The Syrian army said it was launching a “major operation” against rebels in Damascus on Monday, as its sponsor Russia said a week-long ceasefire was “pointless” due to violations by rebels.
Fierce clashes were heard throughout Damascus on Monday as Syria’s military launched its attack against rebel forces, according to the AFP news agency.
“The army blocked a huge attack by the Faylaq al-Sham group and is beginning a major military operation on the edges of the capital,” a military source told the agency.
The violence comes hours before the end of the ceasefire brokered between Washington and Moscow. A senior military source in Damascus told AFP that the truce would expire at 7pm (4pm GMT) Monday, if no extension was announced.
Russia’s defence ministry appeared to bury the truce, saying rebel violations made it “pointless” for government troops to uphold it.
“Considering that the conditions of the ceasefire are not being respected by the rebels, we consider it pointless for the Syrian government forces to respect it unilaterally,” said Sergei Rudskoy, a lieutenant general.
The already fragile truce was jeopardised by attacks over the weekend, with barrel bomb attacks reported in the besieged city of Aleppo and an errant US coalition air strike that killed more than 60 Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor.
Meanwhile, UN humanitarian aid shipments remained undelivered – a key component of the deal.
The ceasefire’s co-sponsors, Russia and the United States, have each blamed one another, with relations strained even further after the US-led raid on Saturday.
Sunday was another deadly day as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 civilians were killed in areas where the ceasefire was supposed to have taken hold.
Some Syrian rebel groups also expressed pessimism about the ceasefire.
“I believe that, practically, it has failed and has ended,” said Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of the Aleppo-based group Fastaqim, adding that it remained to be seen if anything could be done “in theory” to save it.
Asked whether he expected aid to reach rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo, he said: “There is no hope. It has been a number of days of procrastination. Every day, there is a pretext. There is no hope of aid being delivered currently.”
Speaking to Reuters from the Turkish city of Gaziantep, he also indicated that rebel groups were preparing for new military action, saying: “I imagine in the near future there will be action by the factions.”
‘Intentional’ US-led strike?
President Bashar al-Assad on Monday accused the US of “flagrant aggression” for the attack on its forces in Deir Ezzor.
Speaking to Iran’s deputy foreign minister Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Assad accused world powers of supporting “terrorist organisations” in Syria like the Islamic State group.
“The latest example of this is the flagrant American aggression on one of the Syrian army’s positions in Deir Ezzor to the benefit of Daesh” on Saturday, he added, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
Hours after the coalition strike, the Pentagon admitted that US-led pilots may have hit Assad’s forces but said that they “believed they were striking a Daesh (IS) fighting position”.
Russia said it was “deeply concerned”, warning that Washington would have to rein in rebels fighting Assad “otherwise, the realisation of Russia-US agreements… could be put in danger”.
“The actions of the pilots – if they, as we hope, were not taken on orders from Washington – fall between criminal negligence and direct pandering to IS terrorists,” it said.
An emergency UN Security Council meeting called by Moscow to discuss the attack saw an exchange between the US and Russia reminiscent of Cold War-era verbal jousting.
The situation is likely to loom large at the annual UN General Assembly starting on Tuesday as well as a UN summit on migration on Monday.
The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said Moscow’s request for Sunday’s emergency meeting was a “stunt”, while her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, accused the US of violating agreements that it would not target Syrian army positions.
Churkin called the strike a “bad omen” for the US-Russia deal to halt Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 300,000 people since it erupted in 2011.
Despite the spike in tension, food aid did reach the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyat al-Sham after a government deal granting amnesty to opposition fighters in the besieged town.
Moadamiyat al-Sham mayor, Bassam Karbuj, said about 7,000 food parcels were distributed and that the army would take full control of the town once remaining rebels are bussed out “in the coming days”.