Aid Reaches Besieged Syrian Enclave, but Not Nearly Enough

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The council’s resolution marked deepening international frustration and indignation at the assault on eastern Ghouta by the government and its allies, including Russia. The offensive is one of the most ferocious in Syria’s seven-year civil war, despite a February 24 United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a 30-day cease-fire and immediate access for humanitarian agencies. There are suspicions that the government once again used chemical weapons, in the face of international condemnation.

Syria’s state news agency, Sana, said on Monday that advancing government troops had taken control of around one-third of eastern Ghouta, after capturing farmland and several villages in the east of the enclave, and the towns of Utaya, Al Shifouniyah and Al Nashabiyah.

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Residents of eastern Ghouta reported relentless aerial bombardment and shelling on Sunday and through Sunday night.

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Ammar Suleiman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Loopholes in the Security Council resolution allowed for military operations to continue against terrorist groups. Syria and Russia both made clear they were determined to continue their assault to crush jihadist forces holding out in the enclave.

Russian aircraft alone bombed eastern Ghouta and Damascus at least 20 times a day between February 14 and 18, Jason Mack, a senior official of the United States mission in Geneva, told the Human Rights Council on Monday.

Last week, Russia unilaterally announced a daily five-hour cease-fire to allow aid to enter eastern Ghouta along a designated “humanitarian corridor,” but for several days, no supply trucks entered the region and the fighting continued. Syria and Russia said that opposition shelling and sniper fire along the route were preventing aid deliveries; United Nations officials said the time allowed was insufficient to get aid past all the checkpoints, and accused Syrian officials of stalling approvals for aid convoys.

If Monday’s convoy to the town of Douma marked a breakthrough after months of siege, it also underscored the continued obstacles and uncertainty surrounding aid deliveries. The 46 trucks carried food parcels, flour and medical supplies, but only enough for 27,500 people, out of Douma’s population of 100,000.

International aid agencies are demanding unhindered and sustained access to be able to respond to the needs of the nearly 400,000 people in an enclave that has been largely isolated for years, and completely cut off for months. “We have some positive indications from all parties that we can go back with aid soon,” an International Red Cross spokeswoman, Ingy Sedky, said in a phone interview, but she cautioned that there was no official confirmation of further access.

Syrian government inspectors had stripped the convoy of many of the medical supplies that aid agencies had loaded. World Health Organization officials reported the items removed included all the trauma kits, surgical supplies, dialysis equipment and insulin.

And while the convoy brought medical staff into Douma, relief agency officials said there were no plans to bring any sick or injured patients out of eastern Ghouta. The United Nations lists more than 1,200 people as being in urgent need of evacuation for medical care that the enclave’s heavily bombed clinics can no longer provide.

Any satisfaction at the arrival of desperately needed aid was overshadowed by the enduring terror of bombardment. It was “as if you’re adding sugar to death,” said Hassan Takieddine, a Douma resident, reached on social media as he emerged briefly from a basement where he and his neighbors had hidden.

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A makeshift morgue in Douma, eastern Ghouta, a town where activists estimate 31 people were killed on Sunday.

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Hamza Al-Ajweh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“What is the benefit of this relief aid, if the regime continues bombing us?” he asked. “I don’t see anything positive from these convoys. We need the shelling to stop. Stop the shelling!”

President Bashar al-Assad has responded dismissively to the Security Council resolution and to talk of a humanitarian crisis, suggesting there is little immediate prospect of a pause in operations designed to wipe out the last major redoubt of opposition resistance near the capital.

“The humanitarian situation that the West is constantly talking about is a very silly lie,” he said on state television this weekend. Talk of humanity and humanitarian need by Western officials and media meant only that the Syrian army was advancing, and that “things are going in the right direction on the ground.”

Russian and Syrian diplomats took much the same line at the Human Rights Council. Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Hussam Edin Aala, brushed the resolution off as “politicized and selective,” ignoring the indiscriminate shelling of Damascus by opposition groups in eastern Ghouta.

The urgent debate called at the request of Britain was “useless,” its debate was shaped by media coverage that was “saturated with lies” and the resolution had nothing to do with human rights, Aleksei Goltiaev, a senior member of the Russian mission in Geneva, told the council.

The council resolution came on the eve of a report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into the conduct of the war by all parties. The council instructed the panel to investigate and report back on the offensive in eastern Ghouta, and to provide evidence of human rights abuses to the United Nations mechanism set up in Geneva to prepare cases for prosecution.

The government’s attacks on eastern Ghouta were likely to meet the definitions of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations’ top human rights official, told the council on Friday. Civilians there were being “pounded into submission or death,” he said, by a government assault that could not be justified on the basis of targeting terrorists.

“The perpetrators of these crimes must know they are being identified, that dossiers are being built up with a view to their prosecution,” he said. “The wheels of justice may be slow, but they do grind.”

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