Syrian Forces Backed by Russia Bombard Hard-Hit Suburb of Capital

Wall Street Journal

Syrian regime forces backed by Russian warplanes pounded a rebel-held suburb of the capital, intensifying months of attacks in catastrophic scenes reminiscent of the scorched-earth campaign that flattened much of Aleppo.

Some 160 people, including women, children and a rescue worker, have been killed in Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, over the past two days, activist and medical groups said—one of the highest death tolls in years there

On Tuesday morning, minarets across the area, which includes three cities and 14 towns, sounded a call not to prayer, but a warning to take shelter as warplanes and military helicopters flew overhead. The streets were nearly empty as people sought safety in basements and rudimentary tunnels, local residents said.

Airstrikes targeted at least seven hospitals and one rescue center over 48 hours, putting several out of service and further incapacitating local doctors trying to treat the scores of wounded with already dwindling medical supplies, local doctors and medical charities supporting hospitals in Eastern Ghouta said.

President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture all of Syria. Moscow and Damascus deny targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure and say they are focused only on rebels fighting the government. Pro-regime Al Masdar News characterized the offensive as an operation to secure the capital and stop shelling from rebels onto Damascus neighborhoods.

But doctors said hospitals and clinics that were still operating were overwhelmed with waves of maimed and bloody civilians, and civilians inside Ghouta have sent public appeals via social media, fearing an impending air and ground assault.

“The situation is very, very violent, more than you can imagine,” said Nizar Madani, a surgeon in Eastern Ghouta who had to move to a second hospital on Monday after the first one was attacked. “I have been living under shelling and airstrikes for years but even I am shocked by the scale of the attacks on us. They don’t want to leave anyone alive in Ghouta.”

The crisis in Syria has grown even more complicated in recent weeks, as regional powers jostle for influence.

As bombs hit Eastern Ghouta, Turkish forces fired artillery at pro-regime militias attempting to enter Afrin, where Syrian Kurds holding the northern enclave have asked for help to repel a Turkish assault. Two militia fighters were killed, said Roj Musa, a Kurdish journalist there.

The clash came a day after the Syrian regime claimed to have struck a deal to assist the Kurds in return for military checkpoints in Afrin. Kurdish and Syrian state television showed footage of pickup trucks with fighters armed with machine guns driving toward Afrin, but there was no sign of more substantial assistance, such as antiaircraft weapons.

Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bekir Bozdag, warned on Monday that sending Syrian regime forces to support the Kurdish militia would have “disastrous consequences for the region.” Turkey considers the so-called People’s Protection Units, or YPG, to be an extension of the insurgency it has battled at home for decades.

For weeks, as Mr. Assad’s regime and his allies have tightened a five-year military siege around Eastern Ghouta, residents and activists in the area of nearly 400,000 people have warned of a repeat of the Aleppo offensive.

Since late 2015, Russian forces have played a key role in helping Mr. Assad turn the tide in the war against opposition rebels, including in Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city. That offensive, which lasted several months before rebels surrendered, left many civilians dead under intense airstrikes, leading the United Nations’ envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, at the time to liken it to “another Srebrenica, another Rwanda.”

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the military operation used to fully capture the city of Aleppo in late 2016 “can be applied in Eastern Ghouta,” Russian state television network RT reported.

Regime forces and Iranian-backed militias have massed along front lines rimming the suburb in recent days and online video posted by pro-regime media outlets showed buses of fighters and convoys of tanks and artillery.

U.N. and aid agencies have warned of another humanitarian crisis. “We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage,” Unicef said on Tuesday. “Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?”

“This cannot go on,” tweeted the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Distressing reports of dozens injured & killed every day in #EasternGhouta. Families trapped, with no safe place to hide from shelling. Dozens of mortars in Damascus cause civilian casualties and spread fear. We cannot let history repeat itself. #Syria.”

The Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran, has often used brute force to extend territorial control, despite internationally brokered deals meant to quell the violence, including a de-escalation agreement brokered last year by Turkey, Russia and Iran.

“We have seen this horrible scene of urban warfare repeated all too often in Aleppo, Mosul, Homs, Raqqa, Falluja, and Ramadi, Deir Ezzour,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “There are slight differences but the use of air power to take urban areas defended by committed rebels always seems to end up with a city that looks like Berlin after WWII.”

Ghouta’s recapture by the Assad regime is a foregone conclusion, he said.

Sweden and Kuwait have co-sponsored a resolution to the U.N. Security Council calling for a 30-day cease-fire, an end to sieges and attacks against civilians in Syria. A vote is expected this week.

But even if it passes—which is in doubt, given Russia’s veto on the Security Council—it would only delay what most in Eastern Ghouta say is inevitable: a surrender by rebels and the busing of thousands of civilians by the government to the northwest province of Idlib, a scenario repeated for years despite the U.N. calling such forced displacements a war crime.

“Every international power understands that the Syrian army will take back the suburbs of Damascus from the rebel forces,” Mr. Landis said. “They don’t like it. They abjure the loss of life and the tactics, but they will not intervene to stop it.”

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