The first five-hour ceasefire in Syria’s eastern Ghouta was sabotaged by armed groups holed up there, which shelled the humanitarian corridor and prevented civilians from leaving, the Russian Center for Reconciliation said.
“As of 14:30 local time, no one has left the area,” Major General Vladimir Zolotukhin, a spokesman for the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria, told journalists. “The militants do not let anyone out,” he said, adding that the situation on the ground remained “complicated” as the militants continued to shell the neighboring area, and even went on offensive against the Syrian Army positions.
The armed groups had been carrying out provocations for some five hours by conducting shelling around every 30 minutes, the general said, noting that the Syrian government forces observed the humanitarian pause and did not respond to the incitement. The attacks also targeted the recently established eastern Ghouta humanitarian corridor.
According to the Syrian SANA news agency, the militants shelled a refugee camp in the al-Wafidin neighborhood near Damascus, which is part of the corridor. The attack on the humanitarian corridor resulted in no casualties. However, six civilians were injured in separate militant shelling that targeted a settlement in the Damascus countryside.
The militants did not just disrupt the humanitarian pause by continuing to shell neighboring areas but used it to launch a full-scale offensive on the positions of the Syrian Army, the head of the Russian Reconciliation Center said. The armed groups also conducted mortar shelling of the humanitarian corridor on two occasions, with some shells hitting the area just 500 meters away from a checkpoint.
The Western media, however, place the blame for the situation in eastern Ghouta solely on Damascus and Moscow. USA Today described the situation in the neighborhood as a “tragedy beyond words” in a dramatic piece, in which it accused Russia and the Syrian government of attempts to “oust the rebels.” The Guardian called eastern Ghouta “hell on earth,” claiming that local residents were “unaware” of any humanitarian corridors.
The Russian Reconciliation Center called on the militants to cease fire and let civilians leave the area. It also said it guarantees safety to those willing to leave eastern Ghouta, adding that mobile humanitarian relief camps have been set up in the areas controlled by the government forces.
On Monday, the center announced that a daily humanitarian pause would be introduced in eastern Ghouta starting February 27 to avoid civilian casualties. The pause is scheduled to last between 09:00 and 14:00 (local time). The measure was proposed in light of the UN Security Council resolution on a 30-day ceasefire in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has called on the armed opposition groups to comply with the UN demands and observe the ceasefire. “I would like to express hope that the opposition [groups] that, according to the UN data, continue to shell Damascus, would take responsibility and put up with the necessity to comply with the UN Security Council’s demands,” the minister said during a joint conference with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, in Moscow on Tuesday.
The French minister said that the militant groups entrenched in eastern Ghouta had sent a letter to the UN, in which they agreed to comply with the resolution. Lavrov, however, doubted their intentions and said that the armed groups should first back up their words with real actions.
“We will see how it will be implemented in practice,” Lavrov said, pointing out that militant group Jaysh al-Islam had already refused to let civilians out of eastern Ghouta as it claimed that the UN resolution somehow does not allow it.
The Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria has repeatedly warned that the armed groups controlling eastern Ghouta are blocking civilians from leaving the suburb, essentially keeping hundreds of people hostage, including women and children. The local militant units, which include Jaysh al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Rahman, and Fajr al-Ummah Brigade, even formed a unified command to coordinate their disruptive activities.
Meanwhile, Le Drian said that Paris is fully supportive of the Moscow’s initiative involving the humanitarian pause in eastern Ghouta. “Introduction of a five-hour pause was a real step forward,” he said, adding that “it was done upon Russia’s initiative and we fully support that.”
France’s top diplomat noted, however, that a full 24-hour ceasefire would be “even better.” He also praised the establishment of the Syrian constitutional committee, which was agreed upon at the recent Syrian National Dialogue Congress meeting in Sochi. “The [peace] process has been driven from a deadlock and one should embrace this [opportunity] to revive the dialog under the auspice of the UN,” Le Drian said.