Putin Orders ‘Humanitarian Pause’ in Besieged Damascus Suburb

ISTANBUL (The Washington Post) -
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Reuters/Yuri Kadobnov/Pool)

Russia said Monday that it would enforce a daily, five-hour truce for a rebel-held enclave outside Damascus, after Syrian government forces allied with Russia killed more than 500 people there over the past week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “humanitarian pause” in Eastern Ghouta from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to “avoid civilian casualties,” the Interfax news agency reported, quoting Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. The pause would allow for civilians to evacuate the besieged suburb via a “humanitarian corridor,” he said, adding that the temporary cease-fire would begin Tuesday.

But similar pauses in fighting across Syria have had varying degrees of success during the country’s brutal civil war. And Russia’s support for President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have pummeled civilians, has raised questions about the viability of the plan.

Earlier Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had already pushed back against allegations that Syria’s government was responsible for any cease-fire violations, saying the truce would begin only when “all sides have agreed how to implement” it, Reuters reported. Lavrov said the cease-fire does not include a halt to operations against groups linked to al-Qaeda in Eastern Ghouta or in Idlib province in the north, where the Islamist terrorists are in control.

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres urged Syria’s warring parties on Monday to heed a Security Council resolution passed two days prior and calling for a 30-day cease-fire “without delay.”

“Eastern Ghouta cannot wait. It is high time to stop ….,” Guterres told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. He said that U.N. agencies were ready to deliver aid and evacuate the wounded from the area, where 400,000 people have been living under government siege.

“We have every reason to remain cautious,” said U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein. He then slammed the international community’s failure to stop the “seven years of unremitting and frightful mass killing” in Syria, the Associated Press reported.

Nine members of the same family were reported killed in a single strike there early Monday, according to a Britain-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Rebels in Eastern Ghouta, one of the largest opposition-held areas, have responded to the heavy bombardment by firing mortar rounds at Damascus, the capital, which has remained relatively safe.

Elsewhere in Syria, in the northwestern region of Afrin, Turkish forces and their proxies continued a month-long offensive against Syrian Kurdish terrorists. Turkey’s state news agency said Monday that Turkish special forces had crossed into Syria in preparation for a “new battle” against the terrorists, known as the YPG.

Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish forces as potential threats to its security, claiming that they have links to Kurdish separatists who have battled Turkey for decades. But the YPG is also backed by the United States — a NATO ally of Turkey — as a proxy force against remnants of the Islamic State in Syria.

The presence of multiple regional and world powers and their proxies underscore the difficulties of enforcing a truce in Syria.

The office of French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that he told his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Afrin was included in the cease-fire.