Syrian Army Intensifies Ghouta Assault in Bid to Cut Rebel Enclave in Half

Syrian government forces have seized vast swathes of territory from rebels in the opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, effectively dividing the besieged enclave of eastern Ghouta in two and further squeezing rebels and the tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside, The Guardian reports.

The Syrian government assault of the densely populated area on the outskirts of Damascus, which began more than two weeks ago, has become one of the fiercest campaigns of the war now entering its eighth year, with bombardment killing hundreds. The government, determined to wrest the suburbs from the control of rebels after seven years of war, has resorted to extreme levels of shelling and bombardment to clear the way for its troops to advance on the ground.

“Regime forces control more than 50% of Ghouta,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP news agency.

Aerial bombing killed at least 20 people as troops and tanks advanced. At least 850 people are believed to have been killed since an offensive against the Eastern Ghouta, which is home to about 393,000 people, began on 18 February. Many victims are children.

The state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV station on Wednesday broadcast live shots from the region, showing dense columns of smoke rising above the town as explosions and rockets could be heard flying overhead. Syrian state media said troops took control of the town of Beit Sawa and most of Misraba, both rebel-held communities in the heart of the enclave.

According to the Observatory, 62 people were killed in Wednesday’s bombardments. The Ghouta Media Centre reported at least 20 deaths. A state TV correspondent said militant defenses in the town were being struck by “preparatory fire” in advance of a planned infantry assault, The Algemeiner says.

“Mesraba is under heavy attack today,” said Khalil Aybour, a member of an opposition council in Ghouta.
Capturing Mesraba would be a major step towards severing the northern half of the Ghouta, including its biggest town, Douma, from the southern part. Government forces have seized more than 40 percent of the territory so far. Civilians have been fleeing frontline areas into Douma and hiding in cellars.

“It’s bad in the basement, but it’s better than the bombing,” Adnan, 30, a Douma resident who has been sheltering below ground with his wife and two-year-old daughter together with 10 other families, told Reuters by telephone.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said that by nightfall Syrian government troops and allied militias had seized half of the territory held by rebels in eastern Ghouta and split the enclave in two halves, a north and southern part. By slicing the territory, the Syrian government succeeds in severing supply routes and squeezing further the rebels inside.

Dramatic videos released by the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence on Wednesday showed rescuers digging away rubble to rescue a dust-covered little boy and a baby girl in the town of Arbeen. The British-based Observatory, which monitors the war through a network of activists on the ground, said 40 people were killed in the bombardment on Wednesday.

Ali al-Za’tari, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Syria, appealed to the government in a letter to observe the ceasefire and allow medical supplies to be delivered, BBC reports. In Geneva, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein denounced what he said were attempts by Syria’s government to justify indiscriminate, brutal attacks on hundreds of thousands of civilians by the need to combat a few hundred fighters in eastern Ghouta, calling it “legally and morally unsustainable”.

“When you are prepared to kill your own people, lying is easy too. Claims by the government of Syria that it is taking every measure to protect its civilian population are frankly ridiculous,” he said.

Aid workers who entered eastern Ghouta briefly on Monday said some residents hadn’t seen sunlight for two weeks because they were sheltering underground. The Observatory claim 867 civilians have been killed since the offensive started on 18 February.

Russia’s military, by its own admission, is playing a key role supporting the assault. Russia announced Monday it was offering safe passage for rebels and their families out of eastern Ghouta, where some 400,000 people have been trapped under a relentless government campaign of shelling and airstrikes.

Rebel spokesman Wael Olwan dismissed the offer on Tuesday, saying it was “psychological warfare”. Olwan said that rebels had plugged their defensive lines after they crumbled in the early days of the assault. The opposition generally rejects evacuation agreements, saying they amount to demographic engineering, a tactic through which the government forcibly displaces its opponents.

SBS adds that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged all parties to abide by a 30-day ceasefire ordered by the Security Council on 24 February to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilians in desperate need.

Linda Tom, spokesperson for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office OCHA in Syria, said the aid would aim to reach 70,000 people in Douma and would include medical supplies not allowed in Monday’s delivery. Meanwhile, U.N. Security Council President Karel van Oosterom on Wednesday called for a cease-fire so that humanitarian workers can deliver food and medical aid. France and Britain called for a U.N. Security Council meeting because Syria has ignored a 30-day cessation ordered two weeks ago.

“We’ve called this meeting with the U.K. because the Syrian regime, as we speak, keeps besieging and bombing its own citizens in eastern Ghouta in complete violation of Resolution 2401 that was unanimously adopted by the council,” French U.N. representative Francois Delattre told Voice of America.