the samples remains unknown, but in short order US officials announced the results of tests on blood and urine samples from victims of the Douma attacks: they had tested positive for chlorine gas and for a sarin-like nerve agent.  No details of the chain of custody – or of the testing process – were released, but even if they had been established, as Raphael Pitti also emphasised, the problem of assigning culpability would remain.  That used to be the task of the Joint Investigative Mechanism between the OPCW and the UN whose mandate had been terminated by a Russian veto in November 2017.

The United States – or at least its improbable, impossible president – had never entertained any doubt about culpability: the Assad regime was again guilty of a chemical weapons attack.  One week after the attacks on Douma, a course of (military) action had been agreed between the US, France and the United Kingdom.

The timing was perplexing.  Many critics argued that it was a rush to judgement; that all the relevant evidence had not been gathered and that there remained reasonable (to some, even considerable) doubt about what had happened and who was responsible.  But others were surprised at what they saw as a stay of execution: a year earlier the US had decided on its military response  to the chemical weapons attack on Khan Shikhoun within 48 hours.  On the first count, there were questions about whether any further, untainted evidence would be forthcoming; and it is also significant that Trump, Macron and May were all beset by domestic political crises for which international action was almost always a useful distraction.  On the second count, this was a multi-national mission that required consent and co-ordination, and all three states had serious concerns about escalating what was being described as a new Cold War with Russia.

The three allies launched co-ordinated ‘precision’ strikes before dawn on 14 April against three targets.  The closest to Douma was the Barzah Research and Development Centre, NE of Damascus, described by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a military facility ‘for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological warfare technology’.  The other two sites were west of Homs: the Him Shinshar Weapons Storage Site, ‘the primary location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment’, and 7 km away the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Bunker, ‘both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post.’  The Pentagon issued this map of the three targets:

The primary roles were played by the US and France.  Cruise missiles were launched from US warships and submarines in the Gulf and the Red Sea and from French warships in the Mediterranean, while US, French and British aircraft also launched missiles against the three sites: the central target was Barzah, followed by the Him Shinshar Weapons Storage Site.  The origins and distribution of the ordnance used is captured in these two graphics:

The joint response raises a series of important questions about the effectiveness of the strikes; the humanitarian claims that were registered to legitimise them in the court of public opinion; and their propriety under international and domestic law.  I’ll consider each in turn.

The interval between the attack on Douma and the strikes on the three sites was used not only to assess culpability but also to develop the target set.  The last time the US had conducted a strike in response to a CW attack in Syria was on 7 April 2017 when Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean against Al Shayrat airbase where the attack had originated.  At least six major airbases have been linked to Syria’s chemical weapons programme – including Dumayr from which the helicopters were tracked towards Douma – but none of them was on the list this time around.  This is not surprising.  The previous counter-strike had had precious little effect; the base was back in operation within 48 hours and the gesture had no discernible deterrent function.  There were also concerns about the proximity of many of the bases to Russian forces – Moscow had issued a series of bleak warnings about the dangers of ‘provocation’, and there have been reports that the Russian military was consulted over its ‘red lines’ which were not violated by the targets selected.   Major CW factories were also removed from the list, like the Scientific Studies Research Centre at Jamraya, just north of Damascus, which had been attacked by Israeli jets in February; ‘Factory 790’ at al Safira in Aleppo province (Syria’s largest weapons manufacturing plant and suspected to be a major source of sarin), and the Masyaf research and development centre in Homs province (another suspected location for sarin production, also previously attacked by Israeli jets).

According to the Washington Post,

While officials had been watching known Syrian chemical sites on and off for years, aerial surveillance time has been dedicated mostly to other areas of Syria, where the United States and allied local forces continue to battle the Islamic State. That meant the U.S. military needed to refresh its intelligence on the chemical facilities before targeteers could build the “target packages” that would guide the operation.

