Violence drops in Syrian capital, its suburbs after UN vote
BEIRUT (AP) — Despite a drop in intensity, shelling and bombardment in the Syrian capital and its embattled eastern suburbs killed at least six people Sunday following the U.N. Security Council’s unanimous approval of a resolution demanding a 30-day cease-fire across Syria, opposition activists and residents of Damascus said.
Attacks on residential areas appear to have shifted to strikes on front lines where some of the most intense fighting took place throughout the day between government forces and their allies against insurgents. State media said that troops pushed into the eastern suburbs, reports that the opposition denied.
Opposition activists reported clashes on the southern edge of the rebel-held suburbs, known as eastern Ghouta, and two airstrikes late on Saturday night, shortly after the resolution was adopted. During the day Sunday, more shelling and airstrikes were reported in eastern Ghouta and Damascus.
The drop in violence came after a week of intense airstrikes and shelling that killed more than 500 people in eastern Ghouta and left dozens dead or wounded in the government-held Damascus, which rebels pelted with mortar shells.
“This has been the calmest night since last Sunday,” said Rami Abdurrahman who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, referring to the start of the bombing campaign on Feb. 19. He added that clashes between troops and rebels on Sunday were the most intense this month.
Syrian state TV said that the army captured several buildings in the rebel-held suburb of Harasta and pushed into several other areas on eastern Ghouta that is besieged by government forces from all sides. It also said that troops captured the small towns of Nashabiyeh, Hazrama and Housh al-Salihiyah on the southeastern edge of eastern Ghouta.
The Ghouta Media Center, an activist collective, said members of the Army of Islam insurgent group repelled the Syrian army’s attacks on several fronts adding that many soldiers were killed.
The push by the army, although still limited, appears to be similar to steps taken in rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo that government forces captured one after another until rebels eventually agreed to leave the city in December 2016, marking President Bashar Assad’s biggest victory since the conflict began in 2011.
“The Assad regime and his allies have shown no respect to the Security Council by launching their most intense offensive on Ghouta from several directions hours after the resolution was adopted,” said Ghouta-based activist Ahmad Khanshour. He added that government forces “did not succeed in advancing one meter.”
Asked whether people were able to leave their underground shelters where they have been hiding for days with little food and water, Khanshour said: “We are still underground and dying.” Khanshour added that he is hiding with 45 others in a shelter and they have been surviving on rice, crushed wheat and pasta.
The Observatory said Sunday’s airstrikes and shelling killed eight people and wounded dozens in several areas in eastern Ghouta. The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said the six were killed in the towns of Saqba, Beit Sawa, Arbeen and Hammouriyeh.
State news agency SANA said insurgents breached the truce by firing 15 shells Sunday on government-held areas on the edge of Ghouta.
Dr. Sakhr al-Dimashqi, a surgeon at a Ghouta clinic, told The Associated Press that several shells hit some towns in the suburbs, adding that they received six wounded people at his clinic.
“The shelling today is not as intense as over the past week,” he said.
The two largest and most powerful rebel factions in Ghouta, Failaq al-Rahman and Army of Islam issued statements saying they will abide by the cease-fire unless they are forced to fire in self-defense. Both called for the “immediate delivery” of emergency aid.
The resolution excludes members of the Islamic State group and al-Qaida-linked fighters. Ghouta is also home to a few hundred members of the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Sunday that the fight against IS and al-Qaida’s affiliate will continue, despite what it described as attempts by certain external players to engage “international terrorists and groups of opposition militants joining them to implement plans that are still nurtured to overthrow the legitimate authorities of Syria and dismember the country.”
It added that “the terrorists won’t get any respite.”
Damascus residents said there’s more traffic in the streets, compared to previous days and most schools and universities were open on Sunday. They said some private schools were still closed, especially those close to the front lines with Ghouta.
Some residents of the capital said they were unhappy with the truce, adding that they believe the rebels will violate it and that the Syrian army should crush the gunmen outside the capital.
“The army has given them many truces, more than they deserve and the result was more shells,” said Damascus resident Abdul-Razzak Khaleifah, 37. “The army has the right to retaliate to defend the homeland and the civilians.”
Saturday’s vote at the United Nations came after the vote was delayed from Friday. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia had repeatedly called an immediate cease-fire unrealistic.
In a bid to get Russian support, sponsors Kuwait and Sweden amended the draft resolution late Friday to drop a demand that the cease-fire take effect 72 hours after the resolution’s adoption.
After two hours of additional negotiations on Saturday, the Security Council unanimously approved the resolution demanding a 30-day cease-fire across Syria “without delay” to deliver humanitarian aid to millions and evacuate the critically ill and wounded.
After the vote, many council members urged stepped-up efforts to ensure a cease-fire and get assistance to millions in need.
Russia has been a main backer of Assad since the country’s conflict began. In 2015, Moscow joined the war on Assad’s side tipping the balance of power in his favor.
In northern Syria, the Observatory and the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV said Turkish troops shelled the Kurdish enclave of Afrin where Turkey and Syrian opposition fighters it backs have been on the offensive since Jan. 20.
The Turkish military and their allies took three more villages from the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia near the town of Afrin on Sunday, according to the Turkey’s official news agency. The military announced one Turkish soldier was killed on Saturday, bringing the army’s death toll to 33 since the launch of the Afrin operation last month.
The main Kurdish militia, known as YPG, said in a statement that it will abide by the U.N. cease-fire but will continue fighting as usual against IS.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.