East Ghouta ceasefire flags as rebels launch attack, prompting regime retribution

AMMAN: A recent de-escalation deal to ease fighting in the encircled, rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus faltered Tuesday as Syrian regime forces launched “dozens” of airstrikes and missiles after rebels attacked nearby positions, residents and a Civil Defense spokesman told Syria Direct.

Pro-Assad forces ramped up an already months-long bombardment of several opposition districts throughout Monday and Tuesday after fighters from the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Failaq a-Rahman militia shot at regime tanks stationed just outside the rebel-held East Ghouta enclave.

The fighters claim they killed and injured dozens of regime soldiers, according to a statement posted online Monday.

In return, Assad’s forces fired ground artillery and airstrikes at East Ghouta.

Pro-regime daily Al-Watan reported on Tuesday that Syrian regime forces targeted “a field hospital” and “rebel positions” in Ain Tarma throughout the day.

Ain Tarma on Monday. Photo courtesy of Ghouta Media Center

The clashes come just over two weeks after an Egyptian and Russian-brokered de-escalation deal between the Syrian government and rebel fighters in East Ghouta went into effect.

The terms of the agreement include establishing regime-and Russian-manned checkpoints in and out of East Ghouta and delivering humanitarian aid. The checkpoints are now running, and humanitarian aid convoys reached the suburbs late last month, Russian state-owned Sputnik reported at the time.

But “continuous” regime airstrikes and artillery fire struck “residential neighborhoods” along the frontline, killing at least one resident of the rebel-held Ain Tarma district, Serraj Mahmoud, a Civil Defense spokesman told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

“The bombardment these past two days in Ain Tarma is the most intense we’ve seen recently,” the Civil Defense spokesman said. Neighboring Jobar and Hamouriyah also witnessed lighter bombing throughout Tuesday.

Ain Tarma directly borders regime-held Damascus, and due to its location has been wrapped up in a larger campaign by regime forces to cut off neighboring Jobar, a bombed-out, mostly rebel-held industrial neighborhood just two kilometers from the Old City of Damascus.

Jobar, currently split between areas of regime and rebel control, is the western gateway into the capital’s besieged, rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs. The district has been the focal point of clashes since rebels launched a ground offensive from it this past March, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Fighting in Jobar stalled in May when a Russian-led plan to establish “de-escalation zones” in Syria went into effect. The East Ghouta suburbs were included as one of the four zones outlined in the agreement.

Last month’s de-escalation agreement also promised to smooth over tensions in East Ghouta, though it excluded the rebel groups Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and Failaq a-Rahman, which maintain a large presence throughout the enclave’s southern and central districts.

Jaish al-Islam, East Ghouta’s most powerful rebel faction, reportedly participated in negotiations with the regime before the ceasefire was announced, according to both pro-opposition and pro-regime media outlets.

But Monday and Tuesday’s bombardment represents an escalation in an already simmering barrage of airstrikes and artillery fire on Ain Tarma and neighboring districts this past month, as regime forces battle the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Failaq a-Rahman militia along a largely stagnant frontline.

For rebel forces, East Ghouta is their last major stronghold in Damascus after losing the nearby districts of Qaboun, Tishreen and Barzeh earlier this year.

Civilians in nearby Arbin also told Syria Direct they heard the “sound of bullets” throughout Monday, as Failaq a-Rahman and HTS reportedly clashed in nearby towns.

The battles left one Ain Tarma resident, 40-year-old Yahya Abu Mohammad, with few options when attempting to flee with his wife and five children on Monday.

He chose to take his family to Hamouriyah, a neighborhood roughly 4km to the northeast “because there are no bombings and no clashes between the [rebel] factions there,” he told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “We had to pay SP150,000 [$290] to get from Ain Tarma to Hamouriyah,” he added—an exorbitant sum for the vast majority of people still living in East Ghouta.

“All we want is a safe place.”

Abu Mohammad is one of thousands of residents to flee the district in recent days—just 50 percent of Ain Tarma’s residents now reportedly remain in their homes, Abu Samer, an activist based there, told Syria Direct.

Those now left behind in Ain Tarma are the district’s poorest residents, unable to pay for transportation out of their bombed-out neighborhoods, and too frightened to travel amid the escalated bombardment.

“Most people in this district are poor,” Abu Samer said.

“So, we are simply staying in our homes—myself included. We have no ability to leave.”

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.