Syrian government forces launched a ground assault on the edge of the rebel-held eastern Ghouta enclave on Wednesday, seeking to gain territory despite a Russian plan for five-hour daily ceasefires, a war monitor and sources on both sides said.
Hundreds of people have died in 11 days of bombing of the eastern Ghouta, a swathe of towns and farms outside Damascus that is the last major rebel-controlled area near the capital.
The onslaught has been one of the fiercest of Syria’s civil war, now entering its eighth year.
The UN Security Council, including President Bashar al-Assad’’s strongest ally Russia, passed a resolution on Saturday calling for a 30-day countrywide ceasefire. But the measure has not taken effect, with Moscow and Damascus saying they are battling members of terrorist groups excluded from the truce.
Russia has instead called for daily five-hour local ceasefires to establish what it calls a humanitarian corridor so aid can enter the enclave and civilians and wounded can leave.
The first such truce took place on Tuesday but quickly collapsed when bombing and shelling resumed after a short lull.
There were no air strikes during Wednesday’s five-hour ceasefire, but heavy bombardment resumed in the afternoon, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported.
There has been no sign of aid deliveries to the besieged area.
President Vladimir Putin said that Russia had managed to evacuate “quite a big group” of civilians and that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had helped broker the evacuation. He did not say when the civilians had managed to leave.
Moscow and Damascus have accused rebels of shelling the corridor to prevent people leaving. Rebels deny this, and say people will not depart eastern Ghouta because they fear the government.
Wednesday’s ground assault targeted the Hawsh al-Dawahra area at the eastern edge of the enclave.
Advances by the government forces
The Observatory reported advances by the government forces in the area, describing it as the resumption of an assault that first began on February 25. It said rebels had inflicted heavy losses on government forces.
An official with one of the rebel groups in eastern Ghouta said fighters were battling to repel an attempted incursion, and characteriized the battle as “back and forth”.
A commander in the military alliance that backs Assad said an elite unit of the Syrian army, the Tiger Force, was taking part in the assault and advances had been made.
France’s foreign ministry called on Russia and Iran, Assad’s other military ally, to exert “maximum pressure” on the Syrian government to implement the 30-day ceasefire.
But with no sign of decisive international pressure to stop the attack, eastern Ghouta appears on course to eventually meet the same fate as other areas won back by the government in lengthy, punishing assaults, where rebels and civilians who oppose Assad were finally evacuated in negotiated withdrawals.
Damascus appears to be applying tried and tested military means, combining air strikes and bombardment with ground assaults, as it did to recapture eastern Aleppo in 2016.
A senior Western diplomat said Russia appeared intent on a repeat of Aleppo in eastern Ghouta by evacuating the area and then killing “the terrorists even if it’s not just Nusra”, a reference to a militant group with al Qaeda links.
A senior US general on Tuesday accused Moscow of acting as “both arsonist and firefighter” by failing to rein in Assad.