BEIRUT - Syria and its ally Russia have threatened to resume bombing the final opposition holdout of Douma in Eastern Ghouta unless rebels there agree to evacuate, sources told AFP on Tuesday.

Jaish al-Islam, the powerful Islamist faction that holds Douma, had hoped that talks with Moscow would result in their staying in the town, instead of being bused out like other rebels. But negotiations have stalled and Russia has demanded a full withdrawal from Douma, two opposition sources close to the negotiations said.

"At the end of their meeting Monday, the Russians gave Jaish al-Islam two choices: surrender or face an attack," one of them told AFP.

Russia gave the group a few days before a military assault on the town, they said.

The source said Moscow urged them to follow the example of Faylaq al-Rahman, another Islamist faction that agreed last week to withdraw from its zone in Ghouta after immense military pressure. Russia has brokered deals with Faylaq and another hardline group that has seen more than 17,000 rebels, their relatives, and other civilians bused out of Ghouta. Before they faltered, talks over Douma's fate had envisioned Jaish al-Islam laying down its heavy weapons in exchange for government-provided water and electricity returning to the town. Douma had been relatively calm as negotiations were underway, without the heavy bombing raining on other towns.

But Moscow was no longer willing to accept a special exception for Douma, the second opposition source told AFP. "The Russians don't want an agreement for Douma that's different from other parts of Ghouta, but Jaish al-Islam wants to stay and doesn't want any residents to leave," the source said. "They gave them an ultimatum," the source said, adding that the group had "until Wednesday or Thursday" to respond.

Al-Watan, a newspaper close to the Syrian government, reported Tuesday that military forces were already amassing around Douma.

"All forces involved in Eastern Ghouta are heading towards Douma ahead of a massive military operation if the terrorists of Jaish al-Islam do not agree to hand over the city and leave," the daily said, citing a military source.

Syrian troops have already captured more than 90 percent of Eastern Ghouta through a blistering assault that has killed more than 1,600 civilians.

Trump urges closer cooperation

with Turkey

The United States and its allies must work more closely with Turkey in Syria, President Donald Trump said Tuesday in a call with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.

Washington has previously expressed concern about Turkey's decision to plunge itself more deeply into Syria's civil war with an offensive against Kurdish-held border areas. But according to the White House, in conversation with Macron, Trump "stressed the need to intensify cooperation with Turkey with respect to shared strategic challenges in Syria."

UN faces ‘day of shame’

over failed truce

US Ambassador Nikki Haley on Tuesday rebuked the UN Security Council over Syria, saying the failure of a 30-day ceasefire should be a “day of shame” for council members.

Russia hit back that it was the only country working to turn the ceasefire into a reality on the ground in Syria, where government forces have recaptured nearly all of Eastern Ghouta in a fierce month-long offensive.

“This should be a day of shame for every member of this council,” said Haley.

She said 1,600 people had “died on our watch” in Eastern Ghouta since the council unanimously adopted a ceasefire resolution on February 24 after intense negotiations with Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s ally.

Syrians continued to be taken on buses out of Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday in an evacuation the West sees as a strategy of starve-and-siege, directed against civilians to force a surrender of armed groups.

“After years of enduring siege and starvation, residents are surrendering Eastern Ghouta,” said Haley.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the departures were voluntary and that Moscow’s forces were providing food, shelter and medical aid to those in need.

“Perhaps it is not to the liking of some, but in fact we are the sole member to undertake concrete measures to implement Resolution 2301,” said Nebenzia.

France expressed concern with the fate of 55,000 civilians held in nine camps administered by the Syrian government near Eastern Ghouta, without access to water or electricity.

“Their fate has not improved. Their hell has just moved a few kilometers away,” said French Ambassador Francois Delattre.

UN aid agencies continue to be denied access to Eastern Ghouta.

Sweden and Kuwait, which drafted the ceasefire resolution, maintain that it remains in force and are urging action to ensure the truce finally takes hold across the country.

 

In January, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered an assault against the enclave of Afrin in northern Syria to root out the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) there. Turkey views the YPG as simply an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is fighting an insurgency inside Turkey and whose fighters Ankara and Washington brand "terrorists."

But the US military has worked closely with the YPG inside Syria, making the Kurdish fighters the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), set up to fight the Islamic State group.

US officials have repeatedly complained that Turkey's battle against the YPG is a distraction from the anti-IS fight, but Trump's remarks Tuesday suggest growing sympathy for his NATO ally.

In addition to discussing Turkey and Syria, Trump and Macron touched on the allied response to Russia's alleged attempt to assassinate a double-agent in a nerve agent attack on British soil.

"Both leaders expressed support for the West's strong response to Russia's chemical weapons attack in Salisbury, United Kingdom, including the expulsion of numerous Russian intelligence officers on both sides of the Atlantic," the White House said.

This marked Trump's first personal, public comment on the Western response after he allowed his spokeswoman to announce Washington's unprecedented decision to expel 60 alleged Russian agents.

 In January, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered an assault against the enclave of Afrin in northern Syria to root out the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) there. Turkey views the YPG as simply an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is fighting an insurgency inside Turkey and whose fighters Ankara and Washington brand "terrorists." But the US military has worked closely with the YPG inside Syria, making the Kurdish fighters the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), set up to fight the Islamic State group. US officials have repeatedly complained that Turkey's battle against the YPG is a distraction from the anti-IS fight, but Trump's remarks Tuesday suggest growing sympathy for his NATO ally.

In addition to discussing Turkey and Syria, Trump and Macron touched on the allied response to Russia's alleged attempt to assassinate a double-agent in a nerve agent attack on British soil.

"Both leaders expressed support for the West's strong response to Russia's chemical weapons attack in Salisbury, United Kingdom, including the expulsion of numerous Russian intelligence officers on both sides of the Atlantic," the White House said.

This marked Trump's first personal, public comment on the Western response after he allowed his spokeswoman to announce Washington's unprecedented decision to expel 60 alleged Russian agents.