Familiar, depressing images emerge from Ghouta in Syria: rows of tiny white shrouds, children killed in relentless airstrikes, makeshift hospitals, families huddling in basements, empty streets heaped with rubble. ‘People are too afraid to go out to bury their dead,’ said a medic identifying himself only as Dr Mohammed. ‘Even the cemeteries are being targeted.’ Hospital workers had to keep the day’s bodies until after dark, he went on, then they hurried out to put them into a single mass grave.
Médecins Sans Frontières says 520 people died in Ghouta in just five days last week, so the killing is not on a small scale. Opposition activists on the ground say much of it is being done by Russian planes. There are no independent witnesses to what is happening there, an important caveat, but the US supports this claim. Russia denies the accusation, with Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, calling it ‘baseless… with no concrete data’. As I write, Russia has organised a ‘humanitarian pause’ — five hours a day without bombing to allow civilians to flee. That in itself is confirmation of Russia’s central role in the Syrian regime’s offensive.
Ghouta is a grim sprawl of satellite towns on the north-eastern fringe of Damascus. Bashar al-Assad has long been desperate to recapture it. His regime’s argument —and Russia’s — is that from there the rebels often land shells in the heart of the capital (true, though the casualties are tiny compared with those in opposition-held areas); that they regularly interfere with the water supply to the city (also true, apparently; the rebels are accused of poisoning the water with diesel) and that they are jihadists fighting for sharia in Syria (largely true — these days most of the armed groups in Ghouta are Islamist, including one that was until only recently publicly allied to al Qaeda).