UN security council to vote on Syria ceasefire

Resolution drafted by Sweden and Kuwait will likely go to vote on Thursday as Ghouta’s misery continues

The UN security council is expected to vote on a draft resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow deliveries of humanitarian aid and medical evacuations, diplomats said.

Sweden and Kuwait, the countries which drafted the measure, requested the vote "as soon as possible" and which could be Tuesday, the Swedish mission said on Wednesday.

It remained unclear whether Russia would resort to its veto to block the draft resolution. Syrian government forces supported by Russian aircraft have shown no signs of letting up their aerial and artillery assault on eastern Ghouta since they stepped up strikes late Sunday as part of a new, determined push to recapture the rebel-held territory.

The push for a vote came after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a halt of the “war activities” in the area.

As the death toll from the airstrikes escalated sharply, Guterres said life for the 400,000 civilians of Ghouta had become “hell on earth”.

Russia has called for an urgent council meeting to discuss the crisis which ambassador Vassily Nebenzia described as a "complex situation."

“There are terrorists there who the Syrian army is fighting and the terrorists are shelling Damascus,” Nebenzia said.

“It’s a complex situation and not just a one-way street,” he said, according to remarks released by the Russian mission.

The draft resolution calls for the truce to go into effect 72 hours after the adoption of the measure and for aid deliveries and medical evacuations to begin 48 hours after that.

It demands the immediate lifting of all sieges including in eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Foua and Kefraya and orders all sides to “cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable to their survival.”

In a concession to Russia, the draft was amended during toughgoing negotiations last week to specify that the ceasefire does not apply to Isil or Al Qaeda.

That would allow the Syrian government offensive to continue against Al Qaeda-linked jihadists in Idlib, the last province in Syria outside the control of Damascus.

Some diplomats said they were hoping that Russia abstain, if it is unwilling to back the ceasefire.

Asked whether there was a consensus on the draft text, Swedish ambassador Olof Skoog said: “That, I don’t know yet.”

Sweden and Kuwait presented the measure to the council on February 9, but negotiations have dragged on as Syrian forces backed by Russia escalated their fierce offensive.

The UN human rights office said in on Wednesday that at least 346 people had been killed since February 4. At least 92 of those deaths occurred in a 13-hour period on Monday, it said, adding that the toll was far from comprehensive, documented in the midst of chaos and destruction.

Another 878 people have been wounded, mostly in airstrikes hitting residential areas.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the fighting through activists on the ground, said at least 300 people have been killed since Sunday night alone. The dead included 10 people killed in a new wave of strikes Wednesday on the town of Kafr Batna.

The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence search-and-rescue group, also known as the White Helmets, reported similar numbers, saying government forces targeted the town with airstrikes, artillery fire and barrel bombs.

Photos and video posted by the White Helmets showed scenes resembling the aftermath of an earthquake in Kafr Batna and rescuers searching the rubble for survivors.

In one video, workers were seen carrying away a man, his hair and clothes covered in dust and debris, blood running down his face. Sirens wailed in the background and people screamed in panic. Photos showed children being treated for wounds at a hospital and bodies shrouded in white lined up alongside makeshift graves.

A doctor in Saqba, another affected area, said he had returned home Tuesday to rest after two back-to-back days of treating the wounded when a barrage of rockets landed in his neighbourhood, shaking his apartment and breaking the windows.

Minutes later, the airstrikes began. The first one hit his house, the doctor said, adding that he could not see anything through the dust as he called out to his pregnant wife and two young children, ages 2 and 1. Neighbours came to their rescue and helped them evacuate to the basement, where they spent the night. They suffered only superficial wounds.

“I’m one of the fortunate ones. I know that not everyone in my place in Ghouta would have been so lucky,” he told the Associated Press.

The UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Moumtzis, said he was “alarmed” by the very high number of casualties.

“Ghouta is a 10-mile drive from the hospitals in Damascus and it’s heartbreaking to think of children, women, and elderly who are in need, unable to be evacuated, and in a situation of fear, hiding in basements and not being able to go out,” he told the Associated Press by phone from Amman, Jordan.

More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions driven from the homes in the war, which next month enters its eighth year with no end in sight.

More than 13.1 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid, of whom 2.9 million live in besieged and hard-to-reach areas.