Air strikes and rocket fire continued into the night on Tuesday, after a five-hour lull ordered by Vladimir Putin failed to provide aid to the rebel-held Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta and raised fresh doubts about the sincerity of a Russian led "humanitarian" pause.
Residents and activists said the violence was continuing despite claims that a humanitarian corridor would be opened from 9am to 2pm to allow civilians to escape and food and medicine to be brought in.
The so-called pause had been ordered by the Russian leader after a week-long blitz on the area and a United Nations-sponsored ceasefire over the weekend that failed to take hold.
"Only the fighter planes have been reduced, but the shelling and land-to-land rockets are continuing," said Nour Adam, an activist in the area. "None of the families or civilians have come out of the bomb shelters because nobody trusts the regime or the Russians."
In northern Syria, meanwhile, an opposition push against jihadists who had controlled much of Idlib province for the past four years swept the extremists from up to 15 towns and villages in the second day of gains that locals say have returned much of the area to moderate control.
The fighting has led to large numbers of fighters from the al-Qaeda-aligned group, known as HTS, to abandon their positions or defect. Senior opposition leaders said the capitulation followed three months of planning and is poised to change the face of the area, which has been used by Syrian and Russian officials to “tar the whole revolution cause”.
“What has happened here is that the local people have had enough,” said a former senior member of an opposition group. “HTS are on the run, they will be confined to three parts of Idlib, and nothing more. The people turned on them. This is historic.”
The presence of extremists has regularly been cited by Damascus and Moscow as a reason for the siege of Ghouta. Inside the enclave, militants say that HTS numbers no more than 300 and would quickly be forced out if the regime allowed their exit.
Russia claimed that shellfire into Damascus from Ghouta had stopped the corridor from being established. However aid groups and armed opposition groups denied having opened fire. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said earlier it had been largely calm in eastern Ghouta since midnight, though four rockets hit the town of Douma on Tuesday morning.
A senior opposition figure said he had been contacted throughout the day by European diplomats, asking if the Russian claims were true. “I told all of them that it is foolish to believe such blatant lies,” he said. “There was nothing going out from Ghouta at all.”
Mr Putin's move, announced on Monday by his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, highlighted Russia's primacy in Syrian affairs and the UN's failure to impose a ceasefire in the area bordering Damascus. Throughout Russia's involvement in the conflict, Mr Putin has attempted to sideline the global body as a a broker of influence, and instead position himself as ultimate arbiter.
The move by Moscow follows mounting international condemnation of the violence, with the UN secretary general, António Guterres, describing the situation in eastern Ghouta as “hell on earth”.
Residents said on Tuesday they were unaware of the corridors and would rather stay than be displaced. One humanitarian official also cast doubt on the corridors idea, saying it was a media ploy by the regime and its allies.
“It’s not to save the people,” the official said. “It’s exactly the same propaganda war, more for media than civilians.”
A spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, one of the main rebel groups in eastern Ghouta, called the suggested humanitarian pause a "Russian crime", accusing Moscow of presenting people with the choice of forced displacement or being killed.
UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said of the Russian plan: “Five hours is better than no hours, but we would like to see an end to all hostilities extended by 30 days, as stipulated by the security council.”
Eastern Ghouta is the last major stronghold near Damascus for rebels battling to topple Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has driven insurgents from numerous areas with the military backing of Russia and Iran.
Iranian-backed forces loyal to Damascus are also widely deployed south of Idlib, where two formerly powerful rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Noureddine al-Zinki have systematically reclaimed territory in recent days.
The new rebel coalition took control of areas close to the Turkish border along with other towns in Idlib province, with reports of the jihadists fleeing to the nearby mountains in Latakia. Monitoring groups and an official with the coalition said the jihadists had also abandoned their outposts near the city of Aleppo.
The rebels expect to eventually march on Idlib city, the largest population center in the province. “It’s more a popular battle than a military one,” said Abu Roma al-Halabi, a Zinki official. “They lost support because of their treatment of civilians lately in particular imposing taxes and closing revolutionary institutions.”
"There is no external support, whether from Turkey or otherwise," said Bassam Mustafa, an official at the new coalition's political council. "We are working now to arrest their leaders and religious thinkers to present the to a public trial.
“Our strength now allows us to respond to their aggression and break their tyranny and rid the revolution of their darkness.” – Guardian