Fighting resumes in eastern Ghouta despite ‘humanitarian pause’

Airstrikes and mortar attacks continue in Syrian enclave day after Russia declares daily truces

Smoke rises from eastern Ghouta
 Smoke rises from eastern Ghouta following fresh clashes, air strikes and rocket fire. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Airstrikes and rocket fire continued into the night on Tuesday, after a five-hour lull ordered by Vladimir Putin failed to allow aid to reach the rebel-held Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta and raised fresh doubts about the sincerity of the Russian-led humanitarian pauses.

Residents and activists said the violence continued despite claims that a humanitarian corridor would be opened from 9am to 2pm daily to allow civilians to escape and food and medicine to be brought in.

The Russian president ordered the pause after a week-long blitz on the area and a UN-sponsored ceasefire agreed over the weekend failed to take hold.

“Only the fighter planes have been reduced, but the shelling and land-to-land rockets are continuing,” said Nour Adam, an activist in the area. “None of the families or civilians have come out of the bomb shelters because nobody trusts the regime or the Russians.”

In northern Syria, an opposition push against jihadis who have controlled much of Idlib province for the past four years swept the extremists from as many as 15 towns and villages in the second day of gains that locals say have returned much of the area to the control of moderate forces.

The fighting has led to large numbers of fighters from an al-Qaida-aligned group known as HTS to abandon their positions or defect. Senior opposition leaders said the capitulation followed three months of planning and was poised to change the face of the area, which had been used by Syrian and Russian officials to “tar the whole revolution cause”.

“What has happened here is that the local people have had enough,” said a former senior member of an opposition group. “HTS are on the run, they will be confined to three parts of Idlib and nothing more. The people turned on them. This is historic.”

Damascus and Moscow have regularly cited the presence of extremists as a reason for the siege of Ghouta. Rebels say there are no more than 300 HTS militants in the enclave, who would quickly be forced out if government forces allowed their exit.

Russia says that shelling into Damascus from Ghouta had stopped the humanitarian corridor from being established, but armed opposition groups denied having opened fire. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said earlier that it had been largely calm in eastern Ghouta since midnight, though four rockets hit the town of Doumaon Tuesday morning.

A senior opposition figure said he had been contacted throughout the day by European diplomats, asking if the Russian claims were true. “I told all of them that it is foolish to believe such blatant lies,” he said. “There was nothing going out from Ghouta at all.”

Putin’s move, announced on Mondayby his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, highlighted Russia’s primacy in Syrian affairs and the UN’s failure to impose a ceasefire in the area bordering Damascus. Throughout Russia’s involvement in the conflict, Putin has attempted to sideline the global body as a broker of influence, and instead position himself as ultimate arbiter.

The move by Moscow also follows mounting international condemnation of the violence. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, described the situation in eastern Ghouta as hell on earth.

Residents said on Wednesday that they were unaware of the corridors and would rather stay than be displaced. One humanitarian official also cast doubt on the initiative. “It’s not to save the people,” the source said. “It’s exactly the same propaganda war, more for media than civilians.”

A spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, one of the main rebel groups in eastern Ghouta, called the suggested humanitarian pause a Russian crime and accused Moscow of presenting people with the choice of forced displacement or death.

The UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said: “Five hours is better than no hours, but we would like to see an end to all hostilities extended by 30 days, as stipulated by the security council.”.

Eastern Ghouta is the last major stronghold near Damascus for rebels battling to topple Bashar al- Assad, who has driven insurgents from numerous areas with the military backing of Russia and Iran.

Iranian-backed forces loyal to Damascus are also widely deployed south of Idlib, where two formerly powerful rebel groups, Ahrar al-Sham and Noureddine al-Zinki, have reclaimed territory in recent days.

The new rebel coalition took control of areas close to the Turkish border and other towns in Idlib province, with reports of the jihadis fleeing to the nearby mountains in Latakia. Monitoring groups and an official with the coalition said the jmilitants had also abandoned their outposts near the city of Aleppo.

The rebels eventually expect to march on Idlib city, the largest population centre in the province. “It’s more a popular battle than a military one,” said Abu Roma al-Halabi, a Zinki official. “They lost support because of their treatment of civilians lately, in particular imposing taxes and closing revolutionary institutions.”

Bassam Mustafa, an official at the new coalition’s political council, said: “There is no external support, whether from Turkey or otherwise. We are working now to arrest their leaders and religious thinkers to present them to a public trial.

“Our strength now allows us to respond to their aggression and break their tyranny and rid the revolution of their darkness.”