Putin’s Phony ‘Humanitarian Pause’ in Syria: Russian and Western Media Coverage of the ‘Hell’ in Eastern Ghouta

March 6, 2018
Civilians flee an air attack by Syrian government forces in Eastern Ghouta on March 5, 2017. Screen grab from video by BBC

Analysis: Russian media has provided only one-sided coverage of the war in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. Western media coverage has revealed the terrible toll on civilians from attacks by Syrian government forces backed by Russia.

The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Putin’s Phony ‘Humanitarian Pause’ in Syria and Russian and Western Media Coverage

Damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 25, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Bassam Khabieh

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “unilateral humanitarian pause” on February 26, Russian state media such as TASS reported it uncritically and without context, saying “militants continued mortar and small arms fire over positions of the government forces in the humanitarian corridor in the community of Muhayam Al-Vafidin.”

RBC, a Russian business news site that has lost some of its independence in the last year, also reported the news uncritically “as is” February 26.

Novaya Gazeta, an independent site that has also been under pressure but continued to report critically on the Russian government, reported the Kremlin’s announcement, but also reported that the Trump Administration had condemned the attacks by Russia, Syria and Iran, a condemnation it had covered earlier.

Novaya did feel constrained to add the Kremlin’s rebuttal and added the claim that rebels had earlier fired on the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Hostile Parties in Damascus.
Western media picked up the Kremlin announcement; on February 26, BBC gave Putin the propaganda boost in the headline with “Putin orders Eastern Ghouta ‘Humanitarian Pause,” but further down in the story, explained that Putin’s “humanitarian pause” was not the same as the UN’s truce call.

The UN’s own news site made it clear that Russia began diverging from the Security Council call immediately at a meeting of the Council on February 24:

The Russian Federation’s representative, noting that his delegation supported the text in so far as it encouraged the Syrian parties to the conflict to halt hostilities, said any language on an immediate cessation of hostilities would be impossible without agreement from the warring parties.  That kind of unrealistic approach would not help to address the pressing humanitarian situation, he stressed, calling instead for demands that were underpinned by concrete, on-the-ground agreements.  Some external sponsors of the illicit armed factions were falling short in that regard and were at times deliberately skirting their obligations.  While the Russian Federation was proactively lending humanitarian assistance, its embassy in Damascus had been frequently attacked by rebels, and the dire situation in that city required urgent action.

The Syrian representative’s claimed horrific stories outlined by some speakers at this same session of the UN Security Council “omitted descriptions of the many crimes they themselves had perpetrated” — a statement that most of the permanent and elected members of the Council would find applied to Syria itself.

Even so, the UN declared a 30-day ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta on February 26, where 400,000 people have been living under siege.

“Eastern Ghouta cannot wait, it is high time to stop this hell on earth,” Reuters sited  UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as saying at the UN Human Rights Council, which opened its main four-week annual session in Geneva.

SBS in Australia reported on the “pause”  and explained the 30-day truce “has been a dead letter with Moscow” and reported on the State Department spokesperson’s tweet:

CNN reported February 27 that shelling continued despite Putin’s call for the “humanitarian pause”.

But as of Tuesday morning, Putin’s proposed pause appeared to have had little impact. Within minutes of when the ceasefire was meant to start, activists on the ground reported shelling and artillery fire from pro-regime positions, killing at least one person.
CNN then reported Russia’s side of the story — that rebels were to blame:
Russia and the Syrian regime accused the rebels of shelling humanitarian corridors, preventing civilians from leaving.

CNN did report what has happened in Syria:

A renewed offensive in Eastern Ghouta has claimed the lives of 568 civilians since mid-February, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The area, home to some 400,000 people, has been under siege for years.
Eastern Ghouta is one of the last major rebel-held areas of the country. Observers fear the enclave could face a similar fate to eastern Aleppo, which was all but destroyed in a government offensive in December 2016.
And CNN reported what an activist on the ground said:

“We don’t trust the Russians on the humanitarian pause between 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. local, because we have seen in the past they don’t commit to these humanitarian pauses,” activist Bilal Abu Salah told CNN.

VOA reported that no one was leaving and cited the Russian perspective:

No civilians were seen leaving the embattled area at the checkpoint set up by the Syrian government, a way station where large portraits of Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were positioned side by side.

The Syrian state news agency SANA and Russia accused rebels fighting government forces of launching attacks on them during the humanitarian pause. In Moscow, the Defense Ministry said the rebels “went on the offensive in other directions, too.”
But VOA also reported gave another perspective:

Mohammed Alloush, head of the largest insurgent group in eastern Ghouta, called for Russia to stop its aerial attacks on the rebels and honor the 30-day U.N. cease-fire resolution it voted for last week.

