Fresh violence mars first day of Syria enclave ‘truce’

A “humanitarian pause” announced by Russia in Syria’s deadly bombardment of Eastern Ghouta failed to end violence Tuesday, with fresh bloodshed and no sign of aid deliveries or residents leaving the besieged enclave.

Nine days after Russian-backed regime forces intensified their campaign against the rebel-held enclave, the deal offered some respite to civilians who had been hiding in their basements.

But the first day of a five-hour daily “pause” that was ordered by President Vladimir Putin Monday and kicked off at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) was marred by violence that saw seven people killed.

Moscow’s plan falls short of a broader 30-day ceasefire it agreed to at the United Nations Security Council but which has yet to take effect, and has inspired little trust from among the besieged enclave’s 400,000 residents.

The regime deployed buses at the Al-Wafideen checkpoint to transport residents wanting to use a humanitarian corridor to flee what UN chief Antonio Guterres last called “hell on Earth”.

Carnage in Eastern Ghouta (AFP / Omar KAMAL)

But no civilians were seen venturing towards the regime forces guarding the checkpoint, where large portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Putin could be seen side-by-side.

The “humanitarian pause” ordered by Putin echoed a similar tactic employed by Russia and Syrian regime during the ferocious battle to force rebels out of Aleppo in 2016.

Russia’s defence ministry accused armed groups in Eastern Ghouta of shelling the corridor, and said rebel fighters had “continued attacking the positions of the government forces” and “went on the offensive in other directions too”.

Syrian state news agency SANA said a former Al-Qaeda affiliate present in the enclave was blocking civilians “to use them as human shields”.

– ‘Truce a farce’ –

Some residents left the basements they had been cowering in for days to check on their property and buy food.

Syrian government forces stand at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus neighbouring the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region on February 27, 2018 (AFP / STRINGER)

But many in the enclave, which lies on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital, appeared distrustful of a “pause” announced by Damascus’s main ally.

“This Russian truce is a farce. Russia is killing us and bombing us every day,” said Samer al-Buaidhani, a 25-year-old from Douma, Eastern Ghouta’s main hub.

“I don’t believe it’s safe for me or my family to leave by this system,” he told AFP.

International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet said any evacuation needed deeper coordination.

“Under international humanitarian law, humanitarian corridors are things which need to be well planned and must be implemented with the consent of parties on all sides, not only with one side,” she told AFP.

Violence levels were significantly lower on Tuesday as the “humanitarian pause” kicked in but seven civilians were killed by regime bombardment, including two children, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

The bombardment intensified again after 2:00 pm (1200 GMT), the Britain-based group said.

Since February 18, 582 civilians, almost a quarter of them children, have been killed in the Syrian and Russian bombardment of Eastern Ghouta, making it one of the bloodiest episodes of the country’s seven-year-old conflict.

Fourteen of the dead, including five children, were pulled from the rubble on Tuesday after being killed in the past two days, said the Observatory.

In Damascus, the state news agency said, a civilian was killed and five others wounded by shelling from “terrorist organisations”.

– Aleppo scenario –

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, left, said cities could reduce air pollution without banning older diesel vehicles (dpa/AFP / Bernd von Jutrczenka)


In Hammuriyeh, another town in the sprawling semi-rural enclave, Mohammed Abdullah said the pause left civilians with a choice between two evils.

“The truce is not in the people’s interest, we have two options: death or displacement,” said the 30-year-old.

“The campaign we were targeted with was an extermination campaign, not a simple bombardment. What we want is a full and permanent ceasefire for all of Ghouta,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by the dominant rebel groups in Eastern Ghouta, who sent a letter to the United Nations stating their willingness to expel jihadists as soon as a full ceasefire takes effect.

The letter said such an evacuation, which has been discussed previously but never yielded any result, would take 15 days and start when a UN truce takes effect.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacted cautiously to the statement and said after meeting French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian that the ball was in the rebel groups’ court.

“We shall see in practice whether the pleas by the three illegal armed groups… to carry out the UNSC resolution correspond with their intentions,” he said.

A top US general accused Moscow of playing an “incredibly destabilising” role in Syria by claiming it wants to settle the civil war while at the same time stoking the conflict.

The UN Security Council will meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss the humanitarian situation and hear from UN aid chief Mark Lowcock.

The Syrian government lost control of Eastern Ghouta in 2012 and has besieged it almost ever since.

The latest scenario put in place by the regime and its Russian ally was reminiscent of the deal that ended the battle of Aleppo in 2016.

Few civilians back then initially used the Aleppo corridors unilaterally announced by Russia.

Some started fleeing after renewed bombardment and the rest eventually evacuated when a multilateral deal was reached with Turkey.