Described by the humanitarian officials as a "monstrous campaign of annihilation,” and a possible “massacre,” the Syrian regime’s recent bloody campaign on eastern Ghouta began on February 19.

Dead bodies of civilians are seen at the morgue of a field hospital after the regime's air strikes and ground attacks on the Hammuriya town in the eastern Ghouta region of Damascus, Syria on February 19, 2018. At least 30 Syrian civilians were killed in fresh regime attacks.
Dead bodies of civilians are seen at the morgue of a field hospital after the regime's air strikes and ground attacks on the Hammuriya town in the eastern Ghouta region of Damascus, Syria on February 19, 2018. At least 30 Syrian civilians were killed in fresh regime attacks. (AA)

Intense regime air strikes have been ongoing in the besieged area of eastern Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus since the night of February 19. The region has been under bombardment since the Syrian regime responded to a popular uprising using military force in 2011, and has been besieged for five years. But the recent surge of killings has alarmed human rights organisations yet again.  

The United Nations (UN) said residents in the region were living through “hell on earth,” and appealed for an “immediate suspension of all war activities” in the region. 

The UN Security Council had been negotiating a 30-day ceasefire proposal for nearly two weeks. The next meeting will be held on Friday.

Wounded Syrian kids cry as they wait to receive medical treatment at a field hospital after Assad regime's warplanes and artillery units hit Kafr Batna town which is a de-escalation zone of the eastern Ghouta region of Damascus in Syria on February 22, 2018.
Wounded Syrian kids cry as they wait to receive medical treatment at a field hospital after Assad regime's warplanes and artillery units hit Kafr Batna town which is a de-escalation zone of the eastern Ghouta region of Damascus in Syria on February 22, 2018. (AA)

What has happened since Sunday?

Syrian regime air strikes have killed at least 500 people in Syria’s eastern Ghouta since Sunday. 

Zeid Raad al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, described the onslaught on eastern Ghouta in Syria as a "monstrous campaign of annihilation."

The volunteer rescue organisation, Syrian Civil Defence, also known as White Helmets told TRT World that at least 36 children, 25 women, and a White Helmets rescuer were among those killed by the artillery shelling.

“Eastern Ghouta was hit with more than 189 air raids, 57 explosive barrels and over 1,000 artillery shelling since 19th of February,” Raed al Saleh, the director of the Syrian Civil Defence said on Thursday.  

The air strikes hit and damaged 13 hospitals and Doctors Without Borders-supported clinics  “reducing health capacity at a time of critical medical need.”

“As the air forces have been using multiple attacks targeting the civil areas, and then hitting the same areas again after couple of minutes. It is to achieve as much damage as possible, and to kill from the rescuing teams—who would come to save the wounded and the people who were stuck under the rubble—which is making the matter worse,” Saleh said.

Why eastern Ghouta?

Eastern Ghouta is one of the last areas in Syria still under opposition control. Located in the suburbs of Syria’s capital Damascus, it’s around 10 kilometres to Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad’s palace in central Damascus.

For the regime, keeping the enclave under siege and bombing it continuously is a tactic to force people in opposition areas to surrender.  

In May 2017, Russia, Iran and Turkey designated the area as one of the four de-escalation zones in Syria, in a bid to stop the violence in the mainly opposition-held areas, but Russian bombing in support of the Syrian regime has continued despite that.

Why so many people are dying?

Several factors are involved: the bombings, the siege, and multiple chemical attacks. 

In the last three months, Syrian regime air strikes killed more than 1,000 people in eastern Ghouta. The Syrian regime and its backer, Russia have denied targetting civilians. However, the regime is accused of carrying out indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, including hospitals, schools, and orphanages

The siege in eastern Ghouta is the longest military siege in modern history. It has endured four years of a blockade, with severe restrictions on food, aid, and humanitarian deliveries. 

As a result, prices of food have skyrocketed and supplies are smuggled in through underground tunnels. Two babies have died of malnutrition, as stocks have dwindled.  

The area has also been the target of multiple chemical attacks

How many people are besieged?

Around 400,000 residents of the area are not allowed to leave, including many critically ill patients. 

But after several humanitarian appeals and negotiations with local opposition groups, the Assad regime has agreed to allow the evacuation of some critically ill patients and UN food deliveries to enter the area. 

However, occasional food deliveries and limited evacuations are far from being enough. 

(TRTWorld)

Who are the actors?

The Assad regime and its supporter Russia, Jaish al Islam, Al Rahman battalion, Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al Sham.

In 2015, Russia intensified its support for the Assad regime, which has been carrying out air strikes in eastern Ghouta since the partial siege of the area in 2012. 

On the ground, the Assad regime forces also clashed with local groups, which had previously made advances towards to central Damascus and captured some arms from the regime forces. 

During one of the most important operations by opposition forces in 2015, the leader of Jaish al Islam, Zahran Alloush, was assassinated by Daesh. The lack of leadership triggered an internal fight between two of the most important groups in eastern Ghouta: Jaish al Islam and the Al Rahman battalion. 

Jaish al Islam, a group mainly backed by Saudi Arabia, has long refused to come under Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella, a coalition of moderate opposition groups in Syria. Nevertheless it participated in peace talks in Geneva and Astana as an independent group. 

On the other hand, the Al Rahman Battalion is fighting with the FSA and is the dominant armed group in the opposition. 

Fighting between these groups stopped in 2017 after the local scholars in the area called for a halt to the skirmishes, and after civilians protested against Jaish al Islam. It resulted in Jaish al Islam softening its stance and collaborating with the FSA.

Besides Jaish al Islam and Al Rahman battalion, Hayat Tahrir Sham (HTS) and Ahrar al Sham have a very minor presence in eastern Ghouta. 

By capturing a road connecting the centre where most of the civilians live, to the southwest of eastern Ghouta, the Assad regime managed to cut off a small parcel of territory from the main area. Daesh now only has a footprint (about 5 sq kilometres) in a remote area in the western side of this truncated part. 

There is no internal fighting at the moment. 

Source: TRT World