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Escalating attacks in Syria call UN, U.S. response into question

Affected children receive medical treatment after Assad regime forces conduct allegedly poisonous gas attack in Eastern Ghouta on March 7.
Children receive medical treatment after after alleged poisonous gas attack in Eastern Ghouta on March 7, 2018. Photo: Dia Al Din Samout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The rapidly deteriorating situation in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus besieged since 2013 by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, now resembles Aleppo's in 2016.

Not only is the Assad regime continuing to violate the UN-brokered ceasefire, it is reportedly escalating its attacks by deploying chlorine gas and incendiary weapons such as napalm and phosphorus. Russian and Syrian government forces have also targeted at least 25 medical facilities since February.

Why it matters: As the UN and U.S. stand by, the humanitarian crisis on the ground is worsening. At least 5,000 people have been injured and 900 killed in the last two weeks, with the conflict's death toll now surpassing 500,000.

UN Secretary-General Guterres has voiced his concern, and the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria continues to report on Assad's use of cluster and chemical weapons on civilians, but both come without any credible promise of accountability. Pro-Assad forces' complete disregard for the latest ceasefire renders the UN's tack of passive, unenforceable diplomacy useless, if not complicit in the violence.

The ongoing devastation reflects particularly poorly on the U.S., which declines to enforce UN resolutions on Syria. While the Trump administration has considered a military response in the event of another chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta, it continues to allow pro-Assad forces to use conventional weapons — the greatest cause of death in Syria — with impunity.

The Syrian government has reportedly retaken half of the besieged areas. Unchallenged yet again by Western powers, Assad will try to reclaim Ghouta at all costs, as he did Aleppo. The Trump administration's response to the mounting death toll will help determine just how far he goes.

Adham Sahloul has been a researcher at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and an advocacy officer at the Gaziantep, Turkey, office of the Syrian American Medical Society.

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