Syrian jets pound rebel enclave near Damascus as ground assault looms

Damaged and destroyed buildings are seen in the Syrian rebel-held enclave of Arbin in Eastern Ghouta on Feb 17, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

HAMMURIYEH, SYRIA (AFP) - Syrian warplanes hit rebel-held Eastern Ghouta with fresh air strikes on Monday (Feb 19), after regime reinforcements and a salvo of rocket fire on the enclave hinted a ground assault could be imminent.

Held by rebels since 2012, Eastern Ghouta is now the last opposition-controlled pocket around Damascus and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has dispatched reinforcements there in an apparent bid to retake it.

Talks were under way for the evacuation of a militant faction that has a limited footprint in the enclave and failure to reach a deal soon would likely signal the start of an assault.

Regime troops carried out a relentless five-day bombing campaign earlier this month that left around 250 civilians dead in the enclave and hundreds more wounded.

Since then, government forces have intermittently bombed Eastern Ghouta towns, including with fresh air strikes on Monday morning.

Surveillance planes buzzed overhead before carrying out raids on a pair of Eastern Ghouta towns, AFP's correspondents in the enclave said.

Residents walking outside in the nearby town of Hammuriyeh could be seen rushing inside in a panic as soon as they heard the sound of airplanes.

Alaa al-Din, a 23-year-old Syrian in Hammuriyeh, said civilians were afraid of a potential government offensive.

"Ghouta's fate is unknown. We've got nothing but God's mercy and hiding out in our basements," he told AFP on Monday. "There's no alternative."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said talks have been taking place for the evacuation of militant faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls small pockets of Eastern Ghouta.

"The collapse of the negotiations will signal the start of an assault," Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory, said.


According to the Observatory, the regime began dispatching military reinforcements to Eastern Ghouta on Feb 5, the same day it launched a fierce five-day bombing campaign on the region.

The war monitor said Monday morning's air strikes on Al-Shayfuniyeh left people wounded and caused material damage.

Regime troops fired more than 260 rockets on towns across Eastern Ghouta on Sunday, it said.

The rockets, as well as artillery fire and some air strikes, killed at least 17 civilians across the enclave on Sunday, according to the Observatory.

"In just a few hours, all of Eastern Ghouta was sprayed with rockets," Alaa al-Din recalled.

Eastern Ghouta is held by two main Islamist factions, Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, both of which denied being in talks with the regime.

The regime is keen to regain control of the area to halt the deadly salvo of rockets and mortars that those factions have fired on Damascus.

About half a dozen rockets hit the capital on Sunday night, AFP correspondents said. State news agency SANA reported that one person was killed in the shelling.

More than 20 civilians have been killed by rebel fire this month alone in regime-held Damascus.

All was quiet in the capital on Monday but since rumours of an imminent assault on Eastern Ghouta started spreading, residents of neighbourhoods that are nearest to the rebel enclave started packing their bags.

Jawad al-Obros lives with his mother, father and sister in Al-Qassaa, which lies just one kilometre from Jobar, a major flashpoint on the edge of the Ghouta enclave.

Shells have rained around his home in recent weeks and the 30-year-old man this weekend started asking about hotel price in Yaafour, which lies to the west, on the other side of the city.

"We're tired of this situation. It seems that there's no solution but a full-blown military one. We've been patient for a long time, and now it's time that we rest," he said.

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