Aid Convoy Enters Syria’s Ghouta as Regime Presses Offensive

Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid trucks
Russian soldiers stand guard as Syrian Arab Red Crescent trucks carrying aid drive on the outskirts of Damascus. Photo: AFP

An international aid convoy entered Syria’s Eastern Ghouta on Monday to deliver much-needed supplies as regime forces seized more ground in a fierce offensive to retake the battered rebel enclave.

The United Nations said 46 trucks had entered Eastern Ghouta and arrived in the main town of Douma, in the first aid delivery since the start of the regime assault last month.

The aid arrived after fresh air strikes hit besieged Eastern Ghouta and regime troops were reported to have retaken a third of the enclave in a rapidly advancing offensive.

An AFP reporter in Douma said warplanes were flying overhead and explosions from further bombardment on the enclave could be heard even as the aid was being unloaded.

Western powers have piled pressure on Damascus and its Russian ally to end the offensive on Eastern Ghouta — one of the bloodiest assaults of Syria’s nearly seven-year civil war — but President Bashar al-Assad warned there would be no let up.

More than two weeks of air strikes, artillery and rocket fire on the last major rebel-held enclave near Damascus have left more than 700 civilians dead and three quarters of housing damaged in the area.

More bombs, including crude improvised munitions known as “barrel bombs,” were dropped in overnight raids on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

At least 10 people were killed in the town of Hammuriyeh, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria.

Another 19 died in Jisreen and other towns, the monitor said, bringing to 724 the number of civilians killed since the assault began, including at least 170 children.

The U.N. Human Rights Council on Monday ordered investigators to probe the latest violence, after the world body’s rights chief warned crimes against humanity had likely been committed and that its perpetrators would not “get away with this.”

Advancing at High Pace

The resolution, tabled by Britain, specifically condemned “the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons and aerial bombardments against civilians, and the alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta.”

Regime troops and allied forces pushed into the enclave from the east in recent days and by early Monday had retaken a third of Eastern Ghouta, according to the Observatory.

“Regime forces are advancing at a high pace because operations so far are mostly conducted in farmland,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said, adding that they had advanced to two kilometres (1.2 miles) southeast of Douma.

The armed groups there, one of which is made up of fighters from Al-Qaeda’s ex-affiliate, have been lobbing mortar rounds and firing rockets on adjacent neighbourhoods of Damascus, killing around 20 civilians in two weeks.

The latest ground offensive sent hundreds of civilians fleeing from their homes to other areas farther from the moving front line, compounding a humanitarian crisis which has drawn comparisons with the devastating 2016 battle of Aleppo.

Over the years, Eastern Ghouta’s estimated 400,000 inhabitants have depended for their survival on smuggling, local farms and rare aid deliveries as they have been trapped in a government siege.

Monday’s convoy was delivering “health and nutrition supplies, along with food for 27,500 people in need,” the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) in Syria said.

Missing Trauma Kits

An OCHA spokesperson however said “the UN and partners were informed that many of the planned health supplies intended for Douma were not allowed to be loaded and not permitted to be replaced with other life-saving items.”

“The items included trauma kits and other life-saving supplies,” Linda Tom told AFP.

The U.N. has said it has approval to deliver aid to a total of 70,000 people among the most needy in Eastern Ghouta.

The United States issued a statement Sunday condemning the assault and accusing Moscow of ignoring a U.N. resolution calling for a 30-day cessation of hostilities.

It said Russia has killed “innocent civilians under the false auspices of counterterrorism operations.”

U.S. President Donald J. Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May said Russia and Syria were responsible for “heart-breaking human suffering” in Eastern Ghouta.

Moscow has offered safe passage to non-combatants wishing to leave Eastern Ghouta during daily “humanitarian pauses,” but no Syrian civilians have left the enclave since the first break in fighting took effect on Tuesday, the Observatory says.

Damascus and Moscow have accused rebels of preventing civilians from leaving to use them as human shields.

In remarks broadcast on state television on Sunday, Mr. Assad said his forces would push forward with the offensive.

“The majority (of people) in Eastern Ghouta want to escape the embrace of terrorism. The operation must continue,” he said.

Observers have said a further advance on the ground might spark fresh efforts to negotiate an evacuation to Idlib, a northern province where defeated anti-regime from across the country have been gathered.

“I think there will be negotiations for the rebels to head to Idlib.They saw what happened in Aleppo, they don’t stand a chance,” said Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

“I doubt they can hold out several months,” he added.