By Suleiman Al-Khalidi–
Warplanes pounded the last rebel enclave near the Syrian capital for a fifth straight day on Thursday as the United Nations pleaded for a ceasefire to halt one of the fiercest air assaults of the seven-year civil war and prevent a “massacre”.
At least 368 people have been killed, including 150 children, in the rural eastern Ghouta district on the outskirts of Damascus since Sunday night, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
More than 1,850 people have been wounded in the assault by Syria’s military and its allies. Planes have struck residential areas and, according to medical charities, hit more than a dozen hospitals making it near impossible to treat the wounded.
“There is a need for avoiding (a) massacre, because we will be judged by history,” U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said. He called on the U.N. Security Council to declare a ceasefire.
President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally Russia, which wields a veto on the Security Council, said it could support a 30-day truce, but not one that included the Islamist militants it says the eastern Ghouta operation is meant to target.
The existing “de-escalation zone” agreement that has failed to halt fighting does not include the Islamist faction formerly known as Nusra Front, and rebels in Ghouta say it is the presence of a small number of Nusra militants that is constantly used as a pretext for the siege and bombardment of the enclave.
Residents of Douma, the biggest town in eastern Ghouta, described plumes of black smoke billowing from residential areas after planes dropped bombs from high altitude. Searches were under way for bodies amid the rubble in the town of Saqba and elsewhere, said rescuers.
In Syria’s north, where Turkey launched an offensive in the past month against a Kurdish militia, the Kurds said pro-government fighters were now deploying to front lines to help repel the Turkish advance, though assistance would be needed from the Syrian army itself.
Government forces also entered a part of Aleppo controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia, a witness and the Observatory said, although the YPG denied this.
The Kurdish YPG – allies with the United States in other parts of Syria – have sought help recently from the Russian-backed Damascus government to resist the Turkish thrust – an example of the strange bedfellows in a multi-sided conflict that has drawn in neighbors and world powers.
International attention is now focused on the humanitarian plight in the eastern Ghouta, where 400,000 people have been under siege for years and where government bombardment escalated sharply on Sunday, causing mass civilian casualties.
De Mistura said he hoped the Security Council would agree to a ceasefire resolution, but acknowledged it would be hard. “I hope it will. But it’s uphill. But I hope it will. It is very urgent,” he told Reuters at the United Nations in Geneva.
Moscow and Damascus say their assault on eastern Ghouta is necessary to defeat rebels who have been firing mortars on the capital – government territory throughout the war.
“Those who support the terrorists are responsible” for the situation in eastern Ghouta, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters. “Neither Russia, nor Syria nor Iran are in that category of states, as they are waging an absolute war against terrorists in Syria.”
A White House statement said Washington backed the U.N. call for a ceasefire to allow access for aid and medical evacuations.
“The United States also calls upon Russia and its partners to live up to their obligations with respect to de-escalation zones, particularly those in eastern Ghouta and to end further attacks against civilians in Syria.”
Aid workers and residents say Syrian army helicopters have been dropping “barrel bombs” – oil drums packed with explosives and shrapnel – on marketplaces and medical centers.
Residents and insurgents in eastern Ghouta say Russian planes are also involved. Syrians say they can identify Russian aircraft because they fly at higher altitude than Syrian planes.
Damascus and Moscow deny using barrel bombs or hitting civilians. They say rebels hold civilians as human shields.
Video footage obtained by Reuters showed wreckage at the Al Shifa hospital in the town of Hammouriyeh. Staff said it had been hit by air strikes and artillery.
“The clinics department is out of service, the clinical care unit is out, the surgery unit is out, the incubator unit is out, the pediatric section is out, all of the departments of the hospital are completely out of service,” a man identified as a medical worker said.
“There were casualties among our staff, among patients, among the children we had,” he said, adding that doctors had performed an operation in the rubble because it was impossible to evacuate in time.
Opposition-held eastern Ghouta has been under siege by Assad’s forces since 2013. After government gains since 2015, it is the final rebel bastion near the capital.
Along with Idlib province in the north, part of Aleppo province and a strip in Syria’s southwest, it is one of just a handful of areas left where large numbers of people remain in territory controlled by fighters seeking to overthrow Assad. The president has vowed to regain control of every inch of Syria.
Residents and opposition figures say the Syrian government and its allies are deliberately harming civilians with a “scorched earth policy” to force rebels to surrender.
“They want to break our will and turn Ghouta into another Aleppo but this is their dream,” Yusef Dughmi, a resident in the devastated eastern Ghouta town of Arbin, said overnight.
Basema Abdullah, a widow who was huddled in a basement with her four children in Douma, said: “We are in desperate need for your prayers,” before the phone connection was cut off.
One of the main rebel groups in eastern Ghouta said Moscow would accept only a rebel capitulation. “The Russian concept is complete surrender to the Assad regime’s authoritarian and security grip and they need no excuse to storm the Ghouta,” said Wael Alwan, spokesman for the Failaq al Rahman group.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi with; additional reporting by Ellen Francis and Angus McDowall in Beirut, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Tom Miles in Geneva and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Mark Heinrich