The United Nations and the U.S. have called for the international community to impose an immediate ceasefire on the besieged Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta, to deliver aid to residents who the U.N. chief said are trapped in a “hell on earth.”
“I believe Eastern Ghouta cannot wait,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday. "This is a human tragedy that is unfolding in front of our eyes and I don't think we can let things go on happening in this horrendous way.”
Nikki Haley, Washington’s ambassador to the U.N., called on the Security Council to pass a draft resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in the devastated enclave, where the U.N. says at least 346 civilians have been killed in a recent regime offensive, and 12 percent of children under 5 are acutely malnourished.
"It’s time to take immediate action in the hopes of saving the lives of the men, women, and children who are under attack by the barbaric Assad regime," Haley said in a statement Wednesday.
About 400,000 residents are believed to be trapped in Eastern Ghouta, a former agricultural district situated about 9 miles east of Damascus that is the last major rebel-held pocket near the Syrian capital. A weeklong air and artillery assault by pro-regime forces on the enclave, pounding civilians and critical infrastructure, including hospitals, sparked a frantic diplomatic response by the international community Wednesday as the death toll passed 300.
Security Council members Kuwait and Sweden have co-sponsored of a draft resolution calling for a 30-day cessation of hostilities to let aid convoys enter the enclave and deliver the first humanitarian supplies since late last year.
But Syria’s key backer, Russia, holds veto power, and could use its permanent seat on the council to defend Bashar al-Assad’s interests, as it has done on 10 previous occasions.
Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told Reuters Wednesday that the proposal to declare a cessation of hostilities was “not realistic.”
“We cannot simply decide that there is a ceasefire. That’s a long and complex process to achieve,” he said. Russia has called an urgent Security Council meeting to discuss the issue, which Western diplomats view as a tactic to give the Syrian regime more time to pursue the assault.
Many observers expect the fierce assault on Eastern Ghouta, which has involved heavy use of illegal barrel bombs, is being carried out in advance of a ground assault to retake the enclave, under the control of Islamist rebel groups, as it did in Eastern Aleppo in late 2016. Syria’s main opposition, the Turkey-based National Coalition, accused the regime Tuesday of pursuing a “war of extermination” in Eastern Ghouta.
The Syrian military denies targeting civilians, and says the offensive is aimed at terrorists who have fired on civilian areas in Damascus.
But medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières said Wednesday that 13 hospitals had been hit and damaged or destroyed in the past three days of the regime offensive on Eastern Ghouta alone.
Marianne Gasser, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Syria, said Wednesday that the situation is set to deteriorate unless a ceasefire is introduced. “The fighting appears likely to cause much more suffering in the days and weeks ahead,” she told Reuters. “This is madness and it has to stop.”