Hundreds flee massive regime offensive on Damascus countryside

Hundreds flee massive regime offensive on Damascus countryside
Hundreds have been displaced as the Syrian regime kicks off a large-scale military campaign in rural areas surrounding Damascus.
3 min read
19 May, 2016
Opposition-held Ghouta has come under an intensified regime offensive [Getty]

Hundreds more people were displaced in the East Ghouta countryside on Thursday, as the Syrian regime launched a large-scale military campaign in the area.

"The towns of the south of the province have witnessed mass displacement following the Syrian regime progressing in the regime and its establishment over serveral towns in the region," media activist Mohammed Abu Samir told The New Arab from Ghouta.

Syrian troops, backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shia movement Hizbollah, wrested control of a key town and nine surrounding villages outside Damascus from rebels on Thursday, a monitor said.

Regime-aligned fighters used clashes between rival rebel factions Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman as an opportunity to retake the town of Deir al-Assafir, reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

As rebels summoned their fighters from Deir al-Assafir to the front-line, regime forces launched "a violent attack and heavy air campaign resulting in them controlling the town" in the opposition bastion of Eastern Ghouta, said the Observatory's head.

They were then able to "advance rapidly in the south of Eastern Ghouta after rebel fighters retreated after losing Deir al-Assafir, fearing they would be besieged", Rami Abdel Rahman added.

Hundreds of families fled the area, which Islamist rebels had controlled since 2012.

In April, fighting pitted Jaish al-Islam against Faylaq al-Rahman and another rebel group, Jaish al-Fustat - both allied to The Nusra Front, Syria's al-Qaeda franchise.
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The regime had been trying to retake Deir al-Assafir since February, Abdel Rahman said, despite Eastern Ghouta being included in a fragile nationwide ceasefire between the army and rebels.

Meanwhile, in southern rural Damascus, rebel and FSA groups continued to repel attempts by regime forces to storm the town of Khan al-Sheikh. The town was reportedly the target of no fewer than 30 airstrikes and barrel bombs on Tuesday.

The refugee camp in the town hosts a large Palestinian population and has been under an increasingly tight siege by the regime.

On Wednesday regime airstrikes destroyed the only hospital in the area.

Asaad Alzoabi leads the opposition's negotiation delegation in Geneva. He said that, while Russia was stepping up airstrikes in Syria, Iran and the Assad regime had recently amassed around 11,000 troops around Aleppo and Idlib.

Alzoabi added that the Assad regime and its allies were preparing for the second military campaign against eastern Ghouta, noting that Iranian-backed militia fighters continue to arrive at Damascus International Airport and to Hama airbase.

Alzoabi went on to say that Russia was again stepping up its aerial attacks on Aleppo and eastern Ghouta, ahead of regime preparations to launch a ground attack on Aleppo province.

The latest advance, with Hizballah's support, comes just days after the Iran-backed movement said its top military commander was killed in Syria in an attack it blamed on Islamist extremists.

The movement has deployed thousands of fighters in Syria, where Mustafa Badreddine had led its intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

More than 400,000 people have been killed since the conflict erupted in Syria in March 2011, analysts estimate.