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In Syria, airstrikes ahead of Iranian foreign minister visit to tout peace plan

Fighting between government forces and rebels has killed more than two dozen people in and near Damascus.

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    A woman rushes away after what activists said were Assad regime airstrikes on a busy marketplace in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria Aug. 12.
    ASSAM KHABIEH/Reuters
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More than two dozen people were killed in airstrikes in and around the Syrian capital Damascus early Wednesday, casting doubt on an already shaky premise of an Iranian-led peace initiative. 

The attacks — a combination of rebel shelling and government airstrikes — came just hours before the scheduled arrival of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. He was expected to speak about Iran’s prospective four-point peace plan for ending Syria’s grinding four-year civil war, which is said to include a cease-fire and “national unity government,” the Associated Press reports

Iran has funneled troops, weapons, and billions of dollars to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Anti-Assad forces have been supplied by regional Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The US and other Western governments have Assad must go under any peace deal in Syria, and all previous efforts by the UN to broke peace talks have gone nowhere. 

“The Islamic Republic of Iran, from the beginning of the crisis, has believed that the Syrian crisis has no military solution and that it should be resolved through political and diplomatic solutions based on dialogue and agreement,” said Marzieh Afkham, an Iranian spokesman told official media, according to Reuters. 

The latest clashes began during rush hour Wednesday morning, with dozens of rockets fired by rebels hitting targets across central Damascus. At least four people were killed and nearly 60 wounded, according to state television and the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reports Agence France-Presse.

Government forces responded by bombarding several towns in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel stronghold close to the capital, killing at least 27 people and injuring more than 100 more, according to Voice of America

Both sides have been repeatedly condemned by human rights monitors for indiscriminately firing into civilian populations. On Wednesday Amnesty International published a report arguing the Syrian government was carrying out war crimes in Eastern Ghouta, saying that the bombardments were compounding the suffering created by government blockades.

Between January and June 2015 Syrian government forces carried out at least 60 aerial attacks on Eastern Ghouta killing around 500 civilians [with] 13 air strikes and other attacks amounting to war crimes, which killed 231 civilians and only three fighters. In 10 cases no military target could be identified in the vicinity suggesting the strikes were direct attacks on civilians or at best indiscriminate. … Many public places that were struck were crammed full of civilians including a crowded public market, a school while students were nearby and the vicinity of a mosque soon after Friday prayers….

In addition to daily bombardments, living conditions for civilians of Eastern Ghouta have continued to deteriorate…. More than 200 people have died from starvation or lack of access to adequate medical care in Eastern Ghouta between 21 October 2012 and 31 January 2015 according to the Syrian American Medical Society.

Even as the fighting raged around Damascus, a 48-hour cease-fire between rebels and pro-government Shiite militias went into effect in the Syrian border town of Zabadani and in two Shiite villages, the Associated Press quoted Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying.

Recent negotiations aimed at achieving the cease-fire in Zabadani, which lies northwest of Damascus, and in the northern villages of Foua and Kfarya were seen as consistent with an evolving Iran-backed plan to contract the territory controlled by Assad to manageable dimensions, The Christian Science Monitor has reported.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad and his ally Iran are exploring negotiations with rebel groups that could lead to the transfer of several besieged Sunni and Shiite communities to safer ares.

While the negotiations could provide some welcome relief from the violence that has claimed more than 250,000 lives, the population transfers would harden the gradual partition of the country along sectarian lines between the Assad regime, the backbone of which is drawn from the Alawite sect, and the mainly Sunni armed opposition....

Zabadani is the last significant rebel-held area along the Lebanese border and its seizure by the Syrian Army is necessary to secure the regime's much-anticipated withdrawal to an enclave stretching from Damascus to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.

Zarif’s visit to Syria comes one day after he met in Beirut with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Iranian-supported militant group Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters in support of Syrian government. At that meeting, Mr. Nasrallah stressed his support for Iran and what he claimed was Hezbollah’s commitment to promoting security in the region.

“The Resistance seeks to protect Lebanon and the region against the threats imposed by the main enemies who are after dismantling solidarity, security and the infrastructure of human life and peaceful coexistence,” he said, according to the Mehr News Agency in Iran.

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