Germany has urged Russia and Iran to pressure the Syrian government to end the "massacre" in a rebel-held Damascus suburb that an independent monitor says has killed at least 250 civilians in two days.
"One has to ask where is Russia, where is Iran, which had pledged in Astana to guarantee a cease-fire also in eastern Ghouta," Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said on February 21, referring to Syria peace talks in the Kazakh capital.
"Without the support of these two allies, [President Bashar al-]Assad's regime would not be where it is today, and undoubtedly, without this support, this regime would have to show more readiness to negotiate in the UN process," he added.
The comments come amid a growing outcry from Western capitals, the United Nations, and humanitarian groups over what they describe as "devastating" attacks and "siege and starve tactics" being used by Syrian and Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships against the rebel-held enclave outside the Syrian capital.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 250 civilians, including 58 children, had been killed in Ghouta since late on February 18, and another 1,200 people had been wounded.
Russia and Iran have given Assad's government crucial support throughout the 7-year-old war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on protests. Moscow helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor by a launching a campaign of air strikes in 2015 and stepping up its military presence on the ground.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov defended the assault on the Damascus suburb, saying it was an assault on "terrorism" and not directed at civilians.
"In keeping with the existing agreements, the fight against terrorism cannot be restricted by anything," Lavrov said in Moscow on February 21.
He blamed what he called "armed provocations" by Al-Nusra Front militants for conditions in eastern Ghouta, and said Russia and Syria would draw from their deadly and controversial assault on the northern city of Aleppo in 2016 in the offensive.
The United Nations, the United States, European countries, and human rights groups have decried the massive killing of civilians in 48 hours of bombing by Syrian and Russian warplanes and helicopter gunships.
Rescuers, monitors, and the UN say the bombs have hit hospitals, apartment blocks, markets, and other civilian targets.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called for restraint and access to the wounded in and around Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 250 civilians, including 58 children, have been killed since the bombing began late on February 18, and another 1,200 people were wounded.
"We no longer have the words to describe children's suffering and our outrage," the UN children's agency said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said late on February 20 through a spokesman that he was "deeply alarmed" by the escalating violence and its "devastating impact on civilians."
Residents of eastern Ghouta "are living under extreme conditions, including malnutrition," he said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States was "deeply concerned" about the "siege and starve tactics" being used by Russia and Syria.
"The horrors of east Aleppo are being repeated in east Ghouta with the ongoing slaughter of trapped civilians and woefully inadequate access for humanitarian actors," she said.
"The cessation of violence must begin now, and those needing emergency assistance should be allowed to evacuate immediately," she said.
"We call on all parties to commit to the unconditional deescalation of violence. Russia must end its support of the Assad regime and its allies. They are responsible for the attacks, for the dire humanitarian situation in east Ghouta, and for the horrendous civilian death toll," Nauert said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected Western suggestions that Russia was to blame for some of the civilian deaths in Ghouta.
"These are groundless accusations. We don't know what they are based on,” Peskov told a news conference in Moscow.
The allegations "are not backed up with any specific information. We do not agree with them," he added.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned that the escalating battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, over which Damascus regained full control in late 2016 after years of fighting.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry accused militants in Ghouta of targeting Damascus and using people as "human shields."
Factions in Ghouta fired mortars at Damascus on February 20, killing six people and injuring 28, Syrian state TV said.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters