Deadly attacks ahead of Iran foreign minister’s Syria visit

Heavy rebel shelling and government airstrikes around Syria’s capital before the arrival of Iranian FM

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Heavy rebel shelling and government airstrikes around Syria’s capital on Wednesday killed at least 36 people and wounded scores more in a surge in violence just hours before the arrival of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, activists and state media said.

Zarif arrived in Damascus later, likely to discuss a four-point proposal Iran wants to offer to the United Nations to end Syria’s grinding civil war. That plan reportedly includes a cease-fire and a “national unity government.”

But the uptick in violence ahead of the visit underscored the improbability of such efforts bringing about a truce anytime soon in a conflict that has killed more than 250,000 people since March 2011.

Tehran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers, negotiated by Zarif in Vienna last month, is nevertheless widely seen as providing an opportunity for achieving some kind of breakthrough on Syria.

The deal has opened diplomatic channels between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-backed government of President Bashar Assad, although the Saudi foreign minister on Tuesday denied his country was wavering in its position that Assad should have no future in Syria.

The rebel shelling, apparently meant to send a message that Zarif was not welcome in Syria, began around the morning rush hour in Damascus with more than 50 shells striking the capital, including in the upper-class neighborhoods of Abu Rummaneh, Baramkeh and Qasaa.

Syrian state television and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shelling killed five people and wounded dozens more.

“We hid for two hours in the bathroom,” said a resident by telephone from Qasaa, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “My children woke up terrified. Our windows were shattered and so was my car’s windshield.”

Shortly afterward, government warplanes attacked several rebel-held suburbs of the capital. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, said the air raids on Hamouriyeh, Saqba, Kfar Batna, Douma and Arbeen killed 35 and wounded dozens. The Observatory said the airstrikes killed at least 31 people and wounded more than 120.

Differing casualty counts are common in the chaotic aftermath of attacks in Syria.

Iran is one of Assad’s strongest supporters and the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to back government forces.

During an earlier stop in Beirut, Zarif did not mention the Syrian war. He said there is “a new opportunity” for all the countries in the region to cooperate against “two regional enemies: The Zionist entity and extremism, terrorism and sectarianism.”

“We are ready to extend our hand for cooperation with all the neighbors and to exchange ideas for joint work against terrorism,” he said after meeting with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil.

Hezbollah’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also met with Zarif.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station said Nasrallah and Zarif discussed attempts “to find solutions in more than one country.”

Meanwhile, Al-Manar and Syrian activists said a 48-hour cease-fire has started in a Syrian town near the Lebanese border and two Shiite villages in northern Syria between Hezbollah fighters and rebels there. The cease-fire in Zabadani and the northern villages of Foua and Kfarya went into effect on Wednesday morning.

Hezbollah and Syrian troops have been trying to fully capture the one-time rebel stronghold of Zabadani for more than a month.

A coalition of rebel groups retaliated by attacking Foua and Kfarya in Idlib province, which are home to mostly Shiite villagers. A large number of civilians are trapped there by the fighting.

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