The delay was the product of more than intelligence gaps; concerns about the possibility of killing civilians were also said to be paramount, and at a Pentagon briefing Lt General Kenneth McKenzie conceded that while ‘we could have gone to other places and done other things’ the three selected targets ‘presented the best opportunity to minimize collateral damage’.  But these claims sit uneasily with the US-led coalition’s record of air strikes in Syria more generally.  Casualty estimates are fraught with difficulty, but Airwars estimates that between August 2014 and April 2018 a minimum of 6,259 to 9,604 civilians have been killed by coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq; the breakdown of civilian casualties for Syria is shown graphically below (see also Craig Jones here):

McKenzie claimed that the strikes ‘significantly degraded’ Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future and that Barzah – which ‘does not exist anymore’ – had been ‘the heart of the Syrian chemical weapons program’.  Yet this remains an untested assertion.  In elaborating on the Pentagon’s collateral damage estimation, McKenzie referred to ‘a variety of sophisticated models – plume analysis, other things, to calculate the possible effects of chemical or nerve agent [dispersion]’ after an attack.  But it’s possible to turn this round.  The very next morning Rim Haddad described the scene at Barzah for AFP; ‘plastic gloves and face masks lay scattered in the rubble’ and, hours after the strike, ‘plumes of smoke wafted lazily up from the building and a burning smell still hung in the air.’  This was clearly a report from the ground not one conducted over Skype, still less one that relied on satellite imagery.  Said Said told Haddad that he worked at the site as an engineer and denied any involvement in the production of chemical weapons.  You might find that unremarkable for various reasons, but Said then added this disturbing rider:

If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here. I’ve been here since 5:30 am in full health — I’m not coughing.

And he wasn’t alone; Syrian soldiers were inspecting the ruins too – as was the press crew.

In short, it’s not unreasonable to wonder, with David Sanger and Ben Hubbard at the New York Times, whether any of the three sites were still in use:

At this point, there are no known casualties at the sites, which suggests that either no one was there during the evening, or they had been previously abandoned. And there are no reports of chemical agent leakage from the sites, despite attacks by more than 100 sea- and air-launched missiles.

Yet perhaps this misses the point.  For all Trump’s boasts about ‘Mission Accomplished’, the raids ‘so perfectly carried out, with such precision’, the effectiveness of the strikes rested on more than their destructive capacity.  They were also supposed to be ‘constructive’, performative: to send an unambiguous message to Assad and his allies.  But what exactly was the message?

The junior partner in the mission, British Prime Minister Theresa May, proclaimed that the joint military response was justified ‘because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these [chemical] weapons.’  It’s more than an international norm, of course: it’s also a matter of international law.  But what about the other international laws so routinely violated by the Assad regime and its allies?  The prohibition against torture (though I concede that the United States, France and the United Kingdom all have exceedingly dirty laundry hidden in that particular closet)?  The collective punishment of civilian populations through the siege tactic of ‘surrender or starve’ (see here and here)?  The prohibition against attacking hospitals and denying medical care to the sick and the wounded in war zones (see here)?  

Moustafa Bayoumi sharpens the point with magnificent anger (and ‘perfect precision’):

The fact that three of the world’s most powerful militaries have now been mobilized into action, even for a limited campaign such as this one, to prevent “the erosion of the international norm” of using chemical weapons is far from comforting. Since the war began, Assad’s regime has engaged in the repeated and dreadful use of barrel bombs and mass starvation, the systematic torture of thousands of citizens and the laying siege to multiple cities, the killing of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of more than half the population. Yet, all of this horror does not seem to “erode an international norm” and certainly has not motivated these western leaders to any meaningful action to end the war… Rather than limiting war, this latest bombing of Syria normalizes the war’s ongoing brutality.

Or, as Robin Wright reported in the New Yorker:

“So you strike. Then what?” Ryan Crocker, a former Ambassador to Syria (as well as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait), told me. “If the rockets hit the targets they intended, you could say the mission was accomplished in a narrow sense. But, in reality, it accomplished nothing. It might have been better if we’d not struck at all. It’s sending a message that killing is O.K. any way but one way — with chemical weapons. How many have been killed in Eastern Ghouta during this whole Syrian campaign? Far more by non-chemical means. It’s obscene.”

In short, the military response did more than draw a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons (if it even did that): it gave a green light to virtually any and every other form of killing.

