At least 100 people, including 20 children, have been killed in a recent surge of attacks by Syrian government forces on the rebel-held pocket of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus, a monitoring group said Monday.
The carnage included strikes on four makeshift hospitals, and the use of indiscriminate barrel bombs, banned under international law, as well as rocket and artillery fire, according to reports.
“The situation in Eastern Ghouta is akin to the day of judgment,” Mounir Mustafa, deputy director of the volunteer medical group the White Helmets, told The Guardian.
The devastating air raids continued on the town overnight and in to Tuesday morning, UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, ahead of what the group believes will be a ground assault by regime forces to retake the town.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted at a ground assault Monday, saying that Moscow, Syria’s key military backer, could “deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo... in the eastern Ghouta situation.”
Using Moscow’s firepower and with Tehran behind him, Bashar al-Assad’s forces wiped out the last pocket of rebel resistance in east Aleppo in late 2016, regaining full control of the shattered district.
Eastern Ghouta, a former agricultural district situated about 9 miles east of the capital, is held by two main Islamist factions. Seized by rebels in 2012, it is the last significant enclave near Damascus under opposition control, and has been under siege by government forces for years.
Panos Moumtzis, U.N. regional coordinator for Syria, said in a statement there had been an “extreme escalation” in the bombardment of the enclave, once the breadbasket of Damascus and now home to some 393,000 residents living in desperate conditions. He accused the regime of targeting innocent civilians and infrastructure, and said the humanitarian situation for civilians there was “spiralling out of control.”
“Hundreds of civilians, many of them women and children, have lost their lives or been injured in airstrikes and shelling since November,” he said. “Many residents have little choice but to take shelter in basements and underground bunkers with their children.”
Aid agencies warned in December that conditions for civilians in Eastern Ghouta had reached a “critical point” due to acute shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
Syria’s government denies it targets civilians. Syrian state media said that government troops struck targets in Ghouta after mortars were fired from the rebel-held pocket, killing a child and wounding eight others.
Eastern Ghouta, the site of a deadly sarin attack by the Assad regime in 2013, is supposed to be one of the “de-escalation zones” under a peace plan agreed to by Russia, Turkey and Iran in May last year. But aid workers in the district report the accord has brought no relief, with residents instead suffering under a continuing siege and bombardment by regime forces.
Syria’s main opposition, the Turkey-based National Coalition, released a statement accusing the regime of pursuing a “war of extermination” in Eastern Ghouta and said Russia was clearly pushing for an outright military victory over the opposition, despite its claims of facilitating a political solution.
“The brutal onslaught on Eastern Ghouta is clearly aimed at undermining [a] political solution,” said the statement. “There’s no denying the fact that Russia wants to bury the U.N.-led political process altogether, especially after it announced that it supplied regime forces with new sophisticated weapons to use them in the onslaught on Eastern Ghouta.”
The silence of the international community had given a “green light” to Assad and his allies, the statement continued.
Cover image: This photo provided Monday, Sept 25, 2017, by the Ghouta Media Center shows smoke and debris rising after Syrian government shelling of the rebel-held Jobar neighborhood of Damascus, Syria. (Ghouta Media Center, via AP)