Explained, in videos: Syrian Civil War’s fiercest battle
The six-year-old Syrian Civil war has so far claimed more than 5,00,000 lives. Syria was declared the deadliest country on earth in 2017 due to the ongoing violence
The UN says that at least 1,80,000 locals, including children, are in dire need of medical assistance in Eastern Ghouta, Syria, which has seen an alleged chemical attack and close to 700 deaths over the last two weeks.
The six-year-old Syrian Civil war has so far claimed more than 5,00,000 lives. Close to ten million others have lost their homes and over a five million have fled the country since violence began. Syria was declared the deadliest country on earth in 2017 due to the ongoing violence. The worst, many fear, is not over yet.
Eastern Ghouta, a densely populated suburb of 4,50,000, has become the latest urban battlefront between Russia-backed Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad and West-backed opposition fighters. The last standing rebel bastion near Syria's capital city Damascus, Russian jets started bombing raids in the enclave on Feb 18, followed by ground operations by Syrian Army and Iran-backed Hezbollah fighters.
Observers have described government's military clearance operations the "fiercest" of the entire war. The United Nations and other charity groups have expressed grave concern over the fate of stranded civilians and the collateral damage so far.
Comparisons are already being made between the ongoing government offensive in Eastern Ghouta and the Battle of Alleppo in November and December 2016.
Often dubbed as Syria's Stalingrad, the government's four-year old siege and eventual military campaign to overtake country's largest city Alleppo from the coalition of the Free Syrian Army and Islamist fighters culminated in nearly 31,000 civilian deaths.
The suburb of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus has been besieged by Syrian government forces since February 2013, after a stalemate was reached in one of the many battlefronts of the Syrian Civil War.
The Syrian forces have been trying to drive out the armed rebels from the domestic opposition and allied terrorist groups, including the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, from the region. Assad says that the opposition forces are backed by the US.
The Syrian regime, helped by Russian fighter jets and fighters from Hezbollah, intensified its efforts to retake Eastern Ghouta on Feb 18 this year. While the ground forces have been shelling the suburb relentlessly, the Russian fighter jets have been carrying out aerial raids in a bid to drive out the rebel forces.
The coordinated ground and aerial assault has so far resulted in some headway. An independent human rights agency, London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, said on Saturday that the regime forces have succeeded in taking back "10 per cent" of the enclave.
How are the world powers reacting?
A United Nations Security Council Resolution calling on the Syrian and opposition fighters to adopt a 30-day ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to reach the residents has been flouted from both sides. The UN says that at least 1,80,000 people are in need of immediate medical and nutritional assistance in the region.
A UN relief convoy due to enter Eastern Ghouta on Sunday was denied entry by the Syrian government, according to an Australian journalist.
The Assad regime claims that US-backed terrorist groups, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda, attacked neighbourhoods in Eastern Ghouta with "more than 300 shells" after resolution 2401 came into effect. According to a pro-regime website, nearly 150 people were killed during the "terrorist" strikes.
The US, and to a degree the UN, on the other hand, blame Syria and Russia for violating the ceasefire. Some digital accounts of locals and Syrian media from the affected enclaves on social media show barrel bombs and shells hitting in region's Douma city. The West is also contemplating retaliatory air strikes in response to government's bombing raids.
Syria's northern neighbour Turkey, another important player in the seven-year old civil war, launched a military operation in the Afrin region of north Syria to clear it of Kurdish militias, which are fighting alongside Assad's forces in East Ghouta. Turkey's attack coincided in Syria's border province coincided with the beginning of fighting in Eastern Ghouta.
At least 36 pro-Syrian government were this week killed by a Turkish air strike in the region of Afrin, according to news reports.
During its offensive, the Syrian forces have been accused of using chemical weapons, including some containing chlorine, by various aid groups which are still operating out of the area.
The head of the United Nations Human Rights Council Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein on Friday declared that some acts committed by government forces during the assault were tantamount to "war crimes."
"I must emphasise that what we are seeing, in Eastern Ghouta and elsewhere in Syria, are likely war crimes, and potentially, crimes against humanity," al-Hussein said at an emergency meeting.
The 4,00,000-odd residents have been trapped in Eastern Ghouta with scarce supplies of food, water and medicines due to the blockade, even as government forces have mounted attacks on the rebel forces' bastion from time to time.
The government blockade and subsequent bombardments in the enclave have caused a massive humanitarian crisis in Eastern Ghouta. Though the United Nations and other aid groups have been given access to the region in order to deliver food, life-saving medicines and other supplies at infrequent intervals, malnutrition among children has been increasing.
MSF accuses the Syrian regime to deliberately targetting hospitals and having bombed at least six during the first week of the operations.
More than 650 civilian deaths have been reported since Russian jets began bombarding the rebel-held territory since Feb 18.
The plight of children of the violence-infested region has further evoked string international condemnation of Assad regime's tactics in Eastern Ghouta. The UNICEF has said that acute malnutrition in the Damascus suburb has increased ten times over last few months.
The UN claims about a 1,000 people, a number of children among them, must be evacuated from Eastern Ghouta so they could receive life-saving medical treatment.
Volunteer outfit White Helmets, which has been carrying out civilian rescue operations in Syria, has been posting videos of dead residents, including children, being pulled out of rubble after bombings.