The legal map on which the missile strikes were located was – like all maps – shot through with circuits of power (and for what follows I am indebted to Jonathan Horowitz‘s succinct cartography here and here).  The legal ‘ground truth’ for the start of the US-led bombing missions in Syria in September 2014 was a request from Iraq for the United States to conduct air strikes against the Islamic State.  Some of those sites – not only paramilitary bases but also oilfields used by IS as sources of revenue – were located across the border in Syria, and the claim for cross-border intervention was reinforced by appeals under Article 51 of the UN Charter to ‘self-defence’ of allied forces inside Iraq and of their populations outside the region threatened by terrorist attacks from Islamic State. This joint effort was buttressed by a UN Security Council Resolution in November 2015 describing IS as ‘a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security’ and calling on states to take ‘all necessary measures’ against IS, Al-Qaida and allied groups.  These co-ordinates explain the pattern of civilian casualties displayed on the map above: these were primarily the result of strikes in IS-held territory. Some of the states involved also cited Syria’s ‘inability’ to prevent IS attacks as a further legal predicate.  Although this clearly did not imply any invitation from Syria to intervene, it certainly suited the Assad regime to have other militaries pursue IS while its own forces fought rebel groups in other regions of Syria.

But these arguments cannot be extended to air strikes in response to chemical weapons attacks (unless presumably they were carried out by IS; it has been blamed for at least three previous attacks, but nobody has suggested it was responsible for the attack on Douma).

The case for the strikes as a humanitarian intervention failed to convince most jurists: of the three states involved, only the UK invoked humanitarianism as a legal justification.  In 2015 Arabella Lang provided the House of Commons with a briefing on the legal case for UK intervention in Syria.  The relevant discussion of humanitarian intervention reads as follows:

The UN Security Council can authorise military intervention for humanitarian purposes provided that it has determined that situation is a threat to international peace and security. But can states intervene in other states to deal with extreme human distress, without Security Council authorisation?

Some unauthorised humanitarian interventions have subsequently been commended by the Council, or at least condoned. But their legal basis remains controversial. There is also an argument that Article 2(4) of the UN Charter allows force to be used as long as it is consistent with the purposes of the UN (which include the promotion of human rights and the solving of humanitarian problems – Article 1(3)). Others suggest that even if humanitarian intervention without Security Council authorisation is unlawful under international law, it can still be legitimate – for instance the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

The ‘responsibility to protect’, as embodied in the 2005 World Summit Outcome (which is not legally binding), allows collective action against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, where the state concerned has been unable to protect its citizens. However, the World Summit Outcome states that this must be done through the Security Council, so is not in that respect a development of the law on the use of force.

The UK is keen to develop the international law on humanitarian intervention. When putting the case for military intervention in Syria in 2013, it argued that intervention without authorisation from the UN Security Council is permitted under international law if three conditions are met:

• strong evidence of extreme and large-scale humanitarian distress;

• no practicable alternative to the use of force; and

• the proposed use of force is necessary, proportionate, and the minimum necessary.

 

Building on these arguments, the British government released its legal case on 14 April 2018.  A military response to the alleged chemical attacks in Douma was ‘an exceptional measure’ but it was lawful ‘on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity’:

  • The ‘repeated lethal use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime constitutes a war crime’ and it was ‘highly likely the regime would seek to use’ such weapons again
  • Other attempts to ‘alleviate the humanitarian suffering caused by the use of chemical weapons’ had been blocked and there was ‘no practicable alternative’ to the strikes
  • The action was ‘carefully considered’ and the ‘minimum judged necessary for that purpose.’

Many legal scholars in the UK and elsewhere in Europe were unconvinced. A legal opinion prepared for the opposition Labour Party by Professor Dipo Akande of Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict insisted that the government had to comply with international law as it was and not as they wished it to be (notice that reference in the earlier briefing to the government’s desire to ‘develop’ international law):

International law does not permit individual states to use force on the territory of other states in order to pursue humanitarian ends determined by those states.

A legal analysis conducted by the Bundestag’s research service reached substantially the same conclusion, and on the other side of the Atlantic even a passionate defender of humanitarian intervention like Harold Hongju Koh was not satisfied that the bar had been met (see also also Anders Henrikesen here).

These contrary opinions reinforced the central legal objection raised by most critics: that the US and its allies had responded to an alleged violation of international law by breaking it themselves. Jack Goldsmith and Oona Hathaway explain this with concision and clarity.  The problem with claiming that Syria had breached the Chemical Weapons Convention (1997) – the central legal instrument in the case –  is that the Convention ‘provides an enforcement system that the three powers involved in [the] airstrikes entirely bypassed’:

The Convention provides, first, for investigation by the experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons….

