Broken bodies of children pile up as UN fails to end Syria deadlock
Nestled on the Damascus hinterland, Ghouta - a patchwork of small towns and farms - was formerly known as the Syrian capital's breadbasket, providing Damascenes with cereals and other produce grown on land fed by centuries-old canals.
The area known as Eastern Ghouta was once a place of plenty, but in recent years it has become a place of suffering and fear, besieged by forces loyal to the Assad regime and subjected to multiple chemical attacks, most notoriously the 2013 sarin attack that killed hundreds. Last year the opposition enclave was declared a "de-escalation zone" in a deal forged between Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Some 400,000 people continued to cower there, 700 of whom perished in recent months. This week Ghouta once again became a place of horror, so much that Unicef issued a blank statement, saying it could not find the words to convey what was happening to those who call it home.
A new barrage by the Assad regime on Ghouta killed more than 400 people within a week - according to activists - with two dozen lives claimed on Wednesday alone. Residents say barrel bombs dropped from the air - a favoured weapon of the Assad regime since the uprising against it began - are being used and, according to reports, seven hospitals have been hit since the beginning of the week.
Many of the images emerging from Ghouta this week are as familiar as they are disturbing: the bloodied corpses of children pulled from pulverised buildings, or others barely alive but dazed and covered with dust, the terror in their eyes an admonishment to all the failed efforts to bring an end to Syria's war as it now approaches its eighth year. The pictures are familiar because we have seen similar from the other Syrian cities and towns bombed by their own government over the lengthy course of a bloody and increasingly tangled conflict.
In New York, Moscow - the key ally whose bomber jets helped Assad turn the course of the war in his favour - tried to scuttle attempts to agree a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire. In chilling remarks to Reuters, a commander from the Assad regime side declared: "The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing."
Diplomats suspected Russia's stalling at the Security Council - and not for the first time when it comes to the Syrian morass - was to ensure Damascus enough time to land a definitive blow against opposition forces in Ghouta. Moscow has not only vetoed 10 previous UN resolutions on Syria, it has also done all it can to protect Assad from the prospect of war crimes investigations. Late last year Russia used its veto to block a resumption of UN probes into the use of chemical weapons by regime forces.
This week's draft UN resolution called for a nationwide truce to go into effect 72 hours after it is approved, followed by medical evacuations and aid deliveries within a further 48 hours. According to the draft, 5.6 million people in 1,244 communities across Syria are in acute need of help. But getting humanitarian access to Eastern Ghouta - described by UN secretary general Antonio Guterres this week as "hell on earth" - was the priority.
France's ambassador to the UN declared the UN's credibility was on the line. "The Syrian tragedy must not also become a graveyard for the United Nations," he said. Calling for the truce, the UN's envoy for Syria said it was needed not only to stop one of the worst aerial offensives of the entire war but also to prevent a "massacre" in Eastern Ghouta.
Russia pushed back against the draft because it took issue with the ceasefire terms, arguing that it was not enough to exclude Isil or the Nusra Front, a group previously affiliated with al-Qa'ida, but that it should also exclude other rebel forces Moscow accuses of collaborating with them, and which have shelled Damascus. Syrian state media reported this week that shelling in one government-controlled neighbourhood of the capital resulted in the death of one child and the injuring of six other civilians.
At a Security Council session on Thursday - the day before the draft resolution was put to a vote - members heard from Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, who said: "You're all as member states aware that your obligations under international humanitarian law are just that. They are binding. They are not favours to be traded in a game of death," he said, adding that "counter-terrorist efforts cannot supersede the obligation to respect and protect civilians. They do not justify the killings of civilians and the destruction of entire cities and neighbourhoods". Ordinary Syrians could be forgiven for thinking they have heard it all before. Because they have.