Residents flee as Syrian regime takes control of villages in Eastern Ghouta

By Sheena McKenzie, CNN

(CNN) -- The Syrian regime has taken control of several villages in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, official news agency SANA said Sunday, in a major turning point in a two-week offensive.

Regime forces gained control of villages on the eastern side of the besieged enclave, which it said were controlled by Al-Nusra Front, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

According to the SANA report, the rebel group had fired over 300 mortar shells and rockets on neighboring Damascus, killing and injuring scores of civilians.

It is the first time the Syrian regime has announced territory control of Eastern Ghouta since launching an offensive on the rebel-held enclave on the outskirts of Damascus on February 18.

The intense bombardment of Eastern Ghouta has caused thousands of residents to flee their homes and head westward where the fighting is less severe, civilians inside the suburb told CNN Sunday.

"The situation on the ground is catastrophic," surgeon Hamza Hassan, based in Irbin in Eastern Ghouta, told CNN via Whatsapp.

"There is massive internal displacement of 30,000 people from (the areas of) Beit Sawa, Otaya, the Douma villages," Hassan said.

"The regime has been hysterically bombing these areas and completely destroying towns and villages," he added.

Separately, the rebel group Jaish al-Islam said in a statement Saturday that its fighters had also retreated from two other areas in the east of Eastern Ghouta, accusing the regime of employing a "scorched earth" strategy of bombardment.

Ceasefire falls on deaf ears

The Syrian regime's foothold in Eastern Ghouta comes one week after the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted for a month-long ceasefire in the enclave, which is home to some 400,000 people.

The UN resolution provided little detail on when the ceasefire was meant to begin, how it would be enforced or even whether all the parties concerned were aware of it.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, also ordered a daily five-hour pause in hostilities that was to have begun on Tuesday.

But both calls were ignored and rebel fighters holed up in Eastern Ghouta, as well as Syrian government forces, accused each other of breaking the truce.

Meanwhile, violence in the enclave rumbled on, including reports of chlorine gas attacks last week that were condemned by the White House.

Assad told local reporters Sunday the military operation would continue.

"The operation in Ghouta is a continuation of combating terrorism in different places," Assad said in comments broadcast on state television, adding that the offensive did not contradict the proposed truce. "Therefore, we must continue with the operation in parallel with opening the way for civilians to leave."

In a Sunday statement, the White House again condemned "the ongoing military offensive that the Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, is perpetrating against the people of Eastern Ghouta."

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders accused Russia of ignoring the UNSC's resolution that demanded a 30-day ceasefire to continue the offensive "under the false auspices of counterterrorism operations."

"The civilized world must not tolerate the Assad regime's continued use of chemical weapons," Sanders added.

Much-needed UN aid -- including a 45-truck convoy with enough supplies for 90,000 people in 10 locations -- was unable to enter the war-torn enclave.

In a statement released Sunday, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it hoped to deliver aid to parts of the area on Monday.

"We hope that the convoy may proceed as planned and will be followed by other convoys," said Ali Al-Za'tari, the UN's Syria Humanitarian Coordinator. "Our teams on the ground are ready to do all that is needed to make this happen."

In a Sunday phone call, French President Emanuel Macron asked his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, to put pressure on the Syrian regime to end its attacks on Eastern Ghouta and allow humanitarian aid to enter the area, according to a statement released by the Elysee Palace.

Macron and Rouhani "affirmed their agreement to work together" to get aid to the civilians who need it in the coming days, the statement said.

In the week since the UN's ceasefire resolution, not only had the violence failed to stop, it has actually escalated, according to Panos Moumtzis, UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis.

"Instead of a much needed reprieve, we continue to see more fighting, more death, and more disturbing reports of hunger and hospitals being bombed," Moumtzis said in a statement Sunday.

"This collective punishment of civilians is simply unacceptable," he added.

Almost 600 people are believed to have been killed and over 2,000 injured, since Syrian government forces launched an air and ground offensive on the rebel-held enclave on February 18, according to the statement.

Medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), put the civilian death toll even higher Saturday, reporting that 770 had been killed and more than 4,000 wounded just between February 18 and February 27.

At the same time, ground-based strikes and mortar shelling from Eastern Ghouta have killed and injured scores of civilians in neighboring Damascus.

What is happening in Eastern Ghouta?

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.


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