Russia's 'humanitarian pause' falls flat in East Ghouta

AMMAN: A Russian-announced “humanitarian pause” in East Ghouta broke down almost immediately after it began on Tuesday, as rebels and the Syrian government accused each other of attacking civilians in the besieged pocket.

Syrian government ally Russia unilaterally declared on Monday that daily “humanitarian pauses” would take effect in East Ghouta beginning on Tuesday, Russian state media outlet TASS reported, “in order to prevent civilian casualties.”

The pauses, slated to last between the hours of 9:00 am and 2:00 pm, would coincide with the opening of a humanitarian corridor “so that civilians can leave the area,” the outlet said.

But as the first designated five-hour period came and went on Tuesday, bombardment over East Ghouta continued and no civilians exited the enclave, residents, local officials and a United Nations spokeswoman in Damascus told Syria Direct.

Ghayath Abu Laith, an Arabic teacher from Douma, told Syria Direct that “the situation did not change” in the enclave on Tuesday. “Shelling and airstrikes have not stopped,” he said.

The Syrian government accused rebel groups of preventing civilians from leaving East Ghouta by shelling the al-Wafideen crossing northeast of Douma, which was designated as the humanitarian corridor.

“Terrorist groups fired five shells on the corridor assigned to the exit of civilians, to prevent them from exiting,” state media outlet SANA reported on Tuesday.

Failaq a-Rahman, one of the two main opposition factions in East Ghouta, rejected the government accusation.

“The factions in East Ghouta defend civilians,” faction spokesman Wael Alwan told Syria Direct on Tuesday, insisting that residents had “complete freedom of movement.”

Aftermath of shelling in Douma city on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Douma Revolution.

Two residents of East Ghouta—which has been encircled by government forces since 2013— told Syria Direct that despite the Russian declaration of a humanitarian corridor out of the area, they do not plan to leave.

“We won’t leave Ghouta,” said Abu Abdo Baraq, an ambulance driver from the town of Hamouriya. “How can we go to those who killed our brothers and friends, destroyed our homes and deprived us of everything in life?”

Baraq says his home was bombed just days ago, amid a government ground and air assault on the area that left hundreds dead last week alone.

Douma teacher Abu Laith also said he plans to stay in East Ghouta, and worries that “whoever leaves will be held accountable by the regime.”

The Civil Defense in East Ghouta said the Syrian regime and its allies were responsible for ongoing attacks over the enclave on Tuesday.

“Reconnaissance aircraft, warplanes and helicopters have not left the skies over East Ghouta,” Civil Defense spokesman Siraj Mahmoud told Syria Direct. Airstrikes and shelling struck major towns including Douma city, Misraba and Harasta, he said.

Artillery fire on Douma killed two civilians on Tuesday morning, Mahmoud added.

The Russian military appeared to acknowledge that it continued to conduct attacks on East Ghouta during the scheduled humanitarian pause in a statement published Tuesday afternoon to the Hmeimim Russian military base’s Facebook page.

“Russian bombers are working to eliminate the extremist militants who are trying to prevent civilians from reaching the humanitarian corridors,” Hmeimim spokesman Alexander Ivanov said in the statement.

Russia’s announcement on Monday of humanitarian pauses came two days after the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to call for an immediate, 30-day ceasefire across Syria to allow for “weekly humanitarian aid deliveries and medical evacuations,” according to a statement posted on the UN website.

But as pro-government attacks on East Ghouta and rebel shelling on the nearby Syrian capital continue, aid deliveries remain impossible, UNOCHA spokeswoman Linda Tom told Syria Direct from Damascus on Tuesday.

“We are ready to deliver humanitarian assistance as soon as we have an opening,” she said, “but we haven’t had that opening.”

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regional director Robert Mardini said in a press release on Tuesday that successful humanitarian convoys require coordination from all parties involved—a measure not taken in Russia’s unilateral declaration on Monday.

“Humanitarian corridors need to be well planned and must be implemented with consent of parties on all sides,” Mardini said.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.