ReutersBEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad vowed to continue an offensive in eastern Ghouta near Damascus on Sunday as his forces advanced into the last major rebel enclave near the capital.
The offensive is one of the deadliest in the war and one local insurgent group called it a “scorched earth” campaign.
The government is pressing on despite Western calls for it to abide by a 30-day, countrywide ceasefire demanded by the U.N. Security Council.
“We will continue fighting terrorism … and the Ghouta operation is a continuation of fighting terrorism,” Assad said in comments to journalists broadcast on state TV.
The advances have forced thousands of civilians to flee deeper into the rebel-held territory, where some 400,000 people live, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a resident said on Sunday.
Government forces need to advance just a few more kilometers further to split the enclave in two, said a commander in the military alliance that backs Assad. The Observatory said government forces had seized a quarter of the territory.
Assad said there was no contradiction between daily, five-hour humanitarian ceasefires called by his ally Russia, and ongoing combat operations, noting that advances by government forces in the last few days had occurred during the truce.
The Russian ceasefire plan calls for five-hour pauses to allow for aid deliveries and evacuations of civilians and the wounded. The U.S. State Department has called the Russian plan a “joke” and the White House on Sunday accused Russia of killing Syrian civilians.
Assad, in his first comments on the offensive, said most people in Ghouta wanted to return to state rule.
“Therefore we must continue with the operation and in parallel open the way for civilians to leave,” he said.
Russia and Damascus have accused rebels of preventing civilians from leaving eastern Ghouta during the daily ceasefires. Rebels have consistently denied this accusation and say people will not leave because they fear the government.
A U.N. humanitarian official said people in eastern Ghouta were being subjected to unacceptable “collective punishment,” which is illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
Assad dismissed Western statements about the humanitarian situation in eastern Ghouta as “a ridiculous lie.”
With the war entering its eighth year, capturing the eastern Ghouta area would be a major victory for Assad, who has steadily recovered control of rebellious areas with Russian and Iranian support.
French President Emmanuel Macron asked his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani to put pressure on the Syrian government to end attacks against the Ghouta region and to allow humanitarian aid to flow.
British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed in a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump that Russia must use its influence to make Damascus cease the eastern Ghouta campaign, May’s office said.
Without decisive Western pressure to halt the offensive, eastern Ghouta appears on course to meet the same fate as other rebel areas retaken by Assad, such as eastern Aleppo, recovered using similar tactics of siege, bombardment and ground assaults.
Rebels eventually withdrew from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 in a mediated deal, leaving to opposition-held territory near the Turkish border.
The multi-sided war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people since 2011, has escalated on several fronts this year, as the collapse of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militant group has given way to other conflicts between Syrian and international parties.