Syrian government attacks on the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta displays the “indiscriminate” approach to civilians and combatants that has characterised urban warfare from Bashar al-Assad’s forces throughout the seven-year civil war, according to an expert in open-source conflict analysis.
Eliot Higgins runs open-source investigation website Bellingcat, which has been tracking conflict in Syria and elsewhere since 2014. He told WikiTribune that the latest aerial offensive on the district of Eastern Ghouta was “similar to what we saw in Aleppo towards the end of the siege there.” In Aleppo, government forces used helicopters and artillery to systematically level large parts of the city, house by house.
The United Nations Syrian coordinator, Panos Moumtzis, described the situation in eastern Ghouta as “beyond imagination.” Moumtzis said this week that days of bombing, including six hospitals, could amount to war crimes (UN). Photographs from the scene have shown hundreds of shrouded bodies in makeshift morgues.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the Ghouta as “hell on earth” and called for an immediate ceasefire.
Indiscriminate versus accidental
Higgins said information Bellingcat has gathered over recent days showed “heavy artillery attacks, bombing [and] heavy shelling,” as well as reports of medical facilities and hospitals being attacked, and some destroyed.
“In the past some of these medical facilities have been attacked multiple times to put them out of action,” he said. However he qualified this, adding “it can be difficult sometimes to tell the difference between what appears to be an intended attack on a medical facility and what’s just random, because a lot of this is just indiscriminate.”
Originally a one-man operation, Bellingcat has grown into a highly-respected source of observed military information, not just about Syria. Higgins stressed that the standards of verification that Bellingcat seeks mean it can take at least a week to confirm details of individual airstrikes. However, early indications suggested the attacks on Eastern Ghouta were consistent with Syrian government methods in heavily-populated areas.
I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire. You won’t find a rescuer. – Brigadier Genereal Suheil al-Hassan
Eastern Ghouta is one of the final rebel strongholds in the country, especially of the capital, Damascus. It intensified on the night of February 18. Reports since then depicted a desperate situation in the Damascus suburb and surrounding countryside, with widespread civilian suffering. Amnesty International said in a statement that the bombardment was causing “war crimes on an epic scale.”
In a report from correspondents based in Beirut but relying on people on the scene as well as social media, The New York Times quoted the leader of the government’s Tiger Force, Brigadier Genereal Suheil al-Hassan, as saying: “I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire. 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.”
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources on the ground, reported that the civilian death toll in the Ghouta has reached at least 250 since the renewed bombardment began. Many major news outlets have relied on citizen journalism and testimony to cover the crisis because of the danger to correspondents in the field for many years in Syria.
Higgins said the Ghouta attacks matched recent strategies against rebel-held urban areas. “We have just produced a report on what happened a few weeks ago in Idlib, where we have footage of bombs hitting hospitals,” said Higgins.
“These attacks were characterised by repeated bombardments, lack of warnings, and an absence of active military hostilities in the vicinity of the attack,” the report says.
Updated my playlist of videos from Ghouta, Damascus, from February 20th 2018. https://t.co/Jn5UayvXCh https://t.co/uczLwvhoc6
How Bellingcat verifies information
Bellingcat relies largely on social media and online verification tools. It has developed a network of on-the-ground contacts in Syria to double-check reports, cross-referencing with geolocation and social media.
“In somewhere like Ghouta you have maybe 10-to-15 YouTube channels posting over a long period and you can tell it’s the same people posting every day,” said Higgins, “You see the same people in the videos so you know they’re working in that area. We can also use that to geolocate them.”
Confirming details of what is and his not happening and what is and is not true in Syria has become more difficult since some groups started censoring their own media, due to concern that they were providing information to the Syrian air forces on targets.
“We’re a bit cautious about that during an ongoing campaign,” said Higgins, “If it’s shown that part of [a target] hasn’t been totally destroyed, or confirms where it is, it could be barrel-bombed again.”