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As Syria bloodshed continues, U.N. delays vote on emergency cease-fire

The town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, has been devastated by the government’s bombing campaign.
The town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, has been devastated by the government’s bombing campaign. (Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT — A U.N. Security Council vote to halt the Syrian army’s furious blitz on a rebel-held Damascus suburb was delayed Thursday as Russia described civilian testimonies from the battered enclave as “mass psychosis.”

More than 350 people have been killed in Eastern Ghouta since Sunday, according to local doctors and monitoring groups, marking one of the bloodiest periods of Syria’s seven-year war.

The vote at the Security Council would have imposed a 30-day pause in the fighting and allowed humanitarian supplies to be delivered to an area exhausted by five years of siege.

As a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has used its veto power at the U.N. Security Council nine times to block resolutions critical of the Syrian government, but other members hoped Thursday that it would abstain in the face of the heavy civilian casualties.

As the bombing continued in Eastern Ghouta, doctors in the sprawling rebel-held district described a health-care system pushed to the breaking point, with medical staff forced to prioritize resources and leave grievously wounded patients to die. 

Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, called the cease-fire resolution introduced by Sweden and Kuwait unrealistic, describing reports from the area as “mass psychosis.” He said he would circulate Russia’s proposed amendments.

But Mark Lowcock, the U.N. official for humanitarian affairs, laid out a scene of death and desperation in a Security Council briefing that at times became a raw plea for intervention.

“Your obligations under humanitarian law are just that, binding obligations,” he said via videoconference from Geneva. “They are not favors to be traded in a game of death and destruction. Humanitarian access is not a nice-to-have. It is a legal requirement.”

The five-day blitz by forces loyal to the Syrian government has sent more than a thousand casualties spilling into a hospital network that has been bombed to near destruction. The Syrian American Medical Society, a nonprofit that supports hospitals in the area, said that at least 23 of its facilities had been bombed since Sunday.

“Our lives have become impossible. We have seen patients with their brains spilling out and been forced to choose to save other lives because that is all we can do now,” said Hamza Hasan, a doctor supported by the organization.

The desperate images from one of Syria’s bloodiest days in Ghouta

Kelley Currie, the deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused Russia of “appearing to be intent on blocking any meaningful effort” to halt the bombing and save lives. “The Assad regime wants to bomb or starve all of their opponents into submission,” she told the council.

Ahead of Thursday’s emergency session at the Security Council, the Tass news agency reported that Moscow’s delegation would not consider a resolution that included extremist groups in the cease-fire. 

“We are ready to study the resolution that we were proposed to adopt, but we offered a very strict wording that would say that the cease-fire regime does not cover ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the groups that support them and regularly shell the residential neighborhoods of Damascus,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said. 

ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State, and Jabhat al-Nusra is the former name for Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. 

Starved and abandoned, rebel-held Damascus suburb braces for new attacks

Publicly, the Syrian government draws no distinction between jihadist rebels and more moderate factions, describing what remains of the country’s armed opposition as terrorists. 

The rebels controlling Eastern Ghouta, a small number of them linked to al-Qaeda, have ruled with an iron fist, and fighters on both the government and opposition sides have profited from a punishing siege that has caused scores of civilians to die from lack of food or medicine.

Robert Mardini, the top representative for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Middle East, said Thursday that he was “shocked” by the level of violence around Eastern Ghouta and called for immediate access to its civilians.

He told reporters in Beirut that the international aid agency has a humanitarian convoy at the ready but that the Syrian authorities have yet to approve its passage. 

“Scores were killed over the past days, statistics are staggering, but many can still be saved,” Mardini said. “Children, women and men are exhausted and terrified in Eastern Ghouta. They are on their knees, weakened because of months of being besieged.”

As the violence intensifies, Eastern Ghouta’s rebels have launched daily attacks on densely populated neighborhoods in Damascus, killing 16 people since Sunday and forcing schools to close. 

The official Syrian Arab News Agency said Thursday that a child was killed and six civilians injured in shelling on the northern neighborhood of Barzeh.

“It’s a massacre. These are all massacres,” said an activist in Eastern Ghouta late Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of concern for family members in Damascus. “We’re trapped in the middle. What can we say to make people stop our bleeding?”

Morello reported from Washington. James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.

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