The Kremlin news outlet Russia Today claims international outrage caused by hundreds of civilian deaths in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta is merely “a spike in the information war, a provocation, organized by the United States.” The report quoted Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, dismissing the accusations as “baseless” and with “no concrete data.”
Fighting recently escalated in eastern Ghouta as the Syrian military and its allies, including Russian forces, appear to be launching an all-out operation to retake the area, one of the last spots close to Damascus still under Syrian opposition control. Human rights organizations say the bombing campaign is targeting an area where 400,000 civilians live.
On February 22, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called the situation in eastern Ghouta “a human tragedy,” saying the U.N. cannot “let things go on happening in this horrendous way,” he said.
Warplanes struck eastern Ghouta overnight February 22-23 even as Russia objected to a draft U.N. resolution to implement a 30-day pause in fighting across Syria. Diplomats say the purpose of the resolution is to lift the siege of eastern Ghouta to allow humanitarian aid and medical evacuations.
Saturday, the U.N. Security Council in New York adopted a resolution calling for a cease fire, demanding hostilities cease in Syria "without delay" and for 30-days to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered and to evacuate the critically ill and injured. The resolution, itself, was delayed more than 24 hours as diplomats negotiated to settle on language acceptable to Russia.
U.S. Ambassador Niki Haley expressed her skepticism that Syria would comply and admonished Russia for stalling U.N. action.
"Every minute this council waited on Russia, the human suffering grew," Haley said. "In the three days it took us to adopt this resolution, how many mothers lost their kids to the bombing and shelling?"
Earlier, Western officials placed responsibility on Russia for the humanitarian emergency in eastern Ghouta.
“Without Russia backing Syria, the devastation and the deaths would certainly not be occurring,” U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on February 22.
The White House said the U.S. “strongly condemns “recent attacks on the people of Syria in eastern Ghouta by Russia and the Assad regime.”
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the bombing of eastern Ghouta a “massacre.”
That same day, amid growing international criticism, President Vladimir Putin praised the performance of the Russian military in Syria: “I would like to once again thank for their service all who participated and are participating in the military actions in the Syrian Arab Republic. Our warriors are splendidly prepared, they are honorably doing their duty, fighting decisively, fearlessly, to the end!” Putin said.
While formally advocating for ceasefire and peace negotiations in Syria, Russia continues taking steps that, experts say, are causing a further escalation of violence.
And February 22, Russia blocked the first draft of a U.N. resolution calling for a ceasefire. Russia’s envoy to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, stated that international media reports of heavy civilian casualties in eastern Ghouta was a product of “mass psychosis."
Russia circulated proposed amendments that some reports indicated would create loopholes in a ceasefire. Russia has vetoed 10 earlier U.N. resolutions on Syria.
Earlier, on February 21, Kommersant.ru, citing sources in the Russian Defense Ministry, reported that Moscow has deployed an unknown number of Su-57s, its most advanced combat warplane, to Syria. Nicknamed the “F-22 killer,” the Russian military sees the Su-57 as a direct competitor to the U.S. F-22 Raptor.
“With the arrival of the Su-57s, it appears that Moscow is expecting major escalations in Syria during 2018,” reported Beirut-based Al-Masdar News, which boasts close links with the Syrian military.