The first day of a Russian-ordered “humanitarian corridor” for the embattled eastern Ghouta region failed to bring aid into the besieged suburbs of Syria’s capital, or get civilians out.
Russia, the main backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on Monday ordered a daily five-hour truce humanitarian pause in eastern Ghouta that began on Tuesday. But both the UN and international aid agencies say the unilateral move was not a viable escape route for civilians, because it was not negotiated in co-ordination with rebels that control eastern Ghouta.
Hundreds of people have died in more than a week of fierce air and artillery raids on the suburb of the capital, Damascus, which in turn has suffered heavy rebel mortar attacks. The UN Security Council on Saturday called for a 30-day ceasefire “without delay” to end the fighting.
On Tuesday, Syrian news media from government-held areas flocked to the Wafideen crossing into eastern Ghouta, where a field clinic and buses were waiting to escort any who chose to leave through the corridor, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
No residents came. Nor were international aid groups present, arguing that the corridor was unsafe for residents because it had not been agreed to by both of Syria’s warring sides.
“For a humanitarian corridor to work, it should be very well planned and you need agreement on all sides,” said Ingy Sedky, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus. “Those who want to leave need proper shelter and medical care, and those who want to stay should also be given aid. It should be the free will of the people whether they want to stay or go.”
Occasional strikes also broke the truce, some of which state media said hit the humanitarian corridor itself, with both sides blaming each other for the attacks.
Eastern Ghouta residents fear they are witnessing a repeat of the fall of Aleppo, the last major rebel urban stronghold, which was recaptured by government-backed forces in late-2016. After fierce government bombardment of the opposition-controlled half of the city, Russia similarly led a humanitarian corridor operation. It was followed by a full-out offensive that led to Aleppo’s recapture.
The seven-year Syrian civil war that began as a battle between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels seeking to oust him had seemed to be winding down in recent months, with Mr Assad on the ascendant thanks to Russian and Iranian military support.
But in the past few weeks, the renewed bombardment of eastern Ghouta has raised the death toll to levels monitors say have not been seen for years. Eastern Ghouta, just a 10-minute drive from Mr Assad’s seat of power in central Damascus, has been under siege for five years, meaning its residents are also struggling with hunger and malnutrition.
Syrian state media present at the humanitarian corridor on Tuesday said rebel rockets fired on the crossing, while opposition media accused government forces of firing.
“We have reports this morning that there is continued fighting in eastern Ghouta, so clearly the situation on the ground is not such that, for example, convoys can go in or medical evacuations can come out,” said Jens Laerke, UN co-ordinator for humanitarian affairs.
Eastern Ghouta residents say they are afraid of being harassed or arrested if they head to government areas after years of being in rebel territory. Families also fear for military-age sons, who are often drafted into the armed forces after an area is retaken by the government.
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