February 27, 2018
First daily truce in rebel-held Syrian enclave follows days of artillery attacks and airstrikes
Russias humanitarian pause comes into effect in eastern Ghouta
A five-hour truce has begun in the Syrian rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta to allow people to escape the area being targeted in a fierce offensive by Syria’s Moscow-backed government.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, ordered the daily “humanitarian pause” in fighting from 9am to 2pm (7am to 12pm GMT) to let civilians leave the area, where government bombardment has killed hundreds since 18 February.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had been largely calm in eastern Ghouta since midnight, though four rockets had hit the town of Douma on Tuesday morning.
The Russian president’s move, announced by his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, highlighted in stark terms Russia’s primacy in Syrian affairs and the UN’s failure to impose an end to the fighting in the area bordering Damascus.
More than 500 people have been killed in eight days of one of the deadliest bombing campaigns by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his allies during the seven-year war.
The move by Moscow follows mounting condemnation of the violence, with the UN secretary general, António Guterres, describing the situation in Ghouta as “hell on earth”.
The Russian defence ministry said on Monday the measures, decided in agreement with Syrian forces, were intended to help civilians leave and to evacuate the sick and wounded.
However, the spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, one of the main rebel groups in eastern Ghouta, called it a “Russian crime”, accusing Russia of presenting people with the choice of forced displacement or being killed in bombardment and siege.
A UN security council resolution passed on Saturday had demanded a 30-day truce across Syria.
“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,” the UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said.
Eastern Ghouta is the last major stronghold near Damascus for rebels battling to topple Assad, who has driven insurgents from numerous areas with military backing from Russia and Iran.
The violence has highlighted the Syrian government’s desire, alongside its allies in Moscow and Tehran, to score a military victory in the area, which has been under a tightening siege for nearly a year and is strategically significant owing to its proximity to Damascus.
Fighting has escalated on several fronts in Syria this year. As Assad has pressed the offensive against eastern Ghouta, Turkey has launched an incursion against Kurdish fighters in the north-western Afrin region.
Tensions have also flared between Iran and Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Tehran’s expanding influence in Syria. Syrian air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 earlier this month as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.
The Syrian war, which is approaching its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people from their homes.
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