Ghouta rebels await assault as Syrian regime bombardment continues
TUNIS - Thousands of heavily armed rebels in Eastern Ghouta prepared for what looks to be an inevitable assault by Syrian regime troops massing on the suburb’s borders.
Lodged in a network of caves that lace through the suburb 15km east of Damascus, an array of rebel groups are bracing for an attack on their positions despite the UN ceasefire declared on February 24.
A parallel peace measure, imposed by the regime’s principal ally, Russia, to establish a daily 5-hour "humanitarian pause" in the fighting appeared to be holding into its second day. However, Eastern Ghouta’s civilian population of 400,000 has not used the cessation of hostilities to leave.
Within Eastern Ghouta, rebel groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman jostle with al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham’s approximately 300 fighters among the estimated 20,000 rebel combatants that have been cited by Russia and the regime as justification for the continued battering.
Wary of regime intentions, the commanders of all three of Eastern Ghouta’s main rebel groups wrote to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on February 26, claiming they were attempting to expel the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters and their families within 15 days. They accused the government of deliberately hampering efforts to do so.
The Damascus regime lost control of Eastern Ghouta in 2012, after which the area has endured chemical attacks, starvation and siege imposed by the regime. Within mortar range of Damascus’s centre, Eastern Ghouta stands as an almost visible rebuttal to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s attempt to reclaim Syria.
“The hatred of Ghouta is not just rooted within the Assad regime but within the Syrian deep state,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Programme fellow at the Centre for a New American Security. “They haven’t just broken all the rules of modern war in trying to retake Ghouta, they’ve consciously deployed ancient and more horrendous warfare tactics."
Since the first few weeks of February, units of Syria’s elite Tiger Forces under Brigadier-General Suheil al-Hassan have been redeploying from Idlib to Eastern Ghouta.
“They’re either going to drown it in a river of blood or surround it and starve it out," Heras said. "Either way, it’s going to be savage.”
Rebels contacted by Voice of America said Hassan’s presence on the outskirts of Eastern Ghouta is a sign of what’s to come.
Prior to attacks, Hassan has been known to broadcast his poems over loudspeakers, detailing what will befall opposing forces should they not surrender. He is said to have deployed scorched-earth tactics, ordering bruising land assaults after days of shelling and air strikes.
In the meantime, both sides wait as the jets of the regime and its allies fly through the cracks in international law and the 400,000 civilians of Eastern Ghouta pay the price.