Syrian forces attack Ghouta in defiance of ceasefire

Assad loyalists launch fresh attacks against besieged enclave despite UN orders

Humanitarian agencies are calling for an urgent ceasefire in the besieged Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta after several days of bombardment by pro-regime forces. Irish Times Middle East analyst Michael Jansen reports. Footage: Syria Civil Defence, Reuters

 

Syrian regime forces have launched a fresh ground and air offensive against rebel positions in the besieged and battered enclave of eastern Ghouta in defiance of a nationwide ceasefire ordered by the UN Security Council.

Witnesses said fighting erupted on several fronts on Sunday in what was seen as a possible last-ditch bid by president Bashar al-Assad to eliminate opposition resistance in Ghouta, near Damascus, before the 30-day ceasefire can be enforced. Renewed air strikes and shelling killed nine people and injured 31 in the eastern suburbs, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group.

It said the bombing was less intense than attacks over the past week. The latest upsurge in violence nevertheless presented a direct challenge to the authority of the security council, which voted unanimously for a ceasefire on Saturday after days of intense and often acrimonious debate.

The fighting also increased pressure on Russian president Vladimir Putin, Mr Assad’s most powerful backer, to rein in his Syrian ally. The Russian president has faced sharp western criticism over what were viewed as cynical Russian attempts to delay passage of the ceasefire resolution.

The US, Britain and other countries accused Moscow of deliberate time wasting so as to allow Mr Assad the opportunity to complete the reconquest of eastern Ghouta – a charge refuted by Russia.

In a joint telephone call to the Kremlin on Sunday, German chancellor Angela Merkeland French president Emmanuel Macron urged Mr Putin to ensure the ceasefire was fully implemented as soon as possible. No details of the conversation were made public. Human rights groups said it was vital sustain the pressure.

“If security council members want to save lives in eastern Ghouta, they must enforce [the] resolution,” said Ibrahim al-Assil of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement . “This means articulating clear, meaningful consequences for any party that violates the 30-day truce, and introducing a credible timetable to turn the temporary truce into long-term de-escalation.”

Evacuation

The UN’s painstakingly negotiated ceasefire resolution is limited in scope and intended primarily to allow delivery of humanitarian aid, medical assistance and the evacuation of wounded. It called for the ceasefire to begin “without delay” but did not set a specific timeframe, following Russian objections. Neither did it say how a ceasefire would be enforced, how the injured would be evacuated, or how returning aid workers would be protected.

Meanwhile, Syria’s ambassador to the UN said the fight against “terrorism” would continue regardless, noting the ceasefire excluded named organisations such as Islamic State and an al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly the al-Nusra Front.

The besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, Damascus. Photograph: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
The besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta, Damascus. Photograph: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

“Our government will reserve the right to respond as it deems appropriate in case those terrorist armed groups are targeting civilians in any part of Syria with even one single missile,” said BasharJa’afari.

The two main rebel factions in Ghouta – Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam – said they would implement the truce and facilitate aid access. But they also vowed to respond if attacked. Hamza Birqdar, a spokesman for Jaish al-Islam, said attempted advances by regime forces had been thwarted but that fierce battles were raging. The group said it had captured and killed “a number of soldiers” as they tried to infiltrate the area.

Iran, whose Revolutionary Guards and militiamen are fighting alongside Mr Assad’s forces, said it and Syria would respect the UN resolution. But Gen Mohammad Baqeri, Iran’s armed forces chief of staff, insisted the ceasefire did not apply in areas of Damascus’s suburbs “held by the terrorists”, Iran’s Tasnim new agency reported.

Loss of life

About 520 people have died and more than 2,500 have been wounded in eastern Ghouta since a relentless barrage of regime rocket fire, shelling and air strikes began last Sunday.

The dead include more than 120 children. Details of Sunday’s fighting were sketchy but witnesses told al-Jazeera TV that regime forces were attacking opposition groups on multiple fronts, while Syrian warplanes kept up their bombardment for an eighth consecutive day. The Syrian military made no comment.

Syria claimed, meanwhile, that the ceasefire applied to Turkish forces in Afrin in northwest Syria, as well as American and Israeli forces operating elsewhere on Syrian territory. The Turkish deployment, targeting Syrian Kurd fighters who Ankara regards as terrorists, is opposed by Damascus. Turkey denied on Sunday that it was bound to observe the ceasefire. The US has not said whether it is prepared to lay down its arms. – Guardian