America Washes Its Hands of Syrian Civilians

The death toll in Eastern Ghouta stands at nearly 500, and it remains unclear how the sustained bombing campaign in the region will stop—despite a UN vote.

A boy rides his bicycle past the rubble of bombed-out buildings.
A boy rides his bicycle after an air raid in Douma, eastern Ghouta, Syria, on Friday. (Bassam Khabieh / Reuters )

This post has been updated.

The Security Council approved Saturday a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria “without delay.” But there are few signs that a truce will hold; fewer indications that Russia, which supports the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, will persuade him to stop the atrocities in Eastern Ghouta; and scant public signaling that the U.S. will do more for Syrian civilians than blame Moscow for the carnage.

“We have conversations with the Russian government, and reach out to the Russian government to implore them to stop enabling the Syrian regime to do what [Syria is] doing to its own people,” Heather Nauert, the U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said Thursday. “Is Russia listening? I’m not sure that they are.”

The ceasefire agreed to on Saturday allows humanitarian supplies to be sent to besieged areas like Eastern Ghouta, the rebel-held region outside Damascus that has come under sustained bombardment in recent days, where the death toll now stands at nearly 500, as a sustained bombing campaign continued after the UN Security Council delayed Friday a vote on the resolution. The UN’s slowness to act in Syria is another blow to the world body’s credibility, as it is unable to forge global consensus to act on some of the world’s worst recent conflicts. “The Syrian tragedy must not also become a graveyard for the United Nations,” François Delattre, France’s UN ambassador, said Friday.

A previous version of the UN resolution stumbled Thursday because Russia wanted groups it says are allied with terrorists to be excluded from the ceasefire. Some of those groups are active in Eastern Ghouta, meaning that if Russia’s demands were met, the resolution would have allowed Assad to keep pummeling the area. It is immediately unclear whether the resolution that was unanimously approved Saturday accommodated Moscow in this way. If so, it will do nothing to stop the ongoing slaughter.

Nauert said Russia bore “a unique responsibility for what is taking place” in Eastern Ghouta, and she was right. “Without Russia backing Syria, the devastation and the deaths would certainly not be occurring,” she said. But when pressed about what more the U.S. could be doing diplomatically in Syria to stop the violence, she replied: “I don’t know what some of you expect us to do. …  Our best tool … is an attempt at diplomacy. … We will continue to do that.”

Humanitarian groups describe a desperate situation in the region. Water, food, and fuel are in short supply. Civilians are digging underground shelters in order to escape the daily bombardment. There are no routes to medically evacuate the sick or dying.

The U.S. has troops in Syria to fight ISIS, but there’s still no envoy for Syria in charge of diplomacy. The U.S. is the largest humanitarian aid donor in Syria, but the Syrian government has blocked the delivery of supplies in rebel-held areas. “What we’re seeing ... is some of the worst violence we’ve seen in more than seven years,” said Dafna Rand, the vice president of policy and research at MercyCorps. The humanitarian group has been active in Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011. “We are having a hard time reaching people because our partners (on the ground)—their lives are endangered by the violence. … Our staff are risking their lives every time they go outside to distribute anything.”

Assad’s past use of chemical weapons on his own people gets much of the publicity—a sarin gas attack in Eastern Ghouta, the very same area currently under bombardment, nearly led the Obama administration to intervene against Assad in 2013but conventional weapons are killing a much higher number of people. MercyCorps, in a new report, said the Syrian conflict “has spiraled into a humanitarian crisis unprecedented for our modern times.” About 400,000 Syrians have been killed and 11 million others have been displaced—about half of them now live in refugee camps outside the country.

The conflict also shows the limits of international diplomacy. There are two dueling international peace processes, neither of which has produced much in the way of peace. The Astana process, which was overseen by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, established “de-escalation zones” where the fighting would stop to facilitate peace talks between Assad’s government and the rebels. Eastern Ghouta is supposed to be one of them. “So much for that de-escalation zone,” Nauert said Thursday. She said Russia “can get back to trying to create a de-escalation zone, but we want them to get back to the Geneva process.”

But the Geneva process, which is supported by the UN, the U.S., and its allies, is moribund. It aims to bring together the various warring parties and work, ultimately, toward Assad’s exit and a transitional government. But the nationwide “cessation of hostilities” that process yielded in 2016 never really took hold, and Assad, whose government is firmly entrenched, has few incentives to negotiate with anyone, let alone what’s left of the opposition.

If expression of high-level concern is any indication of U.S. priorities, stopping the current mass killing of Syrians seems not to be especially important for the Trump administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson himself has not referred to Syria in public remarks since last week. Asked at a Friday press conference about the attacks in Eastern Ghouta, Trump said that “what Russia, what Iran, and what Syria are going ... is a humanitarian disgrace” but said America’s job in Syria was “to get rid of ISIS and go home.” He then moved on to other issues.

ISIS is largely defeated in Syria, but the U.S. isn’t exactly going home. Just days ago, the White House told Congress it did not need congressional authorization to keep U.S. troops indefinitely in Syria (and Iraq) to fight ISIS. Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and other countries, noted when I spoke to him last week that there was something familiar about Trump’s approach to Syria. “Like the Obama administration, the Trump administration has dealt with the Islamic State as a purely military problem … because anything else gets you into all those messy, complicated issues we’ve wrestled with elsewhere in the region,” he said. “But we’ve got to wrestle with them.”

That’s not something the Trump administration appears to want to do.