Civilians trapped in Eastern Ghouta, all sides blame each other

More than 500 people are thought to have died in the last eight days of the 3-month-old onslaught on the suburb.
Thursday 01/03/2018
A Russian army soldier standing guard between the portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin, outside at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus, on March 1. (AFP)
Between leaders. A Russian army soldier standing guard between the portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin, outside at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus, on March 1. (AFP)

TUNIS - The Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that rebels in Eastern Ghouta are shelling the “humanitarian corridor” imposed by Moscow to allow civilians to leave the besieged suburb ahead of an anticipated Syrian regime land assault.

Syrian state-owned media said “dozens” of civilians have gathered at the outskirts of the suburb but were prevented from reaching government-controlled areas by rebel militias.

Reports of rebel shelling of escape routes were denied by forces within Eastern Ghouta. The sources said citizens are unwilling to trust the government offering them sanctuary. In the six years Eastern Ghouta has been under rebel control, regime forces have shelled, besieged and deployed chemical weapons against the suburb.

The Associated Press, citing numerous sources, reported that no civilians had left Eastern Ghouta or humanitarian aid entered the suburb since the UN ceasefire was declared on February 24 or the Russian “humanitarian pause” imposed on February 27.

Despite the ceasefires, clashes between units of the regime’s elite Tiger Forces and rebels have been reported, with both sides confirming that pro-government forces engaged rebels at Hawsh al-Dawahra, east of the enclave on February 28.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel groups inflicted heavy losses on regime forces. Reuters quoted a rebel group official as describing the fighting as “back and forth.”

Approximately 400,000 civilians have been under siege in Eastern Ghouta since 2013. More than 500 people are thought to have died in the last eight days of the 3-month-old onslaught.

Approximately 20,000 rebels are said to be entrenched among the civilian population, within a latticework of caves and tunnels. Within that rebel grouping are an estimated 300 al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) fighters whose presence the regime and Russia claim places the entire suburb outside the protection of the UN ceasefire.

Dwarfing HTS within Eastern Ghouta is Jaysh al-Islam. The expressly jihadist militia is thought to have 10,000-15,000 fighters, the majority of whom are within Ghouta.

Alongside Jaysh al-Islam are an unknown number of fighters belonging to Faylaq al-Rahman. Unlike Jaysh al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman claims no intention to introduce a religious state, stating that its focus is limited to the ousting of the Assad regime.

Trapped between the rebel groups and the onslaught of the Assad regime, Eastern Ghouta has experienced what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described as hell on Earth.

Last November, UNICEF reported that 11.9% of children under five in the suburb, an area once described as the “bread basket of Damascus,” were experiencing acute malnutrition. That rate, the agency said, was “the highest… ever recorded in Syria.”

In 2013, Eastern Ghouta was subject to what the United Nations described as the worst chemical attack in 25 years when regime missiles armed with the nerve agent sarin, were fired at the area, killing at least 500 people.