Russia intensifies strikes on Syrian rebels to make gains ahead of ceasefire
Russia carried out some of its most intense air strikes yet on rebel bastions across Syria yesterday in an attempt to help the regime make further gains in the hours before a ceasefire was meant to take hold.
The planned two-week truce is meant to alleviate suffering across Syria by allowing aid to be delivered while creating the conditions for peace talks to resume.
As the midnight deadline approached, almost 100 rebel groups said they would be laying down their guns for the duration of the ceasefire.
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said Russia and the regime had launched a wave of attacks on non-jihadist rebel areas ahead of the deadline. "It's more intense than usual," the Observatory's head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Photographs from the Damascus neighbourhood of Douma yesterday showed bloodied children being pulled from the rubble of broken buildings.
Describing the air strikes, one resident, Osama, said they had been echoing around the suburb since the early hours of the morning, apparently without let-up.
"There are many landing around our house. My four-year-old daughter is so used to bombs that she wants to go outside for a picnic. She cannot even understand anymore that it is not safe," he said.
The Observatory said there had also been Russian strikes on rebel strongholds including the Eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus, as well as northern Homs and western Aleppo.
Both President Bashar al-Assad's regime and the main opposition body have agreed to the deal - which allows fighting to continue against Isil and other jihadists.
"The Russian air force is certainly continuing its operation in Syria" but against "terrorist organisations", Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
The complexity of Syria's battlefields - where moderate or Islamist forces often fight alongside jihadist groups - has raised doubts about the feasibility of any ceasefire that excludes Nusra, a group that balances transnational jihadist objectives with military goals of the broader rebellion. "Unpacking Nusra is challenging but doable. The Russians claim not to see it that way," a Western diplomat said.
In an audio message released yesterday, the group's leader, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, described the truce as a foreign plot and urged rebel groups to ignore it.
A map drawn up by the Russian defence ministry appeared to suggest Moscow's bombing raids would continue to target much of northern Aleppo province, where an ongoing regime offensive has severed key rebel supply lines and left the shattered second city under threat of siege.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama met with his top national security advisors to plot the way forward and discuss the campaign against Isil.
"Everybody knows what needs to happen," Mr Obama said, welcoming the partial ceasefire.
"All parties that are part of the cessation of activities need to end attacks, including aerial bombardment. Humanitarian aid must be allowed to reach areas under siege."
"A lot of that is going to depend on whether the Syrian regime, Russia, and their allies live up to their commitments," he said in remarks at the State Department.
"The coming days will be critical, and the world will be watching."
Many inside Mr Obama's administration - as well as independent observers - express grave doubts that even a partial ceasefire can hold.
The US leader said he was not "under any illusions" about potential pitfalls, but said the ceasefire could be a "potential step in bringing about an end to the chaos".
Assad has spent half a decade trying to suppress an armed rebellion, most recently with the help of Russian air power and Iranian ground forces.
Mr Obama reiterated that the ceasefire would not apply to Isil, and admitted that other groups, including those tied with al-Qa'ida, would likely continue to fight.
"Even under the best of circumstances, we don't expect the violence to end immediately," Obama said.
"In fact, I think we are certain that there will continue to be fighting, in part because not only Isil, but organisations like al-Nusra that is not part of any negotiations and is hostile to the United States, is going to continue to fight."
Mr Obama also reiterated his view that Assad should step down if a lasting peace is to be found. That is a message that Russia and Iran have so far resolutely ignored.
"This is going to be a test of whether the parties are truly committed to negotiations," Mr Obama said.
"It's clear that after years of his barbaric war against his own people - including torture, and barrel bombs, and sieges, and starvation - many Syrians will never stop fighting until Assad is out of power. There's no alternative to a managed transition away from Assad."
Mr Obama also sought to show that a US-led coalition was winning the war against Isil. He cited territorial gains around Shadadi in Syria, a slowing in the arrival of foreign fighters and the targeting of Isil's finances.
"They're continuing to squeeze Isil's stronghold of Raqqa, cutting off its high- ways and supply lines," Mr Obama said.