Syrian warplanes hit rebel-held enclave as ground assault looms

Destroyed buildings in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus last Saturday. Failing to reach a deal to evacuate a militant faction could signal the start of a ground assault.
Destroyed buildings in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus last Saturday. Failing to reach a deal to evacuate a militant faction could signal the start of a ground assault.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HAMMURIYEH (Syria) • Syrian warplanes hit rebel-held Eastern Ghouta with fresh air strikes yesterday, after regime reinforcements and a salvo of rocket fire on the enclave hinted that a ground assault could be imminent.

Held by rebels since 2012, Eastern Ghouta is 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.

Surveillance planes buzzed overhead before carrying out raids on a pair of Eastern Ghouta towns, Agence France-Presse'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.

Mr 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 said.

ATMOSPHERE OF FEAR

Ghouta's fate is unknown. We've got nothing but God's mercy and hiding out in our basements.

ALAA AL-DIN, a 23-year-old Syrian in Hammuriyeh.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said talks have been taking place for the evacuation of militant faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls small pockets of Eastern Ghouta. "The collapse of the negotiations will signal the start of an assault," Mr Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory, said.

The Syrian 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.

Since rumours of an imminent assault on Eastern Ghouta started spreading, residents of neighbourhoods nearest to the rebel enclave have been packing their bags.

Mr Jawad al-Obros lives with his mother, father and sister in Al-Qassaa, 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 last weekend started asking about hotel prices 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.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2018, with the headline 'Syrian warplanes hit rebel-held enclave as ground assault looms'. Print Edition | Subscribe