Eastern Ghouta: Will Resolution 2401 Stop the Slaughter?

The unanimous vote in the UN Security Council for a well-meaning resolution demanding “a durable humanitarian pause for at least thirty consecutive days throughout Syria” may turn out, for the besieged 400,000 souls in Eastern Ghouta, to be the emptiest of gestures. It lacks an enforcement mechanism and contains a loophole all-but-inviting ongoing mass homicide. Unless Russia demonstrates the will and ability to put a choke collar on its criminal client, it will inescapably fall to the United States to exact a price for mass murder, if any is to be exacted at all.

The intent of Resolution 2401 is clear: to end a “devastating humanitarian situation;” to stop “attacks on schools and medical facilities;” and, among other things, to bring relief to “besieged populations” whose entrapment is “a violation of international humanitarian law.” Even Moscow agreed to language that “[reminds] in particular the Syrian authorities, that all parties immediately comply with their obligations under international law . . . including the protection of civilians as well as to ensure the respect and protection of all medical personnel . . . as well as hospitals and other medical facilities . . .”

Yet, in terms of implementation and enforcement, Resolution 2401’s “or else” clause says that the Security Council “Decides to remain actively seized of the matter.” This wording differs not at all from the many Syria-related resolutions adopted by the Council, resolutions subsequently ignored by the Assad regime and its enablers. The act of being “actively seized” does not impress those who habitually trample on international humanitarian law.

The loophole all-but-inviting ongoing slaughter is one that “Affirms that the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al Qaeda and Al Nusrah Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, or other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council.”

This wording—no doubt essential to securing an affirmative vote by Russia—gives the Assad regime and its enablers a pretext to continue pounding densely populated residential neighborhoods. Terrorists are indeed present among an estimated six hundred armed rebels. Regime and Russian combat aircraft pound civilian neighborhoods based on the claim that terrorists are hidden down below. This is business-as-usual, Syria style. The resulting slaughter—defiantly defined by the perpetrators as “military operations”—would be deemed indiscriminate were it not for the fact that hospitals are deliberately targeted with great efficiency and specificity.

The Assad regime is displaying its customary contempt for the Security Council by continuing to bomb and shell despite the resolution’s demand that “all parties cease hostilities without delay.” The Iranian Army chief of staff has ominously remarked that “zones on the periphery of Damascus which are in the hands of Nusra and other terrorist groups are not covered by the ceasefire and the offensives and clearing operations by the Syrian army will continue.” He is factually wrong about “zones” not being covered by the humanitarian pause, but as a practical matter all that is required now for Resolution 2401 to be completely gutted is for the Russian air force to join in the bloodbath.

There are, it seems, two key questions: will Russia (and can Russia) slip the choke collar around Assad’s neck so that the United Nations can flood Eastern Ghouta with desperately needed humanitarian aid; and, if not, will the United States exact of the Syrian regime a painful price for its exercise in mass homicide?

The Trump administration, like its predecessor, hopes for Russian cooperation in the search for a sustainable political settlement in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry spent some eighteen leverage-free months chasing Moscow. His successor reportedly sees potential merit in Russian ideas about revising the Syrian constitution and moving gradually toward general elections.

How can one feel confident, however, that these lengthy constitutional and electoral processes are not time-buying ploys aimed at keeping the United States sedated while the vicious application of state terror imposes the extremist-inspiring presence of Bashar al-Assad on every corner of Syria? After all, the State Department spokesperson noted, on February 22, 2018, that “Russia bears a unique responsibility for what is taking place [in Syria]. Without Russia backing Syria, the devastation and the deaths would certainly not be occurring.” But what if “the devastation and the deaths” are merely preludes to a restored regime that treats a constitution as a permission slip, conducts elections in the Stalinist model, and helps recruit the young and disaffected to violent Islamist responses in the process?

Washington need not take Moscow’s benign assurances at face value. What happens in Eastern Ghouta and elsewhere in Syria over the next few days will tell the story of Russian intentions. Either Moscow will ground Assad’s air force and silence his artillery or it won’t. Either it can dictate full regime adherence to the humanitarian pause, or it can’t. Either way, Russia is about make clear its intentions and its capabilities for all to see.

The Trump administration, like its predecessor, is free to avert its gaze if indicators of Russian intentions and capabilities are negative. Some officials will indeed be sorely tempted to whistle past the boneyard: it is easier to speculate about the presumed benefits years from now of a new constitution and national elections than it is to confront the here-and-now of mass murder: an abomination that will surely kill Syrian peace talks and negate peace itself.

Had the Assad regime, over the past week, added sarin nerve agent to its tool kit of terror in Eastern Ghouta, American cruise missiles would likely be impacting now on militarily significant Syrian targets. Yes, senior American officials have recently stated that “The regime wants to keep bombing and gassing these 400,000 people,” and “Public accounts and photos clearly show that Assad’s chemical weapons use is continuing.” But alas, they refer to weaponized chlorine, canisters of which are packed into barrel bombs and dropped onto places (schools, marketplaces and the like) where they can create maximum civilian terror. Too bad for the children of Eastern Ghouta: they’ve not yet (this time around, unlike 2013) been victimized by a sufficiently vicious substance.

Yet if one assumes that regime use of sarin nerve agent would (as it did in April 2017) provoke a punitive American response, one must also assume that suitable targets have been assessed and their engagement planned. What is missing from the current situation is an American determination that responding militarily to the massacre of Eastern Ghouta need not involve a sarin threshold.

To speak of enforcing the aims of Security Council Resolution 2401 without focusing on Russia muzzling Assad or the United States punishing him militarily is to engage in empty chitchat. Both countries just voted for a resolution “Determining that the devastating humanitarian situation in Syria continues to constitute a threat to peace and security in the region.” Moscow’s intentions and capabilities are now under the microscope. So is the seriousness of Washington. A red line sanctioning sarin alone is, in the eyes of Bashar al-Assad, a green light for everything else.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: Members of the United Nations Security Council vote for ceasefire to Syrian bombing in eastern Ghouta, at the United Nations headquarters in New York, U.S., February 24, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz