Scores killed in bombings as elite government forces arrive to East Ghouta

AMMAN: Heavy pro-government artillery fire and airstrikes killed more than 40 people across the encircled East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on Monday, two days after an elite Syrian special forces unit arrived at the outskirts of the capital city.

Pro-government airstrikes and shelling killed at least 43 civilians and injured more than 300 others in a handful of towns within the East Ghouta enclave by Monday afternoon, the Civil Defense reported via Facebook.

Civilians described Monday’s bombardment to Syria Direct as an “escalation” of an already devastating pro-government campaign on East Ghouta that began in late December.

In the East Ghouta town of Hamouriya alone, airstrikes on “residential areas” killed at least 20 people throughout Monday, the Civil Defense reported.

Out of three members of the volunteer rescue group contacted by Syria Direct for comment on Monday, not one was free for long enough to provide a response, in an indication of the intensity of Monday’s bombings.

Civil Defense volunteers put out a fire in Hamouriya Monday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defense-Outer Damascus.

Syrian state media did not report attacks on East Ghouta on Monday, though reported “shells fired by armed groups” into government territory injured ten people.

The reported increase in pro-government bombardment came two days after the Tiger Forces, an elite unit of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), announced via Facebook it had amassed troops and weaponry in the Damascus suburbs, in preparation for the “largest military campaign” against East Ghouta.

While the exact scope and goal of the reported campaign remains unclear, the Tiger Forces previously took part in major ground campaigns elsewhere in Syria—including an offensive last year to seize Islamic State territory in northern Aleppo province