Iran Says Damascus Suburbs Assault to Continue as Fighting Rages

Iran said pro-Damascus forces would press ahead with attacks on an insurgent enclave near the Syrian capital, as ground fighting raged on there in defiance of a U.N. resolution demanding a 30-day truce across the country, Tasnim news agency reports.

Iranian General Mohammad Bagheri, whose government backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said Tehran and Damascus would respect the U.N. resolution. Iran’s army chief-of-staff also said on Sunday the UN Security Council resolution demanding a ceasefire in Syria the truce did not cover parts of the Damascus suburbs “held by the terrorists” and they would continue to be targeted by the Syrian military.

“We respect this resolution which is an international decision… and the Syrian government respects it as well. But the zones on the periphery of Damascus which are in the hands of Al-Nusra and other terrorist groups are not covered by the ceasefire and the offensives and clearing operations by the Syrian army will continue,” said Bagheri.

The Security Council on Saturday adopted a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria “without delay”, to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations. But heavy clashes broke out in southern areas of the opposition enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Sunday, a monitor said.

“The Western camp and terrorist supporters insisted on establishing a ceasefire but… Russia and Iran sought to limit this resolution so that terrorist groups like Al-Nusra are exempted and the war can continue against them. Syrian territory must be cleared of terrorist groups over the coming months so that Syrians can live peacefully,” said Bagheri.

Turkey, too, said its military operations in another theater of war in the north of Syria would not be affected by the unanimous Security Council vote demanding the truce to allow for aid access and medical evacuations. Anti-government rebels said they clashed with pro-government forces near Damascus on Sunday, as rescuers and residents said warplanes struck some towns in the eastern Ghouta pocket.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air strikes and artillery killed nine people and injured 31 in the eastern suburbs. The UK-based monitoring group said Sunday’s bombing was less intense than attacks over the past week. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi stressed on Thursday that his country’s presence in Syria is not aimed at creating a new front against Israel. He told the BBC that the presence was aimed at combating terrorism.

“Just imagine if we were not there. Now you would have ISIS in Damascus, and maybe in Beirut and other places,” he added.

Moreover, Araghchi condemned the suffering of the Syrians in the Damascus enclave of Eastern Ghouta that has come under intense regime air strikes that has left hundreds of people dead. He said Iran was in Syria to fight “terrorist elements” at the invitation of the Syrian regime, and its alliance with Syria and the Lebanese “Hezbollah” group aimed to “combat the hegemonic policies” of Israel, reported the BBC.

He refused to confirm that Iran had sent a drone to fly over Israel earlier this month.

The Iranian official instead claimed that the drone belonged to the Syrian regime forces, adding that Israel deploys drones to neighboring countries.

“They shouldn’t be angry when they are faced with something that they are doing against others on a daily basis,” Araghchi said.

The latest escalation by Damascus and its allies has killed more than 500 people in the enclave over the last week, the Observatory says. The dead included more than 120 children. Signaling the war remained a top focus of world leaders, the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin and French and German counterparts Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel spoke by phone and discussed the ceasefire’s implementation.

In Ankara, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said the U.N. resolution would not affect Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish fighters in Syria’s Kurdish-held Afrin region. Turkey launched an assault last month on Afrin, seeking to drive out the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia which it deems a menace along its border.  Several ceasefires have unraveled quickly during the seven-year war in Syria, where Assad’s military has gained the upper hand with the help of Iran and Russia.

The U.N. resolution on Saturday followed seven straight days of bombing by pro-government forces on eastern Ghouta, in one of the bloodiest offensives of the war. The Security Council voted unanimously to demand the truce to allow for aid access and medical evacuations. Yet while Moscow supported adopting the resolution, Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia cast doubt on its feasibility.

The resolution does not cover militants from Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and the Nusra Front.