East Ghouta is burning. Syrian pro-government forces are firing thousands of airstrikes and artillery shells—some allegedly carrying toxic gas and incendiary munitions—at civilians trapped within the besieged rebel enclave just northeast of Damascus city this past month.
The result is destruction on an unprecedented scale for a region encircled by the government since 2013. Residents are taking shelter in unfinished basements as bombs fall outside. Food and medicine are in short supply. A web of intra-rebel conflicts restricts movement for residents hoping to flee to relatively safer parts of East Ghouta.
Government and allied forces launched the latest offensive in late December amid ground fighting at a government-held armored vehicles base in the easternmost edge of East Ghouta.
The bombardment over East Ghouta reportedly killed more than 200 civilians since December. Among the dead are dozens of children and women.
The siege of East Ghouta “has never been this strict before,” Valerie Szybala, executive director of the Washington, DC-based monitoring group The Syria Institute tells Syria Direct’s Madeline Edwards.
The intensified bombs come as a new, Russia-backed peace conference starts on Monday in the Russian city of Sochi.
The opposition’s High Negotiating Committee announced on Friday evening it would boycott the conference, which follows two days of United Nations-sponsored talks between the Syrian government and opposition negotiators in Vienna. There, representatives from both sides reportedly agreed to a ceasefire to cover East Ghouta. The enclave is already included within four Russian-backed de-escalation zones across Syria.
But the heavy civilian toll of Syrian government and alleged Russian shelling over East Ghouta is one indication that the war “is far from over,” says Szybala.
So can Russia, as backer of a string of de-escalation and ceasefire deals across Syria, be relied on to guarantee an end to the war? It could, says Szybala, “if they choose to participate in their own de-escalation.”
Q: Given that the Syrian government and its allies have repeatedly breached the supposed de-escalation zone in effect over East Ghouta, do you have any real hope for Monday’s talks in Sochi? Do you think Russia can be a credible guarantor of peace in East Ghouta and in other de-escalation zones across the country?
No to all questions. I think ‘repeatedly breached’ is a bit of understatement. There is all-out war being waged, much of it against civilian populations. There is no de-escalation zone except maybe on paper.
So I think there is little hope that Russia will ever be a credible guarantor. In Eastern Ghouta, make no doubt, Russia is playing an active role in the hostilities there.
[Ed.: The Syrian Civil Defense and pro-opposition news pages in East Ghouta, such as the Ghouta Media Center, regularly publish reports of “Russian aircraft” in addition to Syrian government warplanes and artillery firing bombs on the enclave.]
The opposition views the Sochi talks as a trap—a false Russian attempt to preserve the rule of Bashar al-Assad. On the ground, in the [besieged] areas I monitor, there is a lot of discontent with the idea of the opposition attending Sochi, and a lot of rejection of the Sochi talks.
[Ed.: Shortly after this interview, on Friday, January 26, the main Syrian opposition negotiating body, the High Negotiating Committee, announced that it would not participate in the Sochi talks.]
Q: Which parties, if any, do you believe could guarantee any real de-escalation or safety zone for civilians in places such as East Ghouta?
In the sense that Russia is one of the aggressors, they could if they chose to participate in their own de-escalation.
Beyond that, the international community has more credibility. [There are] actors such as the United States, which has never shown an interest in ensuring these deals, or the UN. [A prominent UN role to guarantee a ceasefire] is not likely to happen because Russia is on the Security Council.
Having active participants in hostilities serve as the policemen of these de-escalation zones or truces is inherently problematic.
Q: You closely monitored the siege and bombardment of east Aleppo last year, and are currently following events in East Ghouta. Despite the heavy bombardment, why do you think we aren’t we seeing an all-out, quick collapse of East Ghouta, like we saw in east Aleppo one year ago?
It’s proven much easier, perhaps not surprisingly, for pro-government forces—the Syrian Arab Army and its allies—to intensively besiege a more condensed area like eastern Aleppo. An urban area is just physically easier to contain.
In Eastern Ghouta, even now that [government forces] have cut off all the coping routes that the trapped people had—smuggling tunnels, approved trade at the Wafideen checkpoint—there is still some arable land in Eastern Ghouta that people can rely on. That simply isn’t present in an urban area.
[Ed.: Syrian government forces captured the heavily agricultural Marj area of southern East Ghouta in 2016 in a military campaign that saw East Ghouta lose its main source of food.]
Q: Speaking with your contacts on the ground in East Ghouta amid the latest bombing campaign and deteriorating humanitarian conditions, do you sense that residents are feeling more discouraged than they have in the past?