Then, in situations of “particular gravity,” the Conference of the States Parties may bring a matter to the attention of the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council. Nowhere does the Convention provide for unilateral uses of force in response to a breach of the Convention.

This is the formal, legal version of the ‘rush to judgement’ objection (above), and it has considerable force.

And yet the legal envelope governing military violence has often been extended through military violence (as Eyal Weizman puts it, ‘in modern war, violence legislates’), and Jan Lemnitzer has suggested that by virtue (sic) of these missile strikes – and the legal armature that yokes the humanitarian protection of civilians to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons – we may be witnessing ‘the emergence of a new norm (customary international law) that justifies the use of force to counter the deployment of chemical weapons against civilians’ (for a more detailed discussion see Michael Schmitt and Chris Ford commenting on the 6 April 2017 missile strikes here).  If this is the case – or if the UK’s wish to ‘develop’ international law on humanitarian intervention is in the process of being fulfilled – then this map of international state reaction to the strikes will be extremely important:

‘Fake news’ and ‘false flags’

Before and after the attacks on Douma, officials in Russia and Syria together with their proxies have been busily running all sorts of interference.  These activities spin far beyond the the circles of presidents, ministers, ambassadors and their direct agents and even beyond the grey zone of disinformation sites and bot farms; there is also an army of one-trick academics, self-styled journalists and commentators populating a metastasizing archipelago of misinformation that reaches from the alt.right round to the alt.left. To set out my case in these non-neutral terms is not to endorse the statements and actions of the US, the UK and their allies.  But objecting to the air wars conducted by this alliance does not mean suspending critical judgement about the actions of their opponents either.  In the particular case of Syria, it means not turning a blind eye to the authoritarian constitution of the Assad regime and to the extraordinary, criminal violence it has visited on hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians.  As Mehdi Hasan asks, in another appropriately angry commentary I urge you to read, even if you doubt in all conscience that the Assad regime did launch a chemical weapons attack on Douma on 7 April, why minimize its other crimes and abuses?   More here and here.

Those who have sought to defend the Assad regime against the charge of using chemical weapons in Douma have followed two main avenues.

A first response has been simply to dismiss the reports as ‘chemical fabrications’ and ‘deceitful speculations’: to insist that there was no evidence of a chemical weapons attack.  On 8 April, for example, Ben Hubbard reported:

The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the reports as fake. “The spread of bogus stories about the use of chlorine and other poisonous substances by government forces continues,” the ministry said in a statement. “The aim of such deceitful speculation, lacking any kind of grounding, is to shield terrorists,” it added, “and to attempt to justify possible external uses of force.”

As the videos and testimonies I cited earlier circulated, the outright denials were replaced by an altogether more sensational scenario.  Russian and Syrian officials claimed that the attack had been staged by Jaish al-Islam in concert with the Syrian Civil Defence (‘White Helmets’) and, by implication, the Syrian-American Medical Society and other NGOs:

(Particular opprobrium seems to be visited on any NGO providing medical help to the sick and injured in rebel-held areas, even though this is explicitly sanctioned by international law; it has also been consistently withheld and obstructed by the Syrian government).

The indictment eventually swelled to include the United Kingdom (which had claimed Russia was responsible for the nerve-agent attack on the former British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury on 4 March); Reuters reported on 13 April:

“We have… evidence that proves Britain was directly involved in organizing this provocation,” [Russian] Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.  Konashenkov said that Russia knew “for sure” that between April 3-6, the White Helmets – a group which helps civilians in opposition-held territory in Syria – were “under severe pressure specifically from London to produce as quickly as possible this pre-planned provocation.”

The ‘evidence’ was never produced – nor were the British Special Forces soldiers allegedly captured as part of the operation paraded before the cameras either.

