Amid Outcry Over Ghouta, Russia Vows To Back Assad Against 'Terror Threat'

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Moscow will continue to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government to defeat what he called the "terrorist threat."

Lavrov's remarks, in an address to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on February 28, came amid a global outcry over a Syrian government offensive that has killed hundreds of people near Damascus in the past 10 days or so.

The bombardment of eastern Ghouta, an area of towns and farms on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, has been one of the deadliest air campaigns of a seven-year war in which Assad has had crucial Russian military and diplomatic support.

Lavrov criticized unnamed countries he said had failed to "clearly condemn any forms and manifestations of international terrorism."

"We find it unacceptable to distinguish between good and bad terrorists," he said, echoing a frequent Russian claim that Western countries including the United States have applied double standards.

"Russia will continue to resolutely fight the practice of double standards, including by facilitating Syrian Army actions aimed at the final extermination of the terrorist threat," Lavrov added.

Lavrov's comments came as Western countries urged Russia and Iran to use their influence with Assad to secure a 30-day cease-fire across the country, as demanded in a Russia-backed UN Security Council resolution on February 24.

They also came as violence continued in eastern Ghouta despite Russia's announcement of a daily "humanitarian pause."

The Syrian and Russian governments frequently refer to opponents of Assad as terrorists, and Lavrov blamed the situation in eastern Ghouta on the rebels.

Lavrov told the Geneva forum that "militants entrenched" in the besieged area were blocking aid and the evacuation of people who want to leave, despite Moscow's announcement of a "humanitarian corridor."

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that "continuing provocations by terrorists [in eastern Ghouta] regrettably leave no chance for settling this situation properly."

Responding to Russian criticism of rebel groups, Paris reiterated its call on Assad’s supporters to "exert maximum pressure on the Syrian government to implement its obligations," referring to Russia and Iran.

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Von der Muhll said that the rebels had already agreed to support the truce.

Activists said the government carried out air and artillery strikes in Ghouta during the first five-hour "pause" on February 27, while Damascus and Moscow accused rebels of shelling the evacuation route.

On February 28, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces and allied militias, backed by intense shelling and rocket bombardment, advanced on the enclave overnight.

The United Nations says the continued fighting makes relief operations impossible.

Russia, along with Iran, has given Assad's government crucial support throughout the war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on peaceful protests.

Moscow helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor by launching a campaign of air strikes in 2015 and stepping up its military presence on the ground.

In a February 26 letter to the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran, and Turkey, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini urged the three countries to take "all necessary steps" to ensure that the fighting in Syria stops, Reuters news agency reported.

Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara are the guarantors of the so-called Astana process aimed at de-escalating violence in Syria.

Turkey on January 19 began an air-and-land military campaign in the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave in northern Syria, saying it was targeting terrorists.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, TASS, and Interfax