“If Russia is concerned about civilians in eastern Ghouta, it should halt its planes immediately from bombing towns and residences and should stop the regime of Assad from its war of extermination,” Alloush said.
The Guardian stated early and clearly in its headline February 27, “Fighting Resumes in Eastern Ghouta Despite ‘Humanitarian Pause.'”

It declared the “pause” a failure and provided an activist’s point of view:

The Russian president ordered the pause after a week-long blitz on the area and a UN-sponsored ceasefire agreed over the weekend failed to take hold.

“Only the fighter planes have been reduced, but the shelling and land-to-land rockets are continuing,” said Nour Adam, an activist in the area. “None of the families or civilians have come out of the bomb shelters because nobody trusts the regime or the Russians.”
The Guardian also explained some of the complexities of the situation in Ghouta

The fighting has led to large numbers of fighters from an al-Qaida-aligned group known as HTS to abandon their positions or defect. Senior opposition leaders said the capitulation followed three months of planning and was poised to change the face of the area, which had been used by Syrian and Russian officials to “tar the whole revolution cause”.

“What has happened here is that the local people have had enough,” said a former senior member of an opposition group. “HTS are on the run, they will be confined to three parts of Idlib and nothing more. The people turned on them. This is historic.”

Damascus and Moscow have regularly cited the presence of extremists as a reason for the siege of Ghouta. Rebels say there are no more than 300 HTS militants in the enclave, who would quickly be forced out if government forces allowed their exit.
Then The Guardian provided independent perspectives exposing the Russian claims:

Russia says that shelling into Damascus from Ghouta had stopped the humanitarian corridor from being established, but armed opposition groups denied having opened fire. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said earlier that it had been largely calm in eastern Ghouta since midnight, though four rockets hit the town of Doumaon Tuesday morning.

A senior opposition figure said he had been contacted throughout the day by European diplomats, asking if the Russian claims were true. “I told all of them that it is foolish to believe such blatant lies,” he said. “There was nothing going out from Ghouta at all.”
Meanwhile, the conservative US daily Washington Examiner on February 27 portrayed Putin as “calling the shots” in Syria and implied that Putin was succeeding where the UN had failed:

PUTIN’S PAUSE: With the failure of a U.N. call for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a daily five-hour pause in the fighting to give time for civilians to evacuate before the bombs and shells start falling again in eastern Ghouta. The pause, which  has just ended for today, seemed to mostly hold, but few people appear to be taking advantage of a so-called humanitarian corridor to leave the beleaguered area. That’s probably because in the past, evacuation routes have been shelled and didn’t offer any real guarantee of safe passage. But the fact that the pause largely held, notwithstanding some sporadic shelling, shows it’s Putin, not his client Bashar Assad, who is calling the shots in Syria.

The Washington Examiner did reflect the Trump Administration’s views:

The U.S. continues to condemn the Russian-backed Syrian offensive against the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, which since last week has killed nearly 500 people and wounded another 1,500, according to humanitarian monitoring groups. At the Pentagon yesterday, a spokesman confirmed the U.S. military remains focused on fighting the Islamic State in the eastern part of the country, and has no role in implementing the ceasefire or enforcing “deconfliction” zones designated by Russia.  

But then called out inaction on the issue of chemical weapons.

ASSAD ‘ON NOTICE’: The U.S. has at various times in recent months hinted that it could punish the Assad government for its alleged use of chemical weapons with another one-time military strike like the one last April. But I’m told that, for now, there is no active planning to follow through on the veiled threat, most recently repeated by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

It is also worth noting that on February 26, the British The Independent reported that British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said he “backed air strikes” if Syria used chemical weapons.
Interestingly, even before Putin’s “humanitarian pause” was announced February 26, the New York Times editorial board pointed the finger at Russia regarding Ghouta in an op-ed February 21 titled, “Who Has Innocent Syrians’ Blood on Their Hands?”

The editorial board said evidence was building to try Assad for war crimes, and the same should be done for Russian leaders who kept him in power with military assets as well as Iranian leaders who provide ground troops.

Said the NYT editorial board: 

The Assad-led bombardment of eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb of about 400,000 people and one of the last rebel-held areas, is being called one of the most violent episodes of the seven-year war. Since Sunday at least 310 people, many of them children, have been killed. That’s in addition to nearly 500,000 Syrians killed countrywide since 2011.

Ghouta has been under siege for years, although it’s technically part of a negotiated de-escalation zone, leaving the district facing chronic shortages of food, medicine, medical personnel and other necessities.

This week’s massive attack — which has involved rocket fire, shelling, airstrikes and helicopter-dropped barrel bombs that struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure — intensified the misery. It seems intended to force rebels to surrender so the government can reclaim the territory. Most of the civilian casualties resulted from airstrikes on residential areas, the United Nations’ human rights office said. There have been signs that a government ground assault may soon follow.


