Airstrikes resume in Ghouta as Putin's ceasefire breaks down

Civilians remain trapped as Russia fails to implement a 'humanitarian pause'

A general view taken from Damascus shows smoke rising from the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta following fresh air strikes and rocket fire on February 27, 2018. 
A fledgling "humanitarian pause" announced by Russia in Syria's rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta was rattled by fresh air strikes and rocket fire, several sources said. / AFP PHOTO / STRINGER

Russian President Vladimir Putin's call for a pause in fighting in the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta failed to materialise on Tuesday, as Syrian government airstrikes and shelling hit the area.

Residents of the Damascus suburbs told The National that the bombardment ordered by president Bashar Al Assad had continued. More than 500 people have been killed in almost ten days of intense bombardment.

Mr Putin called on Monday for the implementation of a five-hour daily "humanitarian pause".

But residents said they believed the offer of a “humanitarian corridor” for evacuations was a disingenuous.

Russian officials and Syrian government media blamed rebel groups for breaking the ceasefire and accused them of shelling in order to prevent residents from leaving the besieged area. Both governments have previously accused rebels of using civilians as “human shields.”

"At this time there is intense fire from the militants and not a single civilian has come out," Russian general Viktor Pankov told news agencies.

Rebel groups blamed the Syrian government for continuing the hostilities while residents cited fear of arrest and government reprisals.

“People here don’t want to go to areas controlled by the government,” said one young man living in eastern Ghouta who asked to remain anonymous.

“It’s not an offer – it’s only propaganda. It’s not an option to people to tell them just to leave – where will they go?”

The ongoing fighting, added the young man, made it impossible for people to leave the makeshift bunkers in their basements.

Eastern Ghouta is the last major area under rebel control near the Syrian capital. It has been besieged since 2013 by government forces, cutting off between 300,000 and 400,000 people and creating an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation.


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The Syrian government, with backing from the Russian airforce renewed its campaign against the area earlier this month and threatened to enter the suburbs with ground forces, sparking international outcry but prompting little change.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday that it was vital to get the first convoy of humanitarian aid into Ghouta. The UN and other aid agencies say they are prepared to deliver aid as soon as the warring parties allow it.

Speaking in Moscow at a news conference after holding talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Mr Le Drian also said the Russian-backed truce was a good step forward, but that more was needed.

The fighting in eastern Ghouta has also given way to new allegations of chemical weapon deployment by the government. It was reported on Tuesday that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has opened an investigation into whether chlorine gas attacks were carried out in the area this month.

British foreign secretary Boris Johson said on Tuesday that his government could take military action against the Syrian government if it were proven to have used chemical weapons.

"If we know that it has happened, and we can demonstrate it, and if there is a proposal for action where the UK could be useful then I think we should seriously consider it," Mr Johnson told BBC radio.

Eastern Ghouta was the site in 2013 of an alleged sarin gas attack by the Syrian government that tested then-US president Barack Obama’s “red line” of chemical weapons use. Mr Obama declined to directly target the Syrian government after that attack, despite his threat.

Current US president Donald Trump ordered missile strikes against Mr Al Assad's government last year after an alleged sarin gas attack in the country's north.

Mr Johnson said he supported Mr Trump’s decision.

"What we need to ask ourselves as a country and what we in the West need to ask ourselves, is can we allow the use of chemical weapons, the use of these illegal weapons to go unreproved, unchecked, unpunished?" Mr Johnson said.

The UN blamed that attack on the Syrian government, and said that sarin was used.

However, Mr Johnson warned there was little international appetite for sustained military action against the Syrian regime.

"The people listening to us and this programme in eastern Ghouta cannot get the idea the West is going to intervene to change the odds dramatically in their favour," he said.