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Despair at ongoing carnage in Syria days after the UN agrees emergency ceasefire

01 March 2018


Wounded children and a man in a hospital in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, last Friday

Wounded children and a man in a hospital in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, last Friday

SYRIANS, charities, and Churches around the world expressed dismay this week as violence and bloodshed in Syria continued to escalate, despite the United Nations’ agreeing a 30-day emergency ceasefire of hostilities in the country.

On Saturday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously in favour of lifting sieges on the city of Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, where more than 550 civilians, including 130 children, had been killed by air strikes conducted by Syrian government forces over the past ten days. Some were aided by Russian fighter jets.

Within 24 hours of the agreed ceasefire, however, reports emerged of further violence, including a government air strike on two hospitals in Eastern Ghouta, which killed at least 20 civilians and injured 70 others, and a suspected chemical attack that killed one child and injured 18 others.

Christian Aid reported on Tuesday that the daily five-hour “humanitarian pause” in bombings agreed by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, this week, was also ineffective. The charity’s emergency programme officer for Syria, Dr Máiréad Collins, said: “Residents of Ghouta report that while the aerial bombardment has reduced, mortar and land-to-land rockets continued to be fired, and civilians remained hidden in underground shelters, not trusting that any ceasefire will hold.

“Thus, nothing has changed for those trapped inside: there remains the same need for humanitarian relief and medical evacuations. One of our partners, with whom I spoke yesterday, has expressed the danger inherent in the proposal for civilian evacuation from the area, as this will lead to a new massive displacement crisis.

“The next step must be a complete ceasefire as requested, along with an end to the besiegement with access for humanitarian relief to enter the area.”

The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, told the House of Commons on Monday that the “pauses” in bombings were an “absurd” compromise. He regretted that the UK had missed its opportunity to “turn the tide” in Syria in 2013, when the Russians and Iranians came in to support the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, and confirmed that the UK Government was willing to intervene if the regime was found to have used chemical weapons.

A report leaked from the UN on Wednesday stated that North Korea had supplied the Syrian regime with more than 40 previously unreported shipments of ballistic missile and chemical-weapon components over five years, from 2012.

“It is a great shame that, at a critical moment, this House did not give this country the authorisation to respond to the use of chemical weapons which we might otherwise have done,” Mr Johnson said.

“It is absurd for the Russians to say they are going to desist from bombing for a certain number of hours per day. There needs to be a complete ceasefire; there needs to be an end to the carnage in Eastern Ghouta; and Russia needs to be held to account.”

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed that at least six civilians had been killed by shelling during the pauses.

An open letter, published by more than 200 Syrians around the world, on Tuesday, said that sympathy from UN and other global powers was not enough. “The world is a bystander to the carnage that has ravaged the lives of Syrians,” the letter from activists, writers, musicians, and academics read.

“Those with the power to act have been generous with expressions of sympathy but have offered nothing beyond the wish that this war on civilians — which they grotesquely call a ‘civil war’ — would end. They call on ‘all parties’ to show restraint, even though one side alone has a virtual monopoly on violence; they encourage all parties to negotiate, even though the opposition is entirely without leverage. They say there is ‘no military solution’ though the regime has given no indication that it believes in a solution of any other kind. Meanwhile, pleas from aid agencies and endangered Syrians fall on deaf ears.”

Faith leaders continued to call for an immediate end to the violence. The World Council of Churches said in a statement that the continued military targeting of civilians was “morally and ethically unacceptable and condemnable by all norms and virtues”, as well as an offence against international humanitarian law.

“We stand in solidarity with the suffering people of Syria and hope that their aspirations for freedom and human dignity will be reached soon through putting an end to this absurd war and engaging in the political process led by the UN in accordance with relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”

Pope Francis said on Sunday that the ongoing war was “inhumane”, and that evil could not be fought with more evil. “In these days, my thoughts are often turned to the beloved and martyred Syria,” he said during mass. “This month of February has been one of the most violent months in the seven years of conflict.”

The Syria Crisis programme manager for the RC charity CAFOD, Alan Thomlinson, said that further military interventions were not the answer. “The heaviest price is still being paid by civilians. . . Nothing is more urgent than a halt in the fighting, in order to get aid to those who are wounded or have been stranded for months, and end the pain and suffering of thousands.”

Syrian refugees over the border were also suffering, the UN children’s charity UNICEF reported. Of the Syrian refugee children registered in Jordon, 85 per cent are living below the poverty line, and almost all children under five years old (94 per cent) are “multidimensionally poor” because they live in communities that are deprived of a minimum of two out five basic needs: education, health care, water and sanitation, child protection, and child safety.

Another UN report this week, Voices from Syria 2018, on the sexual exploitation of women and girls during the eight-year war, stated that humanitarian workers had been requesting “sexual favours in return for aid”, and had been involved in the sexual harassment of teenage girls, discrimination and favouritism, theft and forgery, physical violence, and shaming.

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