Syria regime bombards remaining rebel-held areas
DAMASCUS - Air strikes and artillery fire killed at least 15 civilians on Tuesday in a besieged rebel enclave near Damascus targeted by near-daily regime bombardment, a war monitor said.
Three children were among the dead in Eastern Ghouta, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said the air raids were carried out by regime and Russian warplanes.
The deadliest strikes hit the Hammuriyeh district where eight civilians were killed, the Britain-based monitor said.
"There are 85 wounded in total, some in critical condition, and the death toll could increase," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
The monitor relies on a network of sources inside Syria and says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions used.
Eastern Ghouta has been under government siege since 2013 and its estimated 400,000 inhabitants are suffering severe shortages of food and medicine.
It is one of the last remaining opposition strongholds in Syria, where more than 340,000 people have been killed across the country in nearly seven years of war.
Eastern Ghouta was one of four "de-escalation zones" agreed under a deal between rebel and regime backers but the opposition stronghold remains the target of intense regime air strikes.
Rebels controlling the region use it as a launch pad for rocket and mortar attacks on Damascus, where four people were killed Tuesday in bombardment on two neighbourhoods, according to state media.
- Turkey comments -
Turkey's foreign minister on Tuesday accused the Syrian regime of striking moderate opposition forces in Idlib province near the Turkish border, warning it could torpedo talks aimed at ending the war.
Ankara is working closely on Syria with Russia and Iran, President Bashar al-Assad's main allies, but has stepped up criticism of the regime's behaviour in recent days.
"Regime forces are striking moderate opposition with the pretext of fighting against Al-Nusra (Front)," Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying by the official Anadolu news agency, referring to the former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Idlib province is almost entirely controlled by anti-government forces that are dominated by a jihadist outfit known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) consisting mostly of former Nusra fighters.
"This attitude would scupper the political solution process," Cavusoglu said.
"The parties that will come together in Sochi should refrain from" any action that could threaten the talks, he warned.
Russia is hoping to hold a Syria peace congress in its Black Sea resort of Sochi on January 29-30.
Meanwhile, US-brokered talks based in Geneva between the regime and the opposition are also going forward, albeit at a stuttering pace.
A previous attempt in November to convene talks in Sochi failed due to disagreements between the prospective participants.
Turkey says it will oppose any talks involving the Kurdish militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Ankara views as a terror group.
In 2016, Ankara and Moscow brokered a fragile ceasefire in certain areas -- which has been bolstered by the negotiations in the Kazakh capital of Astana.
Both Damascus and the rebel factions regularly accuse one another of violating the ceasefire in the de-escalation zones, including in Idlib.
A likely future sticking point between Russia and Turkey is the fate of Assad, who Ankara has vehemently opposed throughout the conflict.
Last month, Erdogan said it was impossible to advance with Assad in power, describing him as a "terrorist".
Syrian regime forces had on Monday also pounded both Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, the two last rebel bastions in Syria.