Syrian army pushes forward, despite US-led strikes

Bashar al-Assad.
Bashar al-Assad. Photo credit: Getty

The Syrian army has bombarded jihadists in the last area outside government control near Damascus as President Bashar al-Assad accelerates his push to retake remaining enclaves.

On state television on Friday, large puffs of smoke could be seen appearing suddenly along a row of buildings as an artillery salvo struck home before one collapsed in a cloud of dust, accompanied by the rattle of automatic fire and the sound of distant blasts.

US, British and French air strikes on Saturday to punish Assad for suspected use of chemical weapons have done nothing to slow the advance of his forces, now in their strongest position since the early months of the seven-year-old war.

Air strikes and shelling hit the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and al-Hajar al-Aswad area, part of a small enclave divided between warring jihadists and other rebels south of the capital.

The live state television footage of the area showed a plume of dark smoke billowing across one district as guns boom in the distance. A Reuters witness in central Damascus saw air strikes also hitting the area.

Assad is accelerating his campaign to retake the remaining enclaves his forces encircle around Syria, which would leave rebels with only their two major strongholds in the northwest and southwest.

Western countries launched their first coordinated action against Assad on Saturday to punish him for a suspected gas attack they say killed scores of people during an advance that captured the town of Ghouta near the capital.

But the single volley of air strikes, hitting three targets far from any frontline, had no effect on the wider war which has killed 500,000 people and made more than half of Syrians homeless.

International inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) who arrived in Damascus nearly a week ago were still waiting early on Friday to visit the site of the suspected poison gas attack.

Syria and its ally Russia deny using chemical weapons in the assault on Douma. The Western countries say the Syrian government, which now controls the town, is keeping the inspectors out and may be tampering with evidence, both accusations Damascus and Moscow deny.

Physicians for Human Rights, a US-based rights group, voiced "grave concern" over reports that Douma hospital staff had faced "extreme intimidation" after the area came back under government control to stop them talking about the incident.

Rebels on Thursday began pulling out of Dumayr, an enclave northeast of Damascus, under a surrender deal with the government. Insurgents in another enclave nearby - Eastern Qalamoun - said they had also agreed to withdraw.

Russia plans more missiles

The US last week removed any moral obligation Russia had to withhold S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems from its ally, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says.

Mr Lavrov was quoted by the RIA state news agency as saying that, prior to the US strikes on Syrian targets, Russia had told US officials which areas of Syria represented "red lines" for Moscow, and the US military action did not cross those lines.

He said that he was convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump would not allow an armed confrontation between their two countries, RIA reported.

Reuters