Instead, the disinformation campaign relied on two manoeuvres.  The first was a counter-argument in the form of a question: what advantage could the Assad regime conceivably hope to gain by using chemical weapons when its forces were on the brink of defeating JAI and bringing all of East Ghouta under their control?  This is a familiar tactic.  When questioned about the targeting of hospitals in rebel-held areas Assad disingenuously asked: ‘… the very simple question is: why do we attack hospitals and civilians?’  There are sound answers to that – see my account of ‘The Death of the Clinic‘ – and there are to this version too.  Remember that in the closing stages of the Syrian-Russian offensive against Douma negotiations with JAI had collapsed.  Now here is Juan Cole:

On Saturday [7 April], the Russian press reported that Army of Islam spokesmen boasted that the [Syrian Arab Army] special operations Panther Forces (Quwwat al-Nimr) [this is a special unit of Tiger Force: see here] that had been committed against Ghouta militias were taking high numbers of casualties from Army of Islam snipers as they tried to advance into Douma. The regime has suffered a military collapse over the past seven years, with most Sunni Arabs deserting or defecting. Alawi Shiite troops are for the most part loyal to the regime, but there may be only 35,000 or 50,000 of them left (the Syrian Arab Army had 300,000 troops in 2010).

The long and the short of it is that strongman Bashar al-Assad cannot afford to lose highly trained and highly valuable Panther Forces troops in large numbers.

Chemical weapons are used by desperate regimes that are either outnumbered by the enemy or are reluctant to take casualties in their militaries…  It might be asked why the regime would take this chance, given that Trump bombed the Shuaryat Air Force base last year this time in response to regime use of chemical weaponry at Khan Shikhoun. The answer is that the regime is more worried about disaffection in the ranks of its Special Forces than it is about Trump.

An investigation by Christian Esch and others for Der Spiegel added other plausible motivations:

Why would the Syrian regime deploy chemical weapons when it is already on the verge of victory? One motive could have been the desire to speed up the withdrawal of the hated rebels from the city. Douma was the last enclave remaining under rebel control. Or was it revenge? The Army of Islam, the Islamist group which controlled Douma, was relatively strong and regularly fired shells at nearby Damascus.

The Islamists long held a trump card in their hand: They were thought to be holding several thousand regime loyalists prisoner. That, however, was an exaggeration with which the Syrian regime sought to mislead its followers, a glimmer of hope that many troops long believed to be dead might still be alive after all. When it became clear that a large number of the presumed prisoners were in fact dead, it came as a painful blow and the thirst for revenge was correspondingly high. The rebels, meanwhile, had lost their trump card.

None of this settles matters, I realise, so let me turn the question around: what possible advantage could JAI conceivably hope to gain by staging a fake chemical weapons attack?  If its leaders believed they could provoke a rapid military intervention (by whom?) to snatch them from the jaws of defeat – the Islamic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass – then it was a supremely stupid miscalculation: the immediate consequence of the attack, within a matter of hours, was the capitulation of Jaish al-Islam.

The second manoeuvre involved in the attempted indictment of JAI and others opposed to the Assad regime has been to substitute alternative evidence to counter the prosecutorial force of the videos, first-hand observations and expert testimony I detailed earlier.  I’ll discuss three exhibits.

First, JAI’s ‘chemical weapons factories’.  As the envelope of occupation in East Ghouta was extended, Syrian Arab Army officers escorted international journalists to several sites which they claimed were artisanal weapons factories. Eliot Higgins and the Bellingcat team already showed that Jaish al-Islam was indeed capable of producing makeshift weapons, including improvised mortars, rockets, grenades and rifles.  But chemical weapons?  In March Syrian TV broadcast video of what it described as a chemical weapons laboratory-cum-manufactory-cum-warehouse at al Shifuniya filled with industrial equipment:

The discovery was amplified by RT and other Russian news media before the attack on Douma:

The narrative was resurrected by dependent journalist Vanessa Beeley the day after the Douma attack.  She cited the discovery of a ‘chemical weapons laboratory’ in the Douma Farms area between al Shifuniyeh and Douma, and then recounted a ‘similar experience’ – on the day before the attack – during ‘a foreign media trip to the liberated sectors of Eastern Ghouta with the Syrian Arab Army’.  At Irbin she was shown ‘a bomb making factory and a chemical weapons facility’, including ‘chemical ingredients and rockets’ and a barrel containing what looked like tar (a significant discovery since she was under the impression that the Douma attack involved napalm, which was, as she explained at length, ‘an American invention’):

An expert who was with us said it was a mix of oil, soap and other ingredients that are used to coat the missile to ensure the chemical package sticks to its target more effectively. This was a factory of death… where the terrorist factions had designed some of the most sadistic weaponry possible to be used against civilian targets.

