In Syria, civil­ian ca­su­al­ties soar­ing in cease-fire zones

Septem­ber was deadliest month, with 1,000 fa­tal­i­ties re­ported

The Washington Post Sunday - - DISABLED AMERICA - BY LOUISA LOVELUCK louisa.loveluck@wash­post.com Zakaria Zakaria in Is­tan­bul con­trib­uted to this re­port.

beirut — Civil­ian ca­su­al­ties have spi­raled up across Syria in re­cent weeks as pro-gov­ern­ment forces launch hun­dreds of bomb­ing raids across ar­eas marked for in­ter­na­tional pro­tec­tion.

Groups mon­i­tor­ing the con­flict have recorded hun­dreds of strikes since the end of a sixth round of peace talks among Rus­sia, Iran and Turkey in mid-Septem­ber. On Fri­day, the White Hel­mets res­cue group re­ported that 80 per­cent of those at­tacks tar­geted civil­ian ar­eas.

Septem­ber was the deadliest month on record this year in Syria, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights mon­i­tor­ing group, with al­most 1,000 civil­ians killed across the coun­try.

“Now the planes are back, there is just ter­ror all the time,” said Tim al-Siy­ofi, an ac­tivist from the be­sieged Da­m­as­cus dis­trict of Douma.

An­a­lysts took the vi­o­lence as a sign that piece­meal cease fires struck in the Kazakh cap­i­tal of As­tana have done lit­tle to change the core ob­jec­tives of the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment. With sup­port from Rus­sia and Iran, Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s mil­i­tary is as­cen­dant and on course to re­claim most of the ter­ri­tory that slipped from its grasp dur­ing six years of war.

An­a­lysts also said the vi­o­lence un­der­scored the paucity of diplo­matic op­tions for the United States and Euro­pean na­tions, which cham­pi­oned an ear­lier, U.N.-backed process with­out suc­cess, and now hold lit­tle lever­age over any side in the con­flict.

“For the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, who have failed in large part to see through this process, a re­turn to vi­o­lence may have larger im­pli­ca­tions for their at­tempts to push for a po­lit­i­cal and sus­tain­able so­lu­tion,” said Emma Beals, a Beirut-based ex­pert mon­i­tor­ing the war in Syria.

At­tacks by gov­ern­ment and Rus­sian war­planes fol­lowed a failed al-Qaeda-led of­fen­sive in the west­ern prov­ince of Hama.

In the next-door prov­ince of Idlib, a rebel strong­hold in which the peace talks are meant to have guar­an­teed a cease fire, war­planes have tar­geted the hos­pi­tals in which many of the wounded would have sought treat­ment.

In­ter­views with civil­ians in the area were in­ter­rupted on sev­eral oc­ca­sions by the sound of rocket fire and ex­plo­sions. Inside the Idlib and Kafr Takha­reem hos­pi­tals dur­ing one night­time at­tack, staff said they were over­whelmed with the num­ber of ca­su­al­ties.

“Our emer­gency room is full dur­ing the bad nights, so we’re treat­ing ca­su­al­ties in the chairs. A man in­spects a dam­aged build­ing last month af­ter shelling on the rebel-held town of Douma, in eastern Ghouta in Da­m­as­cus. Civil­ian homes and a clinic have come un­der sus­tained at­tack. The dead are wrapped in blan­kets and laid on the ground as we work,” said a 34-year-old medic who gave his name as Ab­dul­hamid.

In the Da­m­as­cus sub­urbs, ar­eas cov­ered by the truce have also come un­der sus­tained at­tack, strik­ing civil­ian homes and a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion clinic for vic­tims of ear­lier bomb­ings.

In a video from the dis­trict of Douma, a fa­ther held the body of his son tightly as he kissed the young boy through his burial shrouds. “Why did you leave? We have just started our life?” he re­peated.

With the bomb­ings, rebel cor­rup­tion and in­fight­ing, Siy­oufi, the ac­tivist, said trust in the com­mu­nity has plum­meted. “Peo­ple say we do not want ei­ther the regime or the armed groups, we just want to eat, open the sieges and to live in peace and not to get bombed.”

Un­der the terms of the As­tana agree­ment, four ar­eas have been named as “de-es­ca­la­tion zones”: Idlib, por­tions of the Da­m­as­cus sub­urbs and the cen­tral prov­ince of Homs, and a stretch of land in Daraa prov­ince along the Jor­da­nian bor­der.

Each area has been the sub­ject of flur­ries of diplo­macy to re­duce vi­o­lence or re­store the ar­eas to gov­ern­ment con­trol un­der deals that a United Na­tions in­quiry has crit­i­cized for spurring the forced dis­place­ment of op­po­si­tion sup­port­ers.

“The de-es­ca­la­tion process is al­low­ing As­sad to con­tinue to im­ple­ment this strat­egy within the frame­work of an in­ter­na­tion­ally sanc­tioned po­lit­i­cal process,” Beals said.

Gov­ern­ment and Rus­sian airstrikes ap­pear to have been con­cen­trated in ar­eas around the strate­gic M5 high­way, a vi­tal artery for the Syr­ian state that runs from Da­m­as­cus through Homs and on to Aleppo, which was re­cap­tured from rebel forces last De­cem­ber.

On Satur­day, Turk­ish troops read­ied along their south­ern bor­der with Syria, sug­gest­ing that an at­tempt to en­ter Idlib could be im­mi­nent.

Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan said the op­er­a­tion was a “new step” to es­tab­lish se­cu­rity in the de-es­ca­la­tion zone across the bor­der, and that Turkey would not desert civil­ians there. Sep­a­rately, Turkey’s of­fi­cial Anadolu news agency said that any de­ploy­ment would be in­tended to achieve de-es­ca­la­tion, rather than en­gag­ing lo­cal mili­tia or the Syr­ian army.

But oth­ers saw few gains to be made.

“As­tana is just like a piece of fab­ric stretched over parts of the coun­try,” said Ahmed Rah­hul, a for­mer gen­eral in As­sad’s army who now works as an Is­tan­bul­based mil­i­tary an­a­lyst. “These de-es­ca­la­tions freeze the prob­lem, they do not solve it.”

AMER ALMOHIBANY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

Smoke bil­lows from build­ings fol­low­ing a re­ported airstrike on Ain Tarma in eastern Ghouta, a rebel strong­hold east of the Syr­ian cap­i­tal. Hun­dreds of strikes have been recorded since the end of a sixth round of peace talks among Rus­sia, Iran and Turkey in mid-Septem­ber.

BASSAM KHABIEH/REUTERS

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