If there was any doubt about the barbarity of the pro-Assad forces, it was dispelled by Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan, leader of the government’s Tiger Force. “I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire,” he said in a video shared by pro-government social media accounts. “You won’t find a rescuer. And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You’ll be rescued with blood.”

That’s the kind of evidence that must be used — sooner rather than later — to build a legal case to try Mr. Assad for war crimes. The same should be done for Russian leaders, who help keep Mr. Assad in power with political support and military air assets, and Iranian leaders, who provide tactical advice and ground troops. The United Nations human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, called what is going on in Ghouta a “monstrous campaign of annihilation” on Wednesday.

The New York Time‘s critical take on Eastern Ghouta was not just limited to an editorial.

A report February 27 was frankly skeptical of Putin’s “humanitarian pause”:

The fruitlessness of what Russia has labeled a “humanitarian pause” in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held enclave, is the latest in a string of proclaimed truces in the seven-year-old civil war that have failed to stop the bloodshed.

The airstrikes have been unrelenting in a Damascus suburb, where frames of bombed buildings loom over ghostly streets.

Hundreds of lives have been lost in less than two weeks of a government siege of the suburb, eastern Ghouta. Dozens of children are among the dead. Many have been crushed by the collapsing walls of homes leveled by missiles.

The siege has been deemed “one of the most pitiless onslaughts in this long-running and brutal civil war” by the top United Nations human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.

Syria’s military appears to be advancing on several fronts as it tries to retake the enclave just to the east of the capital, Damascus.

Government forces have now taken 25% of the area, UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitors say.

A UN aid convoy planned for Sunday has not been able to enter the enclave.

The fighting since 18 February has left more than 600 people dead, many of them children.

BBC also reported on the complexity of the rebel situation:

Residents, many of them women and children, are reported to have fled into the centre of the enclave to seek shelter. Fighting has intensified in Beit Sawa between government forces and the Islamist faction Jaysh al-Islam.

The Eastern Ghouta is dominated by Jaysh al-Islam. But Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist alliance led by al-Qaeda’s former affiliate in Syria, also has a presence there.

But as BBC reported, the Western allies continue to blame Russia and Syria for this situation:

US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May agreed in a phone call on Sunday that Syria and its Russian backers bore responsibility for the “heart-breaking human suffering”, Downing Street said.

The leaders agreed that Russia must act now to persuade the Syrian government to stop the bombing.

Given that after a week, Russia’s “humanitarian pause” seems fairly well exposed now as merely a gambit to buy time for Syrian troops to take over territory, what next?
CNN reported yesterday March 5 that the Syrian government’s view that Al Nusra was responsible for killing an injuring civilians but also that the Syrian regime took over territory:

According to Syrian state-run news agency SANA, regime forces gained control of villages on the eastern side of the area, which it said were controlled by Al-Nusra Front, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

It also said that the rebel group had fired over 300 mortar shells and rockets on neighboring Damascus, killing and injuring scores of civilians.

It is the first time the regime has announced territory control of Eastern Ghouta since launching an offensive on the rebel-held area on February 18.

CNN did report that the “humanitarian pause” was a failure:

Russia declared its own “humanitarian pause” in fighting in Syria last week, after the UN Security Council had passed its resolution for a cease fire. But neither the UN’s order, nor Russia’s, produced a respite for people on the ground.

CNN also reported a UN spokesperson’s frank assessment — but one that still did not attribute blame: 

In the week since the UN’s ceasefire resolution, not only had the violence failed to stop, it has actually escalated, according to Panos Moumtzis, UN Regional Coordinator for the Syria Crisis

“Instead of a much-needed reprieve, we continue to see more fighting, more death, and more disturbing reports of hunger and hospitals being bombed,” Moumtzis said in a statement on Sunday. “This collective punishment of civilians is simply unacceptable,” he said.

Thousands of residents have now fled their homes in Eastern Ghouta and headed westward where the fighting is less severe, civilians inside the suburb told CNN on Sunday.

“The situation on the ground is catastrophic,” surgeon Hamza Hassan, based in Irbin in Eastern Ghouta, told CNN via WhatsApp. “There is massive internal displacement of 30,000 people from (the areas of) Beit Sawa, Otaya, the Douma villages,” he said.

Thus, the Russia and Syria operations, with the “humanitarian pause” as cover ended up enabling the killing and injuring of many more civilians, and created many more internally-displaced persons.

Reuters also reported March 5 that an aid convoy reached the eastern Ghouta region but the Syrian government stripped some of the medical supplies and continues its air and ground assault.

