Moscow tries to create space for ongoing attacks and siege through limited “humanitarian pause” each day


UPDATE 1900 GMT: A Syrian MP says the civilian deaths in East Ghouta are a “fabrication” and a “complete falsification”:

UPDATE 1730 GMT: Residents and activists say pro-Assad attacks have not stopped despite Russia’s declaration of a five-hour “humanitarian pause”.

Ghayath Abu Laith, an Arabic teacher from Douma, said, “The situation did not change….Shelling and airstrikes have not stopped.”

Civil Defense spokesman Siraj Mahmoud said airstrikes and shelling struck towns including Douma, Misraba, and Harasta. Artillery fire on Douma killed two civilians.

“Reconnaissance aircraft, warplanes and helicopters have not left the skies over East Ghouta,” Mahmoud said.

The Assad regime’s military continue to post photos touting their ground assaults:

UPDATE 1600 GMT: Free Syrian Army factions and activists in East Ghouta have sent an official letter to the Security Council reaffirming that any Jabhat al-Nusra fighters still in the territory will be removed under UN supervision within 15 days of a ceasefire.

The assurance is unlikely to halt pro-Assad attacks, with the Assad regime and Russia maintaining the pretext that Jabhat al-Nusra — now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and part of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham bloc — is a significant presence in East Ghouta, thus sanctioning an assault on “terrorists”.

Meanwhile, rebel factions refuted Russian allegations that Moscow’s proclaimed “humanitarian corridor” has been shelled.

The head of Jaish al-Islam’s political office, Yasser Dalwan, said factions had not prevented anyone form leaving the area: “Civilians can make their own decisions.”

Failaq al-Rahman’s Wael Alwan said, “The factions in East Ghouta defend civilians.”

Trying to shift pressure onto the opposition in besieged and bombarded East Ghouta, near Syria’s capital Damascus, Russia is pursuing a version of the strategy used for the capitulation of eastern Aleppo city in December 2016.

Moscow faced a possible diplomatic challenge after it refused to accept a defined ceasefire for the area with more than 350,000 people, supporting a UN Security Council resolution only when a timetable for implementation was removed. That maneuver is allowing pro-Assad forces to continue attacks in which more than 600 people have been killed and thousands wounded since February 18.

On Sunday, both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to urge him to accept a meaningful arrangement in which attacks can be halted and aid — blocked by the Assad regime under a tightening five-year siege — can reach East Ghouta.

Yesterday Putin responded by ordering a daily “humanitarian pause” from 9 am to 2 pm in the territory, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

Putin’s order did not offer any check to attack the other 19 hours of the day, and it made no commitment to allow assistance into the area, where scores of people died from lack of food and medicine even before the recent surge in the pro-Assad assault.

Instead, the Defense Ministry said civilians could leave via “evacuation corridors”.

Moscow pursued the same tactics in and near opposition-held eastern Aleppo city in 2016. After establishing a siege from July and continuously bombing targets, including medical facilities and a UN aid convoy, Russia held back any freeze on the assault by proposing the “humanitarian pauses” for a portion of each day and by proclaiming the “humanitarian corridors”.

The pro-Assad attacks, including Russian warplanes, continued on eastern Aleppo, and the corridors never materialized. Instead, the opposition finally surrendered in December, with an estimated 50,000 people removed from the city to other parts of Syria and many men who remained taken into detention or forced into conscription in the Assad regime’s military.

Russia’s Propaganda Campaign

Russian officials immediately used Putin’s order to bolster their campaign justifying the ongoing bombing, shelling, and rocketing of East Ghouta, albeit for 19 rather than 24 hours each day.

Major-General Yuri Yevtushenko, the head of the Russian “Center for Reconciliation” in Syria, accused rebels of “holding hundreds hostage, including women and children, and victimizing residents, refusing to allow them to leave”.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought cover for the Assad regime’s alleged chlorine attack on East Ghouta on Sunday, declaring that “disinformation” about the assault could sabotage ceasefire agreements.

Lavrov said, “There has already been disinformation in the mass media that last night or this morning chlorine gas was used in Eastern Ghouta as a toxic substance, citing an anonymous individual who lives in the United States. Other disinformation is likely.”