Several days later Adam Rawnsley asked Cheryl Rofer – a chemist who used to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory – and Clyde Davies, a former research chemist, to examine the videos of the buildings at al Shifuniyeh.  They both agreed that whatever the facility had been used for it was highly unlikely to have been the production of chorine gas or sarin.  Here are the key paragraphs from Adam’s investigation into what he concluded was a ‘chemical weapons lie’:

Asked if the equipment in the videos of Al-Shifuniya could be used to produce chlorine gas, Cheryl Rofer … said “no.” Chlorine is typically produced with electrolysis cells using either large amounts of salt or hydrochloric acid as feedstock and lots of electricity to produce and recover the gas. “Chlorine is a gas at room temperature and pressure,” explains Clyde Davies… “Its ‘critical point,’ below which it can be liquefied, is about 144 C, but it needs high pressure to do this, which is why it is stored and shipped in gas cylinders. Just like the ones that were dropped on Douma.”

The process can be dangerous and requires special equipment, according to the UN Joint Investigative Mechanism. “In the light of its corrosive and toxic nature, expertise and specialized equipment are required for its safe handling. For example, to transfer chlorine from a 1 ton container to smaller containers, a specialized filling station is required.” And this facility isn’t anywhere near “the scale needed for the attacks that have been observed,” Rofer wrote in an email. “All of the equipment, except for the boilers, is at laboratory scale. But the more fundamental problem is that none of the equipment is what is needed to produce chlorine and compress it into the cylinders that Bellingcat has documented” in Douma.

Nor could the facility be used to produce nerve agents. “For sarin production, all of this would have to be much more contained than it is,” Rofer writes. The ramshackle construction in the facility would’ve put anyone nearby at high risk of exposure, which can cause harm at very low concentrations.

A second series of exhibits focused on the elaborate mise-en-scène of a staged chemical weapons attack.  In order to discount the videos of the casualties in Douma – shot at multiple locations by different people – claims circulated that the video record (in its dispersed entirety) was faked.  This too is a shop-worn tactic; the alt.right in the United States and elsewhere has consistently peddled a meretricious conspiracy fantasy of ‘crisis actors’ pretending to have survived supposedly non-existent incidents like the mass shootings at Sandy Hook or Parkland.  Many of the same websites responsible for those repugnant claims have also stoked the fires of fantasy about Douma, like Alex Jones‘s ‘Infowars’ (see below, and the critical discussion by Bethania Palma and Scott Lucas here):

In the Douma case, however, photographs have been adduced as evidence for the artful staging of a chemical attack.  Soon afterwards images showing actors being made up, covered in dust, and the cameras rolling were shown on Russian TV’s news programme Vesti, and they have circulated widely on the web.  The first screenshot (‘The White Helmets unmasked by photographs’) is from the French-language site of globalresearch.ca and the second is from the source for the story, Pénélope Stafyla:

It was in this very studio, so these commentators claimed, that the Syrian Civil Defence – the White Helmets – fabricated ‘proof of war crimes committed by the Assad regime in East Ghouta’.

The photographs are not fakes; the performance was real.  But an investigation by AFP’s fact-checking blog Factuel and Bellingcat discovered that these are all stills from a film, “Revolution Man“, which was shot in Damascus and funded by Assad’s own Ministry of Culture.  Here is the film’s Facebook page:

And here is the film company’s synopsis of the project:

The film revolves around a journalist who enters Syria illegally in order to take pictures and videos of the war in Syria in search of fame and international prizes, and after failing to reach his goal, he resorts to helping the terrorists to fabricate an incident using chemical materials, with the aim of turning his photos into a global event.

In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the fantasists, there was one more spin to the story: Vesti claimed that the film was shot by the White Helmets on a set standing in for the real set in which Revolution Man was shot…  You can’t make it up — except, of course, you can.  More here and here, and a discussion by Christian Chaise of AFP’s remarkable fact-checking protocols here.

