HAMMURIYEH, Syria, March 11, (Agencies): New air strikes and barrel bombs pounded Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Sunday as government forces pressed a three-week advance that splintered the rebel enclave and trapped dozens under collapsed buildings. Defying global calls for a ceasefire, Syria’s government has pursued a ferocious Russian-backed air campaign and ground offensive to capture the region, the last rebel bastion on the capital’s doorstep. In three weeks of fighting, it has overrun more than half the area and split the remainder into three pockets, isolating the urban hub of Douma from the rest of the enclave.
On Sunday, government troops battered the edges of each pocket with air raids, barrel bombs, and rockets, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. After fighting all morning, they captured the town of Medeira, which lies at the heart of the three zones, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said. State news agency SANA had reported troops were focusing on the town in order to cut rebel access routes in Ghouta.
Bombing runs across several towns in Ghouta killed a dozen civilians on Sunday, bringing the total toll from the offensive to at least 1,111 civilians, the Observatory said. They include dozens of decomposing bodies still trapped under pulverised residential blocks in the towns of Hammuriyeh, Saqba, and Misraba. In Hammuriyeh, AFP’s correspondent saw a young man scrambling frantically over the rubble of a collapsed building in search of his loved ones. His father, mother, and three siblings were killed in an air raid, but rescue workers have been unable to pull them out.
Hassaan, a 30-year-old rescue worker, said there were around 20 more families under the rubble. “We need heavy machinery to get them out, but we can’t bring the machines out into the streets because the regime may bomb them,” he said. In the main town of Douma, bodies piled up in the morgue as bombardment prevented families from reaching the cemetery, AFP’s correspondent there said. Families grew desperate for news of loved ones who had fled to other areas that were now inaccessible.
On Saturday, Syrian troops and allied militia cut off the main road leading out of Douma in a major blow to beleaguered rebels attempting to defend their enclave. Government forces also captured the town of Misraba. Some residents fled from the advancing troops, but dozens stayed as soldiers recaptured their neighbourhoods.
SANA reported on Sunday that troops transported “dozens of civilians, including women and children,” from Misraba to temporary shelters in government-held zones. The Observatory told AFP that Misraba was left abandoned after 75 to 100 people were moved out of the town by regime forces. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is keen to recapture eastern Ghouta from rebels, who have used the region as a launch pad for attacks on the capital.
On Sunday, four people were killed and six wounded in rebel rocket fire on a government-controlled district in eastern Damascus, state television reported. It broadcast live footage from the battered skyline of Medeira, saying Sunday’s gains linked Syrian soldiers advancing from the east with troops based on the western edges of Ghouta. In recent years, government forces have recaptured several areas around Damascus and other parts of war-ravaged Syria from rebels by pursuing fierce military offensives culminating in evacuation deals. A delegation representing Hammuriyeh residents were on Sunday considering such an agreement after talks with the regime, a negotiator and the Observatory told AFP.
The delegation met government representatives on Saturday and discussed a proposal that would offer safe passage to rebels and civilians who want to leave, one of its members said. “The committee is meeting on Sunday to take a decision and inform the regime,” the source told AFP on condition of anonymity. The Observatory confi rmed talks were taking place on Hammuriyeh as well as the towns of Jisreen and Saqba. The two main rebel groups in eastern Ghouta have fi rmly and repeatedly denied negotiating with the Syrian regime.
Faylaq al-Rahman, the opposition faction that holds Hammuriyeh, insisted late Saturday there were “no direct or indirect negotiations” on an evacuation. Eastern Ghouta is home to around 400,000 people living under a crippling government siege since 2013. The United Nations has demanded a month-long ceasefi re there to allow for aid to be brought in and for desperately sick and wounded civilians to seek treatment. Syria’s regime has also been accused of using chlorine gas against civilians in eastern Ghouta in recent weeks.
Erdogan slams NATO
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday angrily lashed out at NATO, accusing the Western military alliance of failing to back Turkey’s campaign against Kurdish militia in Syria. Erdogan’s latest comments were among the toughest he has directed in recent times against NATO, which Turkey joined in 1952 as the US sought to make sure it did not fall under Soviet sway after World War II. Turkey launched its operation on Jan 20 seeking to oust the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the Afrin region of northern Syria with its forces now just a few kilometres away from Afrin town.
But the YPG has been a key American ally in the fight against jihadists in Syria and the operation has raised tensions with Washington and European NATO powers, notably France. “Hey NATO! With what has been going on in Syria, when are you going to come and be alongside us?” Erdogan said in remarks to supporters in Bolu, a city east of Istanbul. “We are constantly harassed by terror groups on our borders,” he said.
“Unfortunately until now, there has not been a positive word or voice.” After the start of the campaign, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey had a right to defend itself but emphasised it must be done “in a proportionate and measured way.” Erdogan slammed Washington for arming the YPG, saying the group had received 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons. “Is this friendship? Is this NATO unity?” he asked in a later speech, noting how Turkey had backed the alliance by participating in its operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. “Are we not a NATO member?” He also said Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels were now just four to five kilometres (about three miles) from Afrin which they were poised to take. Turkey regards the YPG as a terror group and a branch of militants in Turkey who have waged an insurgency for decades. Speaking on Saturday, Erdogan said after taking Afrin, Turkey’s offensive would expand to key border towns controlled by the YPG right up to the Iraqi frontier.
Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Sunday warned the Syrian government not to use chemical weapons in its civil war and said the Trump administration has made it clear that it would be “very unwise” to use gas in attacks. Mattis told reporters traveling with him to the Mideast that he was disturbed by reports of civilian casualties from bombings by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. “Right now we’re getting reports — I don’t have evidence that I can show you — but I’m aware of the reports of chlorine gas use,” he said before arriving Sunday in Oman.
The US responded militarily last year to reported Syrian government use of sarin gas, and Mattis was asked whether the administration is now considering retaliating for chlorine gas use. “I’m not going to strictly define it. We have made it very clear that it would be very unwise to use gas” as a weapon, Mattis said. He said the latest reports of Syrian government forces killing civilians in eastern Ghouta show that troops are “at best indiscriminately” attacking and “at worst targeting hospitals. I don’t know which it is, whether they’re incompetent or whether they’re committing illegal acts or both.” In Washington, CIA director Mike Pompeo noted that President Donald Trump has said he will not tolerate chemical weapons attacks, but has not yet made a decision about the latest reports. “In this case, the intelligence community is working diligently to verify what happened there,” Pompeo said in an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”