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Smoke rises from the rebel held besieged town of Hamouriyeh, eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, February 21, 2018.  © 2018 Reuters
(Beirut) – Over 400 civilians have reportedly been killed in aerial attacks since February 19, 2018, by the Russian-Syrian military alliance in Eastern Ghouta, Human Rights Watch said today. 
The attack on the suburban area 15 kilometers from Damascus has included deadly barrel bombs, Human Rights Watch said. At least 13 hospitals have been struck in the offensive, Syrian medical organizations reported, and at least six are completely out of service. On February 21, first responders told Human Rights Watch a bomb directly hit an ambulance arriving at the scene of a strike.
“In Eastern Ghouta, we are experiencing déjà vu of the worst kind,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Other countries should send a clear message to Syria’s chief enabler, Russia, that it needs to end its efforts to block the Security Council from taking action to stop these atrocities.”
The United Nations Security Council is debating a humanitarian resolution on Syria. It would call for a 30-day countrywide ceasefire, access by aid agencies, medical evacuations, and lifting of unlawful sieges, including in Eastern Ghouta. The resolution would reiterate that all parties must comply with their obligations under international law to protect civilians and medical facilities. The Security Council is expected to vote on the resolution as early as February 22.
Eastern Ghouta, home to an estimated 400,000 civilians, has been under an unprecedented attack by the Syrian-Russian military alliance since February 19. Residents in the enclave have told Human Rights Watch that the bombing has been incessant and widespread, reaching well beyond the front lines, with bombs falling “like rain.” The enclave has been besieged by government forces since 2013.
In light of the Syrian government’s persistence in flouting international law and the Security Council’s previous resolutions, the Security Council should impose an arms embargo on the government and adopt individual sanctions against government officials implicated in violations, Human Rights Watch said.
Given Russia’s continued use of its veto power to protect its ally, Syria, from international action through the UN Security Council, other countries should make clear to Russia that it needs to immediately end its role in the indiscriminate attacks and unlawful sieges and should pressure Syria to end these abuses.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented Russian-Syrian indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Eastern Ghouta, including with cluster munitions, and has reported on the effects that the unlawful siege has had on the civilian population there. Syrian forces have both severely restricted the entry of essential food and medicines into Eastern Ghouta and the evacuation of civilians from the area, including those with urgent medical needs, Human Rights Watch said.
The Syrian government, which is supported by both Russia and Iran, has persisted in its unlawful siege of Eastern Ghouta and indiscriminate attacks, including by using barrel bombs in populated areas. Its actions defy, with impunity, the laws of war and a UN Security Council resolution calling for the end of these unlawful acts.
UN Security Council Resolution 2139, of February 22, 2014, states that the Security Council intends to take “further steps” in the case of noncompliance with the resolution. Yet four years after its passage, the Security Council has failed to act to sanction individuals in the Syrian military and government responsible for noncompliance, Human Rights Watch said.
Barrel bombs are unguided high explosive weapons that are cheaply made, locally produced, and typically constructed from large oil drums, gas cylinders, and water tanks, filled with high explosives and scrap metal to enhance fragmentation, and dropped from helicopters usually flying at high altitude. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the Syrian government’s extensive use of these and other weapons, including toxic chemicals, in previous operations to retake territory held by anti-government groups, including in the eastern part of the city of Aleppo.
Russia, which has used its veto 11 times since the conflict began to protect Syria, and the rest of the Security Council, should support the humanitarian resolution when it comes to a vote, Human Rights Watch said.
A total of 115 countries have endorsed the Accountability Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Code of Conduct, pledging not to vote against a credible draft resolution aimed at preventing or ending serious crimes under international law, as well as supporting timely Security Council action to address grave abuses. Further highlighting global momentum in favor of veto restraint, nearly 100 countries support a French and Mexican initiative calling for permanent Security Council members to voluntarily pledge not to use the veto in situations of mass atrocities.
“Amid talk of a possible temporary cessation of strikes on Eastern Ghouta, a critical question is what other countries will do in light of Russia’s persistent efforts to block sanctions to stop the onslaught on civilians,” Fakih said. “Governments should make clear it is not business as usual with the Syrian government and Russia, so long as they continue their unlawful attacks in Syria.” 

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