Another film, another fake.  On 22 April Russia’s two main TV channels showed a series of still photographs from a film set as ‘obvious evidence’ that videos of the Douma attack had been staged and that the victims were were ‘crisis actors’.  Faris Mohammed Mayasa, a production assistant who was by then in the custody of Syrian forces, confirmed that ‘We put people on the ground and sprayed them with water, so they looked as if they had suffered.’  Again, the photographs are genuine; they were taken on a film set; and, still more disturbing, the film was produced in the Ghouta (it was shot in Zamalka and edited in Douma):

But, as Marc Bennetts reported, the film was Humam Husari‘s Chemical, made in 2016 to tell the story of the  sarin gas attack on the Ghouta in 2013.  Husari had witnessed the effects of the attack himself – ‘I wasn’t filming because I am a cameraman, I was filming because this is the only thing I could do for the victims’ – and his short film was an attempt to explore how ordinary people had been drawn to the struggle against the Assad regime.  Here is Lisa Barrington reporting for Reuters in October 2016:

Humam Husari’s self-financed short film explores the chemical attack near Damascus through the eyes of a rebel fighter who lost his wife and child but was denied time to bury them. Instead, he is called to defend his town from a government offensive. The story is based on real-life events, he said.

“We need to understand how people were pushed into this war and to be part of it,” said Husari, 30. “I am talking about a story that I lived with. They are real characters.”

Making the film was an emotional but necessary experience for Husari and his performers, who were witnesses to and victims of the attack, and not trained actors.

“The most difficult thing was the casting and auditions,” said Husari, who took about two months to write, produce and direct the 15-minute film and is currently editing it.

“A 70-year-old man said to me: I want to be part of this movie because I lost 13 of my family … I want the world to know what we’ve been through. And all I wanted from him is just to be a dead body,” he said.

The final series of exhibits has involved the substitution of other witnesses who vehemently deny that a chemical attack took place in Douma.  Both Russia and Syria claim to have discovered witnesses whose testimony contradicts those I cited earlier.  Most deny that any chemical weapons attack occurred, but a recent report by Robert Fisk for the Independent offers a particularly revealing example.  While the OPCW team was prevented from starting its work in Douma by Syrian concerns about the security situation, the regime nevertheless arranged a tour of the shattered city for selected journalists.  I should say at once that I have long admired Fisk’s reporting of Israel/Palestine; but this account is a sly, innuendo-ridden affair.  Fisk says he wandered away from his minders:

It was a short walk to Dr Rahaibani. From the door of his subterranean clinic – “Point 200”, it is called, in the weird geology of this partly-underground city – is a corridor leading downhill where he showed me his lowly hospital and the few beds where a small girl was crying as nurses treated a cut above her eye. “I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night – but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

Ever since the combined bomber offensive of the Second World War we have known that many victims of air raids die of asphyxiation rather than blast injury, so suppose for a moment that Fisk’s doctor was not only sincere but also correct.   In that case – since Jaish al-Islam has never had an air force – then dozens of civilians would have been killed and injured in a Russian or Syrian air raid.  Yet Fisk doesn’t mention that; in fact he doesn’t dwell on the victims at all, who are rapidly airbrushed from the scene.

Instead the doctor’s testimony has been cited by commentators on social media to trump the claims of multiple other witnesses as singular ‘proof’ that no CW attack took place.  Fisk doesn’t quite say that, and Jonathan Cook insists he doesn’t have to:

Fisk does not need to prove that his account is definitively true – just like a defendant in the dock does not need to prove their innocence. He has to show only that he reported accurately and honestly, and that the testimony he recounted was plausible and consistent with what he saw.

‘This is not the only story in Douma,’ Fisk concedes, before immediately adding:

There are the many people I talked to amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories – which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups.

None of them is quoted, and apparently nobody else was available. ‘By bad luck, too, the doctors who were on duty that night on 7 April were all in Damascus giving evidence to a chemical weapons enquiry’: you could be forgiven for thinking that it was more than just the failure of the stars to align that prompted the Syrian and Russian authorities to arrange the press tour for the very day they also spirited the doctors away to Damascus.  And while it was important to hear the White Helmets’ side of the story, Fisk continued, ‘a woman told us that every member of the White Helmets in Douma abandoned their main headquarters and chose to take the government-organised and Russian-protected buses to the rebel province of Idlib with the armed groups when the final truce was agreed.’  That is a remarkable sentence the more you chew on it: the bravery of the White Helmets in rescuing victims is ignored; instead they are artfully transformed into cowards running for cover at the first opportunity (‘abandoned their headquarters’); their fellow-travellers (sic) were the armed groups; and yet they were given sanctuary on ‘government-organised and Russian-protected buses’.  Such generosity.

