The Syrian regime has seized more than half of a rebel enclave outside Damascus that has been under a tightening military and economic siege, part of a final onslaught on one of the last areas held by forces that have fought for seven years to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
The latest advances have split Eastern Ghouta and made its recapture possibly imminent. Taking Ghouta would enable the regime to further consolidate control around the capital and move toward its goal of ending the conflict through force rather than a political settlement. Several rounds of peace talks have failed to end the conflict.
With the backing of the Russian military and foreign Shiite militias, the regime has already largely regained control over much territory once held by rebels.
The three-week military assault on Ghouta, home to nearly 400,000 people, follows years of deprivation of food and medical supplies—a signature tactic used by the regime to weaken local resistance and buy time for its overstretched military to mount an offensive.
“This has definitely been a slow concerted tightening of the noose while the regime had been pursuing other priorities,” said Chris Kozak, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
The latest offensive on Eastern Ghouta has killed more than 800 civilians, many of them women and children, according to the White Helmets, the emergency rescuers who operate in opposition areas. Warplanes drop dozens of bombs daily and fire rockets containing chlorine gas or incendiary chemicals, according to local doctors.
Smoke rose Friday over Jisreen, a town in Eastern Ghouta. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
A Syrian air force plane dropped a payload over Eastern Ghouta on Friday. Photo: Hamza al-Ajweh/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
A United Nations Security Council resolution for a 30-day cease-fire that passed unanimously last month has done nothing to quell the violence. Regime ground forces, backed by foreign Shiite militias and Russian air power, have advanced through sparsely populated areas and battles are now concentrated around urban areas.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called it “an apocalypse intended, planned and executed by individuals within the government, apparently with the full backing of some of their foreign supporters.”
Mr. Assad has said the Ghouta offensive is an effort to return stability to the country, and that it would continue despite the U.N. resolution. The Syrian regime has long denied targeting civilians, and contends that it is fighting terrorists, its standard term for the antigovernment opposition. The regime also denies it has used chemical weapons.
The regime has thwarted U.N. efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to residents, having denied most requests to deliver aid over the years. Those deliveries allowed in have often been incomplete, according to residents and aid groups.
On March 5, the Syrian government removed 70% of the medical supplies, including trauma kits, in a U.N. aid convoy, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Of the 46 trucks sent in on March 5, 13 had to return to Damascus before being unloaded. On Friday, those remaining trucks were allowed to return to Ghouta, but again only delivered food and no medical aid, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross and residents.
The siege of Ghouta began in 2013 when the area was first surrounded by a military perimeter. The regime then took systematic steps to weaken the once formidable opposition there.
Over the years, military offensives focused on capturing or destroying farmland and dismantling tunnels used to smuggle in weapons, food and medicine.
At times, the regime has allowed a few merchants to bring in commercial food shipments during the most critical time of the year for farmers, the harvest season when they make most of their money. That helped feed residents in the short term, but also drove down prices, sent some local farmers out of business and undermined Ghouta’s long-term ability to feed itself.
“On several occasions they would wait until a certain crop was ready for harvest, and then send a big truck of it,” said Valerie Szybala, executive director of The Syria Institute, a Washington-based independent research institution which tracks living conditions in besieged areas. “It is to remove all means of resistance.”
In 2015, Ghouta was flooded with cheap Ukrainian wheat, recalled Anas Al-Khole, a resident journalist. Farmers had to sell their wheat for 800 Syrian pounds (about $1.50) per kilogram to make a small profit; the imported crop was sold for 500 pounds, he said. Many farmers lost money that season, he said.
The worst-hit had to abandon farming, Mr. Khole and other residents said. “Some people had to sell their homes in order to eat,” said Bayan Rehan, a councilwoman in Douma, Ghouta’s largest city.
Then, over several months in late 2016, a regime offensive captured a mostly agricultural part of Ghouta. Fields not captured were shelled, burning some crops or making it more dangerous to farm.
Early last year, the regime seized a number of towns on the outskirts of Ghouta in order to eliminate tunnels operated by rebels.
Residents have largely been trapped in Ghouta since the siege began in 2013, though some used tunnels to leave the area. Russia and the regime say they have set up humanitarian corridors to enable civilians to leave but that they are being prevented by rebels seeking to keep them as human shields.
Rebels and residents have countered that there has been no letup in airstrikes and shelling in order to allow them to leave. Many say they don’t trust the regime not to arrest them if they cross over.
The government has long used sieges as a way to force rebels to surrender—as it did in late 2016 in the devastated city of Aleppo—rather than engage in prolonged urban warfare, something Mr. Assad’s forces haven’t done well.
In the past two years, the regime has systematically picked off neighborhoods, towns and suburbs it had subjected to siege warfare, according to Ms. Szybala.
The strategy, she said, is “basically crystallized as ‘surrender or die,’ not just ‘surrender or starve.’”
Most of the populations that have surrendered have been moved to Syria’s northwest Idlib province, one of the last rebel strongholds. Idlib has been overwhelmed by the influx of what the U.N. estimates to be around 1.2 million people.
Idlib is ostensibly protected by a cease-fire agreement brokered last year. The same agreement covered Ghouta, too, but failed to prevent the military onslaught.
Members of Syrian government forces and the Syrian Red Crescent waited Friday at a checkpoint into Eastern Ghouta. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
—Nazih Osseiran contributed to this article.
Write to Raja Abdulrahim at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the March 12, 2018, print edition as ‘Assad Regime Advances in Rebel Enclave.’