Government bombing of Damascus suburbs kills more than 100

BEIRUT (AP) — Government forces bombed the northeastern suburbs of the Syrian capital for a second straight day on Tuesday, killing more than 100 people and raising the specter of a full-scale offensive that could spell catastrophe for the nearly 400,000 residents trapped under siege.

Rescuers raced to reach survivors in the devastated Damascus suburbs known as eastern Ghouta as warplanes and helicopter gunships circled overhead, bombing hospitals, apartment blocks, markets and other civilian targets. The suburbs are the last major stronghold for rebels in the capital region.

At least 250 civilians were killed during the 48 hours of unrelenting onslaught that began Monday, including 58 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. Another 1,000 people were wounded, it said.

“We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage,” the U.N. children’s agency said in a terse statement about the carnage.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to endorse the unrestrained assault, which he said was backed by the Russian air force. “In keeping with the existing agreements, the fight against terrorism cannot be restricted by anything,” he said.

Russia has been an unwavering ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and was instrumental to the all-out assault in late 2016 that ejected rebels from their enclave in eastern Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war — an outcome that Lavrov said could serve as a model for eastern Ghouta.

Pro-government forces have been amassing since the weekend on the perimeter of the rebel-held region, a collection of towns and farmland that once provided grain and fruit to the capital before nearly five years of warfare turned it into a landscape of havoc and despair.

The towns of eastern Ghouta were among the first to organize into self-governing collectives and shake off government rule after popular demonstrations against Assad swept through the country in 2011, eventually leading to civil war. They are also among the last to resist Assad’s determined campaign to bring every last rebellious corner of the country to heel. Assad and his allies maintain they are fighting a war on terrorism.

Monther Fares, spokesman for the Ahrar al-Sham rebel faction operating in eastern Ghouta, said densely populated residential areas were bearing the brunt of the attacks, a hallmark tactic of the government and its allies to devastate civilian areas and infrastructure before launching a final ground assault.

The battle for rebel-held east Aleppo culminated in the evacuation of tens of thousands of civilians from their homes, with many unable to return. A subsequent U.N. investigation charged that the campaign amounted to forced displacement of a population and rose to the level of a war crime.

That outcome could still be a while coming in eastern Ghouta, which is considerably larger than east Aleppo.

It is also divided between two rebel factions that deeply distrust each other, as well as a small presence of al-Qaida-linked fighters and a handful of other militias that could lead to the fragmentation of the enclave, according to Aron Lund, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation. That, at least, could spare civilians some of the devastation of an all-out ground assault.