But that’s simply a drive-by smear.  The main work is done by Fisk’s doctor, whose words are seemingly sufficient to rubbish or, if you prefer, cast doubt on all those other testimonies.  He was not even was in the clinic when the casualties were brought in (‘I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night’, and Fisk himself admits that the doctors who were on duty that night were all in Damascus).

Yet, remarkably, other journalists on the same escorted tour somehow found other people whose accounts contradicted Fisk’s doctor and jibed with those other testimonies.  Whether they were also ‘a short walk away’ I don’t know; but here are two of them speaking to Seth Doane of CBS News:

Today we made it to that very house where that suspected chemical attack took place.  “All of a sudden some gas spread around us,” this neighbour [below] recounted. “We couldn’t breathe.  It smelled like chlorine” …

Nasser Hanen‘s brother Hamzeh is seen in that activist video, lifeless and foaming at the mouth.

In the kitchen he told us how his brother tried to wash off the chemicals.  [Asked how the chemicals got there], “The missile up there,” he pointed, “on the roof.”

A Swedish journalist, Sven Borg, also recorded his interview with Nasser Hanen (I’ve taken this from Scott Lucas‘s account here – the translation is by Hugo Kaaman):

We were sitting in the basement when it happened. The [missile] hit the house at 7 pm. We ran out while the women and children ran inside. They didn’t know the house had been struck from above and was totally filled with gas. Those who ran inside died immediately. I ran out completely dizzy….

Everybody died. My wife, my brothers, my mother. Everybody died. Women and children sat in here, and boys and men sat there. Suddenly there was a sound as if the valve of a gas tube was opened. It’s very difficult to explain. I can’t explain. I don’t know what I should say. The situation makes me cry. Children and toddlers, around 25 children.

It should be obvious that none of this adds up – that these concerted manoeuvres conspicuously fail to produce a coherent narrative – but, as Jonathan Cooke might say, it doesn’t have to.  All it has to do is sow doubt and spread confusion.  In an astute attempt to track the interlocking yet contradictory false-flag operations supposedly in play after the Douma attack, Uri Friedman cites Peter Pomerantsev, who explained that the larger (in his case, Russian) project

doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. … We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.

‘If nothing is true,’ Pomerantsev warned, ‘then anything is possible.’

Perhaps the ultimate horror is that this strategy is not confined to Putin, Assad and their proxies.  It also describes the view of an American president who treats the world as a stage for reality TV.

The bottom line

You will draw your own conclusions from all this, but for my part I am persuaded that hundreds of people were killed or injured by chemical weapons in Douma and that there are compelling reasons for suspecting that the Syrian Arab Army was the culprit.

And yet the military response by the US, France and the United Kingdom has a strong whiff of the theatrical about it.  Its legitimacy was undercut by the decision to short-circuit the formal, forensic investigation by the OPCW (though I concede that this faced – and continues to face – considerable obstacles, that it is prohibited from assigning responsibility, and that these considerations diminish the reach of the investigation).  The effectiveness of the tripartite response is also highly questionable – whether as sanction or deterrent – and the appeals by the allies to humanitarianism and civilian injury ring spectacularly hollow in the face of their indifference to every other form of violence inflicted on populations inside Syria and to the plight of Syrian refugees who have fled the killing fields.

I also believe that the frenzied efforts by so many to defend Syria and its allies from every criticism, to blind themselves to the repressive and violent constitution of the Syrian state, and to close their ears to the cries of its victims is utterly reprehensible.  There is the stench of the theatrical about this too – not of greasepaint but of sulphur.  How many chemical weapons ‘manufactories’ have to be discovered, how many film stills unearthed, how many contrary witnesses stumbled upon before those using this ‘evidence’ ask serious questions about its provenance, probity and meaning?  To find an utter disregard for truth on the far right is no surprise; to find it on the left is a source of shame.  There are questions to ask about the Douma attack and the response by the US and its allies, as I have sought to show, but the mental and moral gymnastics some of these commentators perform simply astound me.  Their controlling assumption seems to be that it is impossible to object to the actions of the US and its allies and also to the actions of Russia, Syria and their allies.  This really is what Leila al Shami calls ‘the anti-imperialism of idiots‘.

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