Syria war rages hours before deal to halt fighting

Vladimir Putin says all parties expected to take part in a ceasefire are ready to do so

A man mourns as the bodies of his son and grandchildren, reportedly killed in an air strike, are placed in an ambulance in the rebel-held city of Douma, Syria, on Friday. Photograph:  Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images

A man mourns as the bodies of his son and grandchildren, reportedly killed in an air strike, are placed in an ambulance in the rebel-held city of Douma, Syria, on Friday. Photograph: Abd Doumany/AFP/Getty Images


Heavy air strikes were reported to have hit rebel-held areas near Damascus as fighting raged across much of western Syria on Friday, hours before a US-Russian plan aimed at halting hostilities was due to take effect.

The “cessation of hostilities” agreement is due to take effect at midnight (10pm Irish time) on Friday.

The government has agreed to the plan. The main opposition alliance, which has deep reservations about the terms, has said it is ready for a two-week truce to test the intentions of the government and its Russian and Iranian backers.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring organisation reported at least 26 air raids and artillery shelling targeting the town of Douma in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

Rescue workers in the opposition-held area said five people were killed in Douma, listing their names on their Twitter feed. Syrian military officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Damascus has made clear it will continue to target Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which are not included in the agreement on the air strikes.

The opposition fears the government will attack rebels on the pretext they are jihadists. The government says the agreement could fail if foreign states supply rebels with weapons or insurgents use the truce to rearm.

Eastern Ghouta is regularly targeted by the Syrian army and its allies. It is a stronghold of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, which is represented in the main opposition alliance, the High Negotiations Committee, and has been used as a launch pad for rocket and mortar attacks on Damascus.

The HNC groups political and armed opponents of Assad, and many groups fighting in northern and southern Syria had authorised it to negotiate on their behalf.

“We are striving for a real truce,” said Fares al-Bayoush, the head of the Fursan al-Haqq rebel group, which fights under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. But he added: “Everyone knows the degree of regime and Russian commitment to agreements.”

Fighting at dawn

The observatory also reported artillery bombardment by government forces and air strikes overnight in Hama province, and artillery bombardment by government forces in Homs province.

Fighting also resumed at dawn between rebels and government forces in the northwestern province of Latakia, where the Syrian army and its allies are trying to take back more territory from insurgents at the border with Turkey.

US president Barack Obama said on Thursday the United States was resolved to try to make the deal work but that “there are plenty of reasons for scepticism”.

Speaking on Friday, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin said all parties expected to take part in a cessation of hostilities in Syria had said they are ready to do so. He warned, however, that the peace process would be difficult nonetheless.

“Today by midday Damascus time all warring sides in Syria had to confirm to us or to our American partners their agreement to adhere to a ceasefire,“ Mr Putin told a meeting of the FSB security service in Moscow.

“That information has already reached us,“ he said, adding that from February 27th, Syrian government forces, Russia and the US-led coalition would not strike any armed groups which had signed up.

Mr Putin stressed that combat actions against Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups would continue.

“I would like to express the hope that our American partners will also bear this in mind ... and that nobody will forget that there are other terrorist organisations apart from Islamic State,“ he said.

The UN Security Council was expected to vote on a resolution to endorse the planned halt in hostilities later on Friday.

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday he expected the council to back the resolution, but cautioned that nobody could give a 100 percent guarantee that the ceasefire plan would be implemented.

He warned Washington against coming up with alternative ideas for Syria.

“Within the US-led coalition there should no ambiguous talk about any ‘Plan B’, about a ground operation being planned, or about the creation of some buffer no-fly zones, which have long been recognised as absolutely unacceptable,“ Mr Lavrov told a news briefing.