Syria Crisis: What is the War for Eastern Ghouta?

Civilians fleeing for their lives, children crushed to death under fallen slabs of concrete, medical workers rallying to keep up with the rush of bloodied victims, wheeling away the dead and the injured alike, struggling to keep up with the agitated pace of death.

This is the reality of life in eastern Ghouta, where at least 1,000 people have been killed in the past 20 days, according to a report from Reuters.

The air runs thick in the eastern suburb of Ghouta near Syria’s Damascus, with the dust from fallen homes, and there is a literal river of red that runs thick with the blood of unarmed men, women, and children.

The carnage in eastern Ghouta, beginning on 18 February, has been the deadliest in three years.

As of 8 March, the airstrikes and shelling continue, with the only end in sight being a bleak one. What is the battle for eastern Ghouta? Read on.

What is Eastern Ghouta?

Syrians inspect destroyed buildings in Douma, after airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces hit in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, Syria. 

The suburbs around the Barada River in Syria’s capital of Damascus, are informally called Ghouta. The region includes Douma, Kfar Batna and Saqba, and was home to over 390,000 residents, according to AP.

Ghouta was one of the first sites of resistance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to AP, which adds that the area was taken over by rebel forces in 2012, a year after the war began between rebel fighters and the Syrian government’s regime.

Soon after, this fighting devolved into full-blown war, with rebels fighting to protect the area and prevent it from being reclaimed by Assad’s security forces. It was the last major area of opposition against the advance of Syrian forces, according to AP.

The 390,000 residents in eastern Ghouta, many who were displaced from other parts of the country, constituted over 90 percent of all Syrians under siege, AP adds.

How Did Ghouta Resist the Syrian Government's Regime for so Long?

Syrians gather next to a burnt car hit by shells, at a highway in Damascus, Syria.

Ghouta, with its location on the banks of the Barada river was historically used for agriculture, but it was besieged by government forces, partially in 2013, and then completely in 2017, according to AP. Ghouta was the site of a Sarin gas attack in 2013.

The Assad regime was focused on retaking other parts of Syria, ones that it deemed more important, with the focus being on Aleppo. This left them with fewer resources to focus on the rebel-held enclave which houses over 390,000 civilians.

Further, Ghouta is home to several rebel outfits including the Army of Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman, and the Haya'at Tahrir al-Sham, all heavily armed, according to AP.

In recent years, these militant groups in the area have been able to stockpile large amounts of ammunition and weapons, to continue the resistance against the Assad regime, while also growing their own food and resources in the fertile areas which were used for agriculture for so long.

Today, Ghouta stands on its last legs, following three weeks of an unrelenting assault by the Syrian government.

Also Read: Govt Halts Aid Convoys Even as 780 Die in Syria’s Ghouta Region

What’s Happening in Eastern Ghouta Now?

A photo of two child survivors of the bombing shared by a team of volunteers from Syria.

At least 1,000 people have been killed in the shelling by Syrian government forces, according to a report by Doctors Without Borders on 9 March, in under three weeks after the Assad regime began hammering the rebel-held enclave.

Syrian government forces began an effort to reclaim Ghouta on 18 February, according to Reuters. The advance of the Syrian Government began with airstrikes, and shelling in Ghouta.

In the first two weeks of the Assad regimes advance on Ghouta, over 600 civilians were confirmed dead, Reuters reported, citing a Syrian human rights monitor.

On 25 February, Reuters reported Syrian health authorities as stating that several people showed symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine gas, including respiratory difficulties.

The use of chemical weapons constitutes a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and violates several international treaties, including the Hague Declaration concerning Asphyxiating Gases, the Geneva Gas Protocol, and the United Nations’ Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Syria is a party to the Geneva Gas protocol, but not to the UN CWC.

What is the International Response?

Syrians check destroyed buildings, many which were their former homes, attacked during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, in Ghouta.

On 24 February, the United Nations called for a nation-wide 30-day ceasefire in Syria, with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stating that “eastern Ghouta cannot wait, it is high time to stop this hell on earth”, reported Reuters.

Soon after, France, the US and Britain said they would back military action against the Assad regime if the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces was proven by an investigation.

Coming on the tail of the UN ceasefire call, Assad regime-backer Russia called for a five-hour daily truce in Ghouta, and the establishment of a “humanitarian corridor”, promising safe passage to rebel forces and their families.

On 5 March, an aid convoy of 40 trucks, from the The International Committee of the Red Cross(ICRC), carrying relief packages for the civilians was stopped by Syrian forces, and stripped of all emergency medical supplies, life-saving medicines like insulin, and other resources vital to civilians, in an effort to choke the rebel forces.

Another aid convoy from the Red Cross, scheduled for Ghouta on 8 March, was postponed.

Also Read: #GoodNews: Khalsa Aid – Humanity’s Saving Grace in War-Torn Syria

What is the Syrian Government's Stance?

Members of the Syrian Civil Defense group, the White Helmets, remove a victim from under the rubble of a damaged shelter that was attacked during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces. 

The Assad regime has repeatedly maintained that it does not target civilians, and has denied that it has used chemical weapons in the effort to reclaim Ghouta, according to Reuters.

Russia, has parroted the government’s stance, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov telling Reuters that claims of the Syrian government being responsible for chemical attacks were aimed at sabotaging the daily “five-hour truce” that had been called by Russia.

On 4 March, President Bashar-al Assad said the Syrian army would continue the push into eastern Ghouta, Reuters reported.

On 8 March, The Syrian army said that it was in the perfect position to slice eastern Ghouta in two, and reclaim what was left of the small enclave, a pro-Damascus military commander told Reuters.

Incoming forces from the East met with troops advancing from the West, effectively placing every part of the region within reach of the regime’s weapons.

Many civilian residents have fled from the frontlines into the town of Douma, Reuters added, but many more remain in the region that is now on its last legs.

(With inputs from Reuters, AP, and Middle East Monitor)

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