Syrian regime gains ground in ‘semi-destroyed rubble town’

War and misery in Syria
Destroyed streets in Eastern Ghouta after a recent bombardment.

The Syrian regime captured a major town in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta on Saturday after “hysterical” shelling and airstrikes, an activist on the ground said.

Analysts believe it is now a matter of time before the regime takes control of the entire besieged enclave situated on the outskirts of Damascus, and one of the last major rebel-held areas in the country.

“The Syrian regime was able to capture the town of Misraba after turning it into semi-destroyed rubble town,” media activist, Bilal Abu Salah, told CNN Sunday.

He described the shelling and airstrikes on Misraba, at the center of Eastern Ghouta, as “hysterical.”

Douma, the largest city in Eastern Ghouta, has also been subjected to nonstop airstrikes and artillery shelling since Saturday evening, he added.

Syrian state media also reported the regime had captured Misraba, airing footage of tanks in the town and claiming troops had secured surrounding farmland.

Since launching its offensive against the rebel-held enclave in mid-February, the Syrian regime has steadily been gaining territory, starting with villages and towns in the east.

Troops were now headed toward the centrally located area of Madyara “to cut off the terrorists’ supply lines between the north and the south parts of Ghouta,” the Syrian state media report added.

Eastern Ghouta is home to some 400,000 people. Over 1,000 people were killed and 4,800 wounded in just the first two weeks of the offensive, humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said last week.

The numbers, which do not take into account people not treated at MSF medical facilities, are believed to be a fraction of the total death toll.

The regime maintains that its offensive is against Al-Nusra Front, a former Qaeda affiliate, which it accuses of holding civilians against their will to use as human shields.

Armed rebel groups in the besieged enclave deny both accusations, saying Al-Nusra’s presence is limited and that civilians fear regime retaliation if they leave.

Some fighters deported from Eastern Ghouta

A number of Al-Nusra Front fighters were on Friday deported from Eastern Ghouta to the rebel-held province of Idlib, in northern Syria, according to the armed rebel group Jaish Al-Islam (JI) and Syrian state TV.

This was “based on consultations between JI and the United Nations and a number of international actors,” JI said on Friday, adding that these fighters have been held in its prisons since April 2017.

Syrian state TV showed an undisclosed number of fighters leaving on buses at the Wafideen Crossing, a designated humanitarian corridor for aid and evacuations that has largely been ignored by all sides of the conflict.

Horror beyond words

The United Nations Security Council and, separately, Russian President Vladimir Putin, had issued calls for a pause in fighting to allow civilians to leave, but both calls were ignored. Rebel fighters in Eastern Ghouta and Syrian government forces have accused each other of breaking the truce.

Meanwhile, Eastern Ghouta’s residents describe a torrent of air and ground strikes. Doctors say they’re struggling to keep up with the injured.

“In Ghouta there are no words, not a camera that can describe what’s happening. The night that Ghouta lived yesterday… was in every way taken out of the apocalypse and put on earth,” said Firas Abdullah, Ghouta, spokesperson for the White Helmets relief group, on Friday.

“You can’t even hear the screams of women and children because the sound of the shelling and the bombs are louder than their screams.”

Amid the shelling, 13 aid trucks did enter manage to enter Douma on Friday for the second time since the offensive began.

Eastern Ghouta: Fast facts

Eastern Ghouta is one of the last major rebel-held areas of the country, which has been ravaged by civil war for almost seven years.

Observers fear the area could face a similar fate to eastern Aleppo, which was all but destroyed in a government offensive in December 2016.

The regime’s capture of that city marked a turning point in the war, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad taking back control of all four major cities in the country — with the help of Russia.

Russia’s intervention in the country’s civil war in 2015 — with troops and weaponry — has helped tilt the balance in Assad’s favor, with the push for Eastern Ghouta now more intense than ever.

The main rebel units actively holding territory in Eastern Ghouta are the Islamist Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al Rahman, which have taken part in peace negotiations in the past. According to activists, there are small pockets of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate, still in the area.