The UN Security Council voted Saturday to approve a resolution that called for a 30-day ceasefire across the country. But that ceasefire did not include ISIS and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the group previously known as al-Nusra Front, a militant group that has ties to al-Qaeda. And because the Syrian government and its Russian allies maintain that those groups are active in Eastern Ghouta—where the carnage of the past week is what prompted the Security Council to act in the first place—they apparently don’t recognize the ceasefire there, only “pauses” in the fighting. Russia maintains the rebels are responsible for any violations of those pauses. The rebels have denied this claim.
“We’re trying to take advantage of this month—the reduction in violence—to get clean water, to get supplies to people,” Christy Delafield, a spokeswoman for MercyCorps, a humanitarian group that operates in Syria, told me. “But what happens tomorrow? The ceasefire must be respected—and we need to have safe routes opened up so we can have more goods come into the city and to the region. I think it’s the most important thing to remember: that there are people at the heart of it.”
“The way this works is the Russians say the bombardments are directed against terrorists and that other people are getting caught in the crossfire,” Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute, told me. “The problem is, of course, that the real goal is not to kill terrorists—the real goal is to knock out opponents of Assad. It’s not about counterterrorism.”
The same thing has played out in Syria before—in Aleppo, which was once the country’s largest city.
Two years ago, Assad’s forces, then as now backed by Russia and Iran, besieged the eastern part of Aleppo, a section of the historic city that was then home to about 200,000 people. They bombarded it, destroyed it, and seized it from the rebels in December 2016. Those rebels, Islamist groups and others, including those backed by the U.S., blended among the civilian population who were the vast majority of the residents. They ultimately agreed to withdraw from the eastern part of the city to other rebel-held areas in Syria. Many Syrians have returned to the area since then, according to the UN.
But unlike in Eastern Ghouta for the past five years, supply trucks were able to enter Aleppo even in the last months before it fell, Delafield said. “It was very dangerous, but the last road didn’t really close until ... over the summer.” The siege that began then ended in December, after a long few months. “People were worried about where food was coming from,” Delafield said. “But people had been stockpiling food because they’d been thinking about it; they’d been worried about it.”
Some of Eastern Aleppo’s residents tried to flee amid the bloody fighting during the siege. Water and food were scarce. Hospitals were targeted for bombardment. The UN called the situation a “complete meltdown of humanity.” Syrian government-backed fighters and their allies were accused of slaughtering civilians trying to flee.