Beirut: Civilians in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta enclave shunned Russia’s offer of safe passage for a second day Wednesday, as rebels and Moscow blamed each other for the humanitarian deadlock. The bombardment that killed 600 civilians in 10 days largely stopped but not one of the battered region’s 400,000 residents left to board the buses provided by the regime.
News agency AFP reporters saw no movement at the Wafideen checkpoint through which would-be evacuees were told to exit Eastern Ghouta, which the government lost in 2012 and has besieged almost ever since. “The humanitarian corridor is open to all those who wish to return to the fold of the homeland, but so far nobody came and this is the second day,” said a military officer at the checkpoint. Russia on Monday announced a “humanitarian pause” in the bombardment of the enclave that would provide five hours every day for civilians to flee safely.
The move was welcomed inside and outside the enclave as respite from one of the bloodiest assaults in Syria’s seven-year-old war. But the hundreds of civilians in need of medical evacuation were not coming out nor were any aid convoys going in. The Syrian regime has accused the Islamist and jihadist groups inside Ghouta of sabotaging the initiative by shelling the designated humanitarian corridors to hold civilians as human shields.
“The terrorists are impeding those who want to cross, either by putting pressure on them or by firing on the humanitarian corridors,” the military officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Three days only?
The first five-hour “pause” on Tuesday passed with only two killed in regime bombardment, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor. No casualties at all were reported when Wednesday’s humanitarian window closed at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT) but warplanes were back in the sky moments later.
“During the truce, the ceasefire is almost enforced,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman, adding that eight civilians were killed in strikes before and after on Wednesday. The officer at Wafideen checkpoint warned that if Thursday was equally fruitless, the measure may be dropped, raising fears that the kind of bombardment that killed dozens of civilians every day this month would resume.
“The truce was meant to last three days. It could be extended but why go on if there are no results,” he said. Inside Eastern Ghouta, the residents AFP spoke to were distrustful of a measure put in place by Russia, whose warplanes rained munitions on them alongside Syrian aircraft. The three main armed groups inside the territory, which lies within mortar range of Damascus, said they wanted more international guarantees.
In a letter sent to the United Nations on Tuesday, they said they were willing to expel the jihadist factions that also have a footprint in Eastern Ghouta. But they demanded that any evacuations be conducted under the supervision of a UN mechanism. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose portrait was featured alongside Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad’s at the Wafideen checkpoint, blamed the crisis on the rebels’ “constant shelling”.
“Shells even crash into the grounds of the Russian embassy and the economic mission. Should we continue to tolerate this? Of course not,” he said. While it has stemmed the bloodshed, the “pause” declared by Russia, which is Assad’s main supporter, falls short of the 30-day ceasefire voted on Saturday by the UN Security Council.
UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross said it did not meet the requirements for delivering an efficient aid response to the crisis inside Eastern Ghouta. “Humanitarian corridors need to be well planned and must be implemented with the consent of parties on all sides,” said Robert Mardini, the ICRC’s Middle East director. “That’s the only way people leave safely, if they choose to do so,” he said, in a statement issued on Tuesday.
Civilians spent days hiding in their basements in the scattering of towns that make up the enclave, which is far from any other rebel-controlled area in Syria. Another military officer at the deserted checkpoint said ground fighting on the edges of Eastern Ghouta, where most anti-regime fighters are deployed, may change the dynamic. The Observatory said regime forces had made limited advances in Eastern Ghouta’s Shaifuniyeh and Hosh al-Zawahira districts.
The head of the monitoring group said 38 regime and allied fighters were killed in three days of fighting in the Al-Marj area on the southern edge of the enclave. At least 18 fighters from Jaish al-Islam, Eastern Ghouta’s dominant anti-regime faction, were also killed, the Observatory’s Abdel Rahman said.