Assad forces readying for assault on besieged, starved East Ghouta

Assad forces readying for assault on besieged, starved East Ghouta
Syrian regime forces are poised for an attack on East Ghouta to retake the area.
3 min read
19 February, 2018
Around 250 civilians have been killed in East Ghouta (Getty)
Syrian forces readied on Sunday for a ground offensive against the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, a monitor said, as residents of the capital braced for retaliatory shelling.

President Bashar al-Assad has in recent days been sending reinforcements from across the country to the edge of Eastern Ghouta, besieged by regime troops since 2013.

"The reinforcements are complete; the attack is just waiting for a green light," said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On Sunday, more than 260 rockets, heavy artillery fire, and air strikes slammed into several towns in Eastern Ghouta, he told AFP.

The bombardment left at least 14 civilians dead, including four children, and dozens more people wounded.

The last rebel bastion near Damascus, Eastern Ghouta is held by two main Islamist factions, Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, although jihadists also have a foothold there.

The regime is keen to regain control of the area to halt the deadly salvo of rockets and mortars that those factions have fired on the capital.

An AFP correspondent in Damascus said six rockets hit the capital on Sunday.

Residents were already starting to pack bags and rent rooms outside the city in anticipation of an operation now seen as imminent.

One of them said he was planning to temporarily move his parents out of their home in the capital's east, which is regularly hit in rebel shelling.

"I'd rather drop my parents off in our village in Wadih al-Qalaa," in the government-controlled province of Latakia, said 29-year-old Karim.

"They'll be safer there, and I can bring them back as soon as it's calm in their neighbourhood," he told AFP.

Talks on evacuation

According to the Observatory, the regime began dispatching military reinforcements to Eastern Ghouta on February 5, the same day it launched a fierce five-day bombing campaign on the region.

Airstrikes have left around 250 civilians dead, with retaliatory rocket fire on Damascus killing about 20, the monitor said.

Abdel Rahman said negotiations with Russian involvement were taking place for the evacuation of jihadist faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), whose footprint in Ghouta is limited but includes areas directly adjacent to Damascus.

The Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the government, also reported the talks on Sunday.

But rebels have denied the claim, with top Jaish al-Islam figure Mohammad Alloush telling AFP there were no negotiations.

"We reserve our legitimate right to defend ourselves. We opened the door for a political solution and participated in negotiations to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but the other side breached these agreements and broke every ceasefire," he said.

Faylaq al-Rahman spokesman Wael Alwan also told AFP his group had "no correspondence or negotiations with the criminal regime or its allies."

The government has already cleared swathes of territory around Damascus through local deals, whereby besieged anti-government forces were evacuated and bussed to other rebel-dominated areas.

If a deal is struck for Eastern Ghouta, HTS jihadists would likely be sent to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is almost completely out of government control.

But time appeared to be running out for an agreement Sunday and regime forces, who have been receiving aerial backing from Russia, looked on the brink of starting a major offensive.

The Observatory said more than 260 rockets had rained down on Eastern Ghouta in the space of an hour on Sunday evening, and air strikes and artillery also hit the area.

"The collapse of the negotiations will signal the start of an assault," Abdel Rahman said.

An estimated 400,000 people still live under siege in Eastern Ghouta, including hundreds in urgent need of medical care outside the enclave.

The United Nations has called for a month-long ceasefire across Syria to allow for aid and medical evacuations, to no avail.