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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Deraa

Through the chemical weapons watchdog, Assad might yet be held to account

Syrian government forces have been ramping up their bombardment of rebel-held areas in Deraa, and allied Russian warplanes carried out their first raids on the region in a year on June 23. AFP / Mohamad ABAZEED
Syrian government forces have been ramping up their bombardment of rebel-held areas in Deraa, and allied Russian warplanes carried out their first raids on the region in a year on June 23. AFP / Mohamad ABAZEED

A string of victories by the Syrian regime has not resulted as hoped in the decline of violence in Syria. Instead, Bashar Al Assad’s propensity for savagery has intensified with each triumph. His brutal siege of Aleppo, which he assailed unimpeded, was followed by the obliteration of Eastern Ghouta, where starving residents were bombarded with chemical weapons and barrel bombs.

Buoyed by his triumph there, he and his Russian sponsors are now raining bombs – some of them loaded with nerve agents and barbaric agony-inducing chemicals such as napalm and phosporus – on Deraa, the birthplace of the anti-regime uprising, in southwest Syria. This assault has the potential, according to UN special envoy for Syria Steffan de Mistura, to be as calamitous as the attacks on Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta combined.

Deraa is protected by a de-escalation agreement negotiated last year by Jordan, Russia and the US; Mr Al Assad’s escalation has already resulted in the displacement of about 160,000 civilians. By trampling roughshod over the agreement, Mr Al Assad is conveying his contempt for any peace process and making it clear he does not feel compelled to abide by any political solution. Deraa is, moreover, a highly sensitive location bordering Israel and Jordan, where a stray incident could ignite an uncontainable conflagration.

There are efforts under way to prepare the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan to take in thousands of Syrians. US President Donald Trump has said he will raise Syria at the summit with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, next month, but that might be too little, too late. Lives in the meantime are being crushed; Moscow and Damascus will press on to obtain a victory, no matter what the human cost, before then.

The truth, as opposition forces in Deraa say, is that Washington has abandoned Syrians; its overarching indifference to Mr Al Assad has been punctuated by tokenistic airstrikes against his assets, that have had the effect of empowering rather than weakening him. There is the faintest glimmer of hope of eventual retribution after the chemical weapons watchdog OPCW was given a stronger mandate to identify the perpetrators of attacks, a decision which was roundly denounced last week by the Syrian regime. Yet it evinces Mr Al Assad’s fear of being one day held to account for his crimes – should the international community act. As long as it doesn’t, he can carry on killing innocent Syrians with impunity.