U.N. Security council votes in favor of Syria cease-fire after week of bloodshed

The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Saturday in favor of a 30-day cease-fire in Syria, after days of bombardment by the Syrian government on a Damascus suburb left hundreds of civilians dead.

The resolution called for all parties to “cease hostilities without delay” across the country to enable the “safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services and medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded.”

The pause in fighting for at least 30 days would let humanitarian aid reach the besieged suburb of eastern Ghouta and allow civilians there to be evacuated.

More than 500 people, including women and children, were killed last week in the intensifying strikes against the rebel-held area of eastern Ghouta, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Olof Skoog, Sweden’s ambassador to the United Nations, who introduced the resolution along with the Kuwaiti ambassador, said the it could “de-escalate suffering” and save lives.

“The U.N. convoys and evacuation teams are ready to go,” he said.

The geographic scope of the cease-fire covers the conflict across Syria, except where military operations are underway against the Islamic State, the Nusra front, al-Qaida affiliated groups, and any other groups designated as terrorist organizations, according to the Security Council.

Skoog emphasized that it was “not a comprehensive peace deal on Syria. Its aim is purely humanitarian.”

The vote came after the Security Council resolution had stalled for days as Russia — the main ally of President Bashar Assad’s Syrian government — argued for amendments to the draft resolution and blocked a vote.

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Speaking shortly after the vote, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, applauded the unanimous decision by the Security Council while denouncing Russia’s delays.

In the three days it took us to adopt this resolution, how many mothers lost their kids to the bombing and shelling? How many more images did we need to see of fathers holding their dead children?” Haley asked the members of the council. “All for nothing, because here we are, voting for a cease-fire that could have saved lives days ago.”

She pointed out that the resolution had been held up by Russia’s inability to agree on the initial language but that little had been in the final draft.

“There’s no good reason we shouldn’t have done this Wednesday or Thursday or Friday,” Haley said, saying the delay had hurt the civilians caught up in the conflict. “We all failed them this week. I guess there is unity in that.”

On Friday night, she publicly lashed out at the Russians for the initial delay in the vote and urged diplomats to come to a resolution.

In a Twitter post, she wrote that it was “unbelievable” that Russia was stalling. “How many more people will die before The Security Council agrees to take up this vote?”

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After the vote, Haley expressed hope that the resolution could “be a turning point” for council unity. “All of us must do everything we can to make the demands of this resolution a reality, it’s the only way to restore the credibility of this Council,” she said.

Russia was quick to defend its decision to delay the vote. In his address to the council, Vasily Nebenzya, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, said that immediate implementation of an earlier version of the resolution was “not feasible,” as parties on the ground needed to make a concrete commitment to the pause in hostilities.

“This kind of an unrealistic approach will do nothing to address the issues,” Nebenzya said, before mentioning that the United States should focus on fighting terrorism in the region “instead of scaling up rhetoric against Russia.”

Syrians were in a cautious mood after the resolution was passed as the wording of the agreement gave the government leeway to attack terrorist organizations and those they deem associated with them.

Those living in eastern Ghouta, an area that has been consistently targeted by the Syrian government since 2012, describe conditions that have grown desperate. Thousands of residents have taken shelter in basements and makeshift underground bunkers to protect themselves from the relentless bombardment.

Tarek al-Damashqi, a resident of eastern Ghouta, said he left his underground shelter to get an internet connection to confirm the news that the resolution had been voted on. But he said in a phone interview that he had little confidence it would change the situation on the ground.

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“I don’t have much hope the regime will accept the U.N. resolution,” he said, adding that he felt the situation in eastern Ghouta would not change.

The U.N. Refugee Agency and Save the Children, which both partner with local humanitarian groups in eastern Ghouta, estimate that upward of 350,000 civilians still live in the affected area.

Residents of the rebel-held enclave described harrowing scenes throughout the week; even as the United Nations debated the cease-fire conditions early Saturday, the bombardment continued.

Nour Adam, a media activist based in eastern Ghouta, described continuous shelling and airstrikes when reached on WhatsApp on Saturday, before the Security Council vote.

“It’s like the end of humanity, it’s like hell on earth,” he said. “In eastern Ghouta right now, nowhere is safe because the warplanes target the shelters and the missiles target the neighborhood, I mean what kind of life is that? The people here are scared to death.”

Adam said he hoped that a cease-fire agreement would allow for food and medical supplies to be brought into the area.

Still, he said: “If they agree for one month in eastern Ghouta, after that one month, what? Will they return and target the town and kill more people?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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