Earlier in the day, the Kremlin had rationalized attacks despite the Security Council’s unanimous call on Saturday for a 30-day ceasefire. Following Putin’s calls with Macron and Merkel, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian leader “emphasized that the ceasefire did not extend to military operations against terrorist groupings in Syria”.

Peskov also reinforced the Defense Ministry’s false claim that rebels were trying to blame the Assad regime for its alleged chlorine attack, by setting up a “false flag” operation with chemical weapons.

Rescuers: 33 Killed on Monday

The White Helmets civil defense said at least 33 civilians in East Ghouta were killed on Monday by pro-Assad airstrikes and shelling.

“We had hoped the bombing would stop for even a few hours—but the planes never left the skies,” East Ghouta Civil Defense spokesman Siraj Mahmoud said.

A dawn airstrike killed 10 members of a single family in Douma. Further airstrikes on the town, the center of the opposition-held area of East Ghouta, killed at least seven more civilians, said citizen journalist Muhammad Adel.

Moayad Hafi, a rescue worker, portrayed people scrambling to get whatever provisions they can find, “Civilians rushed from their shelters to get food and return quickly since the warplanes are still in the sky and can hit at any moment.”

According to the deputy director general of the World Health Organisation, Peter Salama, 750 people urgently need evacuation for medical treatment, and “sustained access” is required “for medical equipment and for medical drugs and commodities”.

The Assad regime has refused any evacuation and delivery of medical supplies, except for transfer of 29 patients in December in return for the freeing of people abducted by hardline Islamists north of Damascus in late 2013.

Czech Court Releases Syrian Kurdish Leader Muslim

A Czech court has freed Salih Muslim, a leading Syrian Kurdish official, despite an extradition request from Turkey.

Muslim, the foreign affairs spokesman of the Movement for a Democratic Society, the political coalition overseeing Kurdish areas in northern Syria, was detained in Prague early Sunday.

Muslim, the former co-chair of the SYrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), was arrested at the conclusion of a high-level security conference to which he was invited by the Czech and American governments.

He still faces an extradition hearing.

Turkey, which considers the PYD part of the Turkish Kurdish insurgency PKK, charged Muslim with involvement in terrorist incidents. Last month, Ankara offered a $1.05 million reward for his arrest.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ said, “This decision clearly means to support terror groups. This decision will also have an effect of negatively influencing Turkish-Czech relations.”

UN Experts: North Korea Could Be Supplying Assad Regime’s Chemical Weapons Program

UN experts report that North Korea has been shipping supplies to the Assad regime for possible use in the production of chemical weapons.

The supplies from North Korea include acid-resistant tiles, valves, and thermometers. North Korean missile technicians have been spotted working at chemical weapons and missile facilities inside Syria.

The possible chemical weapons components were part of at least 40 previously unreported shipments by North Korea to Syria between 2012 and 2017 of prohibited ballistic missile parts and materials that can be used for both military and civilian purposes.

More than 200 pages long, the report includes copies of contracts between North Korean and Syrian companies as well as bills of lading indicating the types of materials shipped.

Hardline Islamic Bloc HTS Losing Ground in Idlib Province

The hardline Islamist bloc Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which had taken control of much of Idlib Province in northwest Syria in 2017, appears to be suffering a sudden reversal, in the face of attacks by a new rebel bloc backed by Turkey.

On Monday, Jabhat Tahrir Souria captured the town of Darat Izza, with about 40,000 residents, following the takeover of a series of towns and villages in Idlib and weetern Aleppo Provinces over the past week.

The pro-opposition Syria Call highlights the repelling of an HTS attack on the town of Hazano, summarizing that a civilian appeal to rebels led to the defeat of the assault despite HTS’s heavy weapons, mortars, and even tanks.

JTS fighters are now within 10 km (6 miles) of Bab al-Hawa, the key border crossing with Turkey which has been held by HTS since July 2017.

JTS was created last week in a merger of the rebel factions Ahrar al-Sham and Nour ed-Din al-Zinki.

HTS is led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra and affiliated with Al Qa’eda until July 2016. It inflicted a major defeat on Ahrar al-Sham, previously the leading faction in Idlib, in spring and summer 2017.

However, Nour ed-Din al-Zinki split from HTS over the fighting and use of the Syrian revolutionary flag, including HTS’s takeover of Darat al-Izza last July.