Pro-government forces target East Ghouta's de facto capital with airstrikes, artillery

AMMAN: Dozens of airstrikes rocked Douma city for the second consecutive day on Monday in the most violent assault on rebel-held East Ghouta’s de facto capital since pro-government forces divided the Damascus suburbs into three sections last week.

More than 50 airstrikes, along with dozens of artillery shells and rocket strikes, killed at least 20 civilians—including women and children—in Douma city over the past 48 hours, according to local civil defense reports.

The attacks on Douma, east Ghouta’s largest population center, come amidst a pro-government ground assault on the besieged and rapidly shrinking, opposition-held pocket.

Heavy firefights broke out in the town of a-Rihan, 2km east of Douma city, on Monday, Hamza Beriqdar, the spokesman for rebel faction Jaish al-Islam, announced via Twitter. Jaish al-Islam is the dominant rebel force in control of Douma city.

The past 48 hours constitute the most violent period of bombardment in the city since pro-government forces split the rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs east of Damascus into three isolated sections earlier last week. More than 130,000 residents currently live in Douma city, many of whom were displaced from neighboring East Ghouta towns in recent weeks.

Following the division of East Ghouta last week, Douma experienced a few days of relative calm. Last Tuesday, dozens of medical patients were evacuated to hospitals in Damascus, and, on Thursday, a 25-truck humanitarian aid convoy delivered food items for approximately 26,000 people.

That calm quickly faded on Sunday as airstrikes and shelling—including rockets reportedly carrying chlorine gas—rained down on the city, leaving more than a dozen dead and destroying a local council aid warehouse.

A series of four airstrikes Sunday night destroyed the same facility that housed packages of aid delivered by last week’s convoy, Douma Local Council president Yaser Abdul Aziz told Syria Direct on Monday.

“The entire building was destroyed, ” he said. “The aid is gone.”

In East Ghouta’s southern half, pro-government forces continued to advance over the weekend, seizing the towns of Saqba and Kafr Batna. On Monday, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) announced a “precise military operation” on the frontline town of Hazza in the same area, state media outlet SANA reported.

Following recent advances, the Syrian government and its allies now control 80 percent of East Ghouta, UK-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on Sunday. The advances are part of a month-long government assault on the pocket that has left more than 1,400 civilians dead, according to the monitor.

A mass exodus from East Ghouta’s southern towns—largely dominated by rebel faction Failaq a-Rahman—began last Thursday, Syria Direct reported, as throngs of people started to stream from a corridor near the town of Hamouriya to government-held territory.

Departures have continued daily since. On Monday, 3,500 civilians purportedly exited through the Hamouriya corridor, SANA reported.

Vehicles burn in Douma city after pro-government airstrikes on March 17. Photo courtesy of Damascus Media Center.

More than 48,000 people have left East Ghouta since Syrian government ally Russia unilaterally declared daily “humanitarian pauses” in the rebel-held suburbs late last month, Major General Yuri Yevtushenko, head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Center for Syrian Reconciliation, said on Sunday, according to Moscow-run media outlet TASS.

While the majority of those departing East Ghouta are exiting from Hamouriya, smaller numbers are also leaving from Douma via the al-Wafideen crossing, including dozens of medical patients. Russia declared the al-Wafideen crossing a “humanitarian corridor” for civilians leaving the rebel-held enclave last month, Syria Direct reported.

The medical evacuations from Douma began after Jaish al-Islam, Russia and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) reached an agreement last week, with the United Nations acting as a guarantor.

Medical evacuations from Douma are ongoing, Yasser Delwan, a political official with rebel faction Jaish al-Islam, confirmed with Syria Direct on Monday, but a wider civilian exit from the city is off the table.

“People reject a formula of either death by bombing or death in Assad’s prisons,” the spokesman said.

“We, Jaish al-Islam, are not negotiating an exit.”

With additional reporting by Ghina al-Ghabreh and Daoud Mohammad al-Hariri. 

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.