Syrian government seizes ground in Ghouta advance

In one of the deadliest offensives of the war, government air strikes and bombardment have killed hundreds of people over 12 days in eastern Ghouta.

Syrians pack their belongings as they flee their home in the town of Utaya in the Syrian rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on 1 March 2018.  Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT/GENEVA - Syrian government forces aim to advance into the eastern Ghouta region one “bite” at a time, a pro-government commander said on Friday, as a war monitor said the army had seized new ground from rebels.

In one of the deadliest offensives of the war, government air strikes and bombardment have killed hundreds of people over 12 days in eastern Ghouta, an area of besieged towns and farms that is the last major rebel-controlled area near the capital.

US President Donald Trump spoke to the leaders of France and Germany about the situation on Friday. France said President Emmanuel Macron and Trump agreed to work together to implement a UN-backed ceasefire that has failed to stop the onslaught, and called on Russia to get Damascus to abide by it.

The Security Council on Saturday called for a 30-day countrywide truce. Russia, which backs the Syrian government in the war, has instead called for daily humanitarian ceasefires from 9am to 2pm.

The US State Department on Thursday dismissed Russia’s humanitarian ceasefire plan as “a joke”, saying people were afraid to leave the area through a“humanitarian corridor” because of fear of conscription, exile or death.

The war has escalated on several fronts this year, with the collapse of Islamic State giving way to other conflicts between Syrian and international parties, including Turkey which said eight more of its soldiers had been killed fighting Kurdish militias in the Afrin area of northwestern Syria.

Government forces, including the elite Tiger Force, have been attacking rebels in the Maraj area of the Ghouta for several days. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday they had captured two villages - Hawsh al-Dawahra and Hawsh Zreika - in addition to hills and farmland.

Rebel sources could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.