Regime strikes in Syria enclave despite ceasefire call
New regime strikes hit the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Sunday despite a UN Security Council demand for a ceasefire to end one of the most ferocious assaults of Syria’s civil war.
After days of diplomatic wrangling, the Security Council on Saturday adopted a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria “without delay”, to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations.
The main rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta, where more than 500 people have died since the bombing campaign was launched a week ago, welcomed the UN vote and said they would abide by a ceasefire.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were to speak by phone later Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin — a key ally of Syria’s regime — to press for the implementation of the ceasefire “in the coming days”.
The bombing campaign on Eastern Ghouta, a rebel bastion on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, has been one of the heaviest of the seven-year civil war that has pitted President Bashar al-Assad’s regime against a range of rebel groups.
In Douma, the main town in Eastern Ghouta, residents woke to the sounds of fresh air raids and artillery strikes on Sunday morning.
Sunday’s strikes included two on the outskirts of Douma, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Regime air strikes and artillery have been pounding the enclave since February 18, with at least 520 dead, including more than 100 children, according to the Observatory.
– Resolution watered down –
Rocket and artillery fire also hit at least three parts of Eastern Ghouta, including Douma on Sunday, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
A woman was killed in artillery fire on the town of Hammuriyeh, said Abdel Rahman, whose group uses a network of sources across Syria to monitor the country’s conflict.
Abdel Rahman said there were also clashes in the south of Eastern Ghouta between regime forces and fighters from the Jaish al-Islam rebel group. Fighting in the area is frequent so it was not immediately clear if the clashes represented a change on the ground.
Eastern Ghouta, home to some 400,000 people, is surrounded by government-controlled territory and its residents are unwilling or unable to flee.
The two main rebel groups controlling the enclave — Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman — welcomed the Security Council demand, but vowed to fight back in case of renewed attacks.
Jaish al-Islam said it was “committed to protecting humanitarian convoys” but warned it would “immediately respond to any violation”.
Faylaq al-Rahman said in a statement: “We confirm our full commitment to the (UN) resolution… Nevertheless, we reserve the right to defend the civilians of Eastern Ghouta in case of renewed attacks.”
UN diplomats say Saturday’s Security Council resolution was watered down to ensure it was not vetoed by Russia, which has provided diplomatic and military support to Assad’s regime.
Language specifying that the ceasefire would start 72 hours after adoption was scrapped, replaced by “without delay,” and the term “immediate” was dropped in reference to aid deliveries and evacuations.
In another concession, the ceasefire will not apply to operations against the Islamic State group or Al-Qaeda, along with “individuals, groups, undertakings and entities” associated with the terror groups.
Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate is present in Eastern Ghouta and Assad’s regime routinely describes all of its opponents as “terrorists”.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who has described Eastern Ghouta under the bombardment as “hell on Earth,” said the ceasefire must be “immediately” implemented.
– ‘Used to betrayals’ –
In the enclave, news of the UN vote was greeted with a shrug.
“I don’t think this decision will be implemented. It will be respected neither by the regime nor Russia,” said Douma resident Abu Mazen.
“We can’t trust Russia or the regime. We are used to their betrayals,” he added.
Russia has been pressing for a negotiated withdrawal of rebel fighters and their families from Eastern Ghouta, like the one that saw the government retake full control of Syria’s second city Aleppo in December 2016.
But rebel groups have refused.
The rebels in Eastern Ghouta have also been firing into Damascus, where six civilians were wounded on Saturday, state media said.
Around 20 people have been killed in eastern districts of the capital since last Sunday, according to state media.
More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions driven from the homes in the war, which next month enters its eighth year with no diplomatic solution in sight.