Thousands flee as Syria battles enter decisive phases

Air strikes kill dozens in eastern Ghouta; 18 dead in Afrin town after heavy shelling

Turkish forces and their rebel allies seize control of Afrin in northern Turkey, and in Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus thousands flee Syrian regime advances.
Civilians from eastern Ghouta walking through a regime-controlled corridor after leaving the besieged enclave yesterday.
Civilians from eastern Ghouta walking through a regime-controlled corridor after leaving the besieged enclave yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIRUT • Thousands of civilians were fleeing from besieged enclaves on opposite ends of Syria yesterday, as two major battles in the multi-sided civil war entered decisive phases, with hundreds of thousands trapped in the path of both assaults.

Air strikes killed dozens of people in eastern Ghouta, a war monitor said, and weary residents streamed out on foot for a second day as Russian-backed government forces pressed their campaign to capture the last big rebel bastion near Damascus.

On another front, Turkish and allied Syrian rebel forces shelled the northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin heavily, killing at least 18 people and forcing 2,500 people to flee, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The Kurdish YPG militia, defending Afrin, said it was battling the Turkish forces and their Syrian militia allies who tried to storm the town from the north.

The two offensives, one backed by Russia and the other led by Turkey, have shown how Syrian factions and their foreign allies are aggressively reshaping the map of control after the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

The Syrian war entered its eighth year this week, having killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly six million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

The government launched its assault on eastern Ghouta a month ago, and Turkey began its cross-border campaign in Afrin in January.

In both cases, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside areas encircled on the battlefield.

Backed by Russia and Iran, government forces have thrust deep into eastern Ghouta, splintering the area into three separate enclaves.

The United Nations believes up to 400,000 people have been trapped inside the rebel-held area of densely populated farms and satellite towns on the outskirts of the capital, with virtually no access to food or medicine.

For the first time since the government unleashed the Ghouta offensive, one of the deadliest of the war, residents are fleeing in their thousands, carrying children and belongings on foot from rebel-held territory to reach government positions.

Moscow and Damascus accuse the rebels of having forced people to stay in harm's way to use them as human shields.

The rebels deny this and say the aim of the government assault is to depopulate opposition areas.

The Ghouta and Afrin campaigns have both continued despite a UN Security Council demand for a ceasefire.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2018, with the headline 'Thousands flee as Syria battles enter decisive phases'. Subscribe