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Warplanes hit East Ghouta despite ceasefire

AMMAN: Syrian government warplanes carried out at least five airstrikes […]

25 July 2017

AMMAN: Syrian government warplanes carried out at least five airstrikes on rebel-held towns just east of Damascus on Tuesday despite a de-escalation agreement between rebel factions and pro-regime forces announced by the Assad regime late last week.

Airstrikes targeted the cities of Arbin, Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Douma on Tuesday, damaging property and wounding three civilians. Hours before, on Monday night, similar strikes on the East Ghouta town of Arbin left eight civilians dead and upwards of 60 wounded, a spokesman for the Civil Defense in Outer Damascus told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

The attacks come days after an Egyptian and Russian-brokered de-escalation deal between the Syrian government and rebel fighters in the East Ghouta suburbs outside Damascus went into effect.

The terms of the ceasefire in East Ghouta include opening checkpoints in and out of the encircled rebel enclave and facilitating shipments of humanitarian aid into East Ghouta, according to a statement by Russian press agency TASS on Sunday.

The agreement excludes areas controlled by the Al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), formerly known as Jabhat a-Nusra.

HTS maintains a presence in several cities and towns in East Ghouta’s south, including Arbin. However, disputes with other major factions in East Ghouta limit HTS control inside the rebel enclave.

 A man clears rubble in Arbin city on July 25. Photo courtesy of Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP.

Jaish al-Islam, East Ghouta’s most powerful and prominent rebel faction, reportedly participated in negotiations with the regime before the ceasefire was announced, according to both pro-opposition and pro-regime media outlets.

Syria Direct contacted Jaish al-Islam for comment, but received no reply.

The ceasefire negotiations did not include several major East Ghouta opposition factions, including Jaish al-Islam’s main rival, Failaq a-Rahman, and Ha’yat Tahrir a-Sham, pro-Assad daily Al-Watan reported earlier this week.

On Saturday, official statements from the Syrian government announced a “cessation of hostilities” in East Ghouta, but stipulated that it would respond to any ceasefire violations from rebel forces in kind.

Wael Alwan, a spokesman for Failaq a-Rahman, one of East Ghouta’s largest rebel factions, told Syria Direct on Tuesday that Failaq had “neither signed nor participated in” the agreement.

“Still, we do welcome any regional or international effort to bring an end to the continuous, violent attacks by Assad’s forces on East Ghouta,” Alwan told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

But within hours of the ceasefire announcement, regime warplanes bombed the rebel-held town of Ain Turma in East Ghouta. It was the first of a series of airstrikes that would target various towns and villages in the besieged opposition enclave into Tuesday.

“The bombings didn’t stop after the deal was announced—the opposite happened,” said 27-year-old Nabras Hamouria, a resident of Arbin city in East Ghouta.

“When we learned that our area was included in the deal, we felt safe,” he tells Syria Direct. “We weren’t anticipating a terrifying night like last night.”

Saturday’s ceasefire announcement by Syrian state media is the latest development in a larger initiative by the Syrian government, Russia, Iran and Turkey to establish “de-escalation zones” within Syria.

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