Reuters then unwittingly gave an indication of what Putin’s “humanitarian pause” helped to achieve, without calling it out:

The Russian-backed Syrian army has captured more than a third of the eastern Ghouta in recent days, threatening to slice the last major rebel-held area near Damascus in two, despite Western accusations it has violated a ceasefire.

Reuters further elaborated, ultimately creating a “balanced” picture with the Syrian government’s perspective:

Assad and his allies regard the rebel groups that hold eastern Ghouta as terrorists, and say a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding a country-wide ceasefire does not apply to operations against them.

A week ago Russia unilaterally announced five-hour daily pauses in the fighting, but clashes have continued during those hours and Western countries dismissed it as inadequate.

The Guardian was once again more forthright, and reported March 5 that 77 people had been killed in one day:

At least 77 people have been killed in the besieged Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta on Monday – the deadliest day for civilians there since  and Russia’s president ordered a daily five-hour truce in the area.

The Guardian further gave the grim toll for the month and spoke frankly about the Syrian regime’s actions:

Doctors on the ground said 712 people had been killed and more than 5,600 wounded since 19 February.

The airstrikes and artillery bombardment have been coupled with a ground offensive by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allied Shia militias, whose advances are aimed at splitting eastern Ghouta in half and cutting off rebel fighters.

AFP reported that at least 600 were killed in the last week. 

The Guardian reported more desperate pleas from WHO and the news that a doctor was killed, then stated:

Some of the heaviest fighting on Sunday was concentrated in the area of Beit Sawa, on the eastern edge of the densely populated centre of eastern Ghouta, where civilians fled clashes between regime forces and Jaysh al-Islam, one of three main rebel groups.

On March 5, the Christian Science Monitor reported that fear of ongoing violence was one factor preventing civilians from using the designated exit corridor:
“The only corridor out of Ghouta is the corridor of death,” says Amer Zeidan, a bearded volunteer Syrian aid worker who each day delivers food and water to basement shelters.

“Even if the regime was being genuine, we cannot trust it,” Mr. Zeidan told the Monitor in a series of voice messages. “You can’t trust the murderer who has been killing men and women, the children and elderly, on a daily basis. In the same moment that they say there is an open humanitarian corridor, war planes are dropping bombs.”

And the Christian Science Monitor reminded us:

Eastern Ghouta has been controlled by anti-regime rebels since 2012, besieged by government forces since 2013, and was the scene that year of a high-profile chemical weapons attack with sarin and chlorine that killed hundreds and nearly prompted then-President Obama to launch military strikes against the regime.

RT.com’s Rania Khalek appeared March 4 to protest about supposedly “biased” Western coverage — which we can see from the quotations above was actually more “balanced” than she was prepared to admit. Her claims of a “frame” of “no armed insurgents” just doesn’t stand up:

As Syrian government forces battle Jaysh al-Islam to retake Eastern Ghouta, Western media outlets have totally ignored the atrocities of the insurgents, preferring to blame all the violence on the “regime.”

They’re at it again, howling about a town in Syria that’s being retaken by the government. This time it’s Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus and one of the last remaining strongholds of the Islamist insurgency that has torn the country apart over the last seven years.

Before Eastern Ghouta it was Aleppo and before Aleppo it was Madaya and before Madaya it was Homs, and so on. All of these places were framed as though there were no armed insurgents present, and the Syrian authorities were just mercilessly massacring civilians out of cartoonishly villainous bloodlust. If the insurgents were mentioned, they were usually (and still are) presented by the western press as moderate rebels and freedom fighters.

So if your only understanding of Eastern Ghouta comes from the mainstream media, then you’re left with the impression that there’s a one-sided conflict taking place between the Syrian government and its civilians. But this war isn’t so simple

The one-sided coverage in fact is only on RT.com’s part. Khalek says nothing about 77 people killed in one day — including a doctor. Nothing about children killed. Nothing about aid convoys unable to proceed, with their supplies confiscated. Nothing about civilians unwilling to trust a “humanitarian corridor” when they were attacked so many times before. Nothing that is being reported from the ground at all. We know that Kremlin propagandists work overtime to try to discredit the White Helmets — but as the ample Western reports indicate, it is not merely the White Helmets who have provided stories of atrocities.

Relief efforts for Eastern Ghouta were halted completely today, March 6, VOA reported. The BBC reported that medics said  a chlorine attack had taken place in the area. Al Jazeera reported that at least 70 people were killed in the last day, with some 30 of them suffocated by chlorine gas.

At this point we can safely say that the truthful reporting of Western media about the situation on the ground in Eastern Ghouta, drawing on reports from activists as well as UN and other international aid workers, may drown out the propaganda the Kremlin has mustered on its latest offensive.

Even so, some media feels more constrained than others to provide a “balanced” perspective outlining the Kremlin and Assad views of the situation, even as their report on the humanitarian situation tends to belie some of the claims.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

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