Yes, there’s no doubt. Of course, everyone is different, [some] individuals are subject to depression, and they have been in really trying circumstances for years so there has been a lot of that.
People are now burning clothing to survive. It’s a cold winter, and they are out of the plastics that they previously used. Fuel is not available.
The siege of Ghouta has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. It has been more intense at times, but it has never been this strict before.
This past summer, when [government forces] started to further restrict al-Manfoush, the trader at the Wafideen checkpoint, it was a clear sign that they were moving into this much more intensive stage. And then came the capture of Barzeh and Qaboun, where the smuggling tunnels ran through. Those were two pretty big blows.
After an airstrike in Hamouriyah on Jan. 9. Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP.
By October, the government had pretty much stopped all trade—there have been a couple of random small shipments going through, but certainly nothing regular and certainly nothing to sustain the population in Ghouta. So those two things alone are very clear indicators of a worsening humanitarian situation.
On top of that, the [latest] military campaign is heavier than it has been in a very, very long time. I mean the use of all sorts of weapons, including several suspected chemical attacks. And all of this [is] coming during the winter.
It is always bad for Eastern Ghouta, but this is orders of magnitude worse than it has been.
It is very, very dire.
Q: Do you think East Ghouta is at a sort of tipping point?
It is closer than it has been. I do think that pro-government forces may have overestimated their ability to make swift progress. They have been maybe a bit taken off guard with the level of resistance and their inability to make progress, especially in the fighting around the vehicles management building in Harasta.
[Ed.: Pro-government and rebel forces are fighting a months-long battle for an armored vehicles base on the westernmost edge of East Ghouta. Though controlled by the government, the base sits almost completely surrounded by rebel territory.]
So I think that Eastern Ghouta is certainly in a more precarious position than it has been, but [residents] are still in for a long, hard slog.
Q: In recent months, we’ve seen the conversation among analysts, lawmakers and others shift towards one of a “waning” war, as pro-government forces take back more territory. What does that mean for your reportage on post-siege communities such as Madaya and Wadi Barada, which are now under renewed government control? Are you still able to communicate with people on the ground to get a sense of the situation in those communities?
These areas essentially go dark.
Part of the [government’s] strategy of forcibly displacing people out of these areas is to ensure that the entire governing class, if you will, and anyone involved in the local councils and NGOs—activists, journalists, that type of thing—are deported. And this inevitably includes all of our contacts.
In some places, we’ve been able to reestablish pretty weak connections with people still in the area. In other cases, we get second-hand information from people who still have family or friends there.
For example, I have several contacts who were forcibly deported. They speak to their mothers who are still in the areas and they can tell that their parents aren’t speaking normally. But they don’t know what [their parents] can’t say. They’re being monitored.
[For residents of government territory,] speaking with people in liberated areas such as Idlib, puts you at risk. So their family members certainly can’t say anything about the situation [in government-held towns]. Even talking at all is a risk for them.
So it’s very troublesome because the entire picture, when you put it all together, is one in which there appears to be some pretty serious human rights abuses taking place completely in the dark, without any attention from the world.
Q: Looking more broadly, what do you see as the future of human rights monitoring across Syria as the government takes more territory? What can organizations like The Syria Institute do to keep monitoring human rights abuses moving forward?
That’s a good question. Part of the problem that organizations like mine face is not that it would be impossible to track or to find sources. I mean, resistance can be remarkable—[as] we saw in places like Raqqa under ISIS. People [were] putting their lives at incredible risk and sometimes losing their lives to report on what was happening. So this type of media resistance is possible.
But the greater threat has been shifting priorities in the international community as the funders, the humanitarian aid agencies around the world and especially governments, grow increasingly unclear about the future of Syria. If there’s no support for organizations doing this sort of work, then they lose the ability to aggressively pursue this information.
It looks very grim for people who are concerned with these human rights abuses and particularly the ability to seek justice and hold perpetrators accountable.
I think that, ultimately, a lot of these crimes are never going to be punished.
It’s not always front page news, but the siege of Eastern Ghouta and the really intense violence happening right now in parts of Syria is a clear indication that the war is far from over.
It’s hard to fathom [how] some of the dialogue in the international community seems to be turning towards reconstruction and repatriation. It’s so discordant with the reality on the ground. I think that these governments and organizations that are moving in this direction and ignoring the ongoing war and—in some cases like Eastern Ghouta—mass murder and atrocities are going to be pretty surprised when they’re faced with new and potentially deadly attacks.
Taking your eye off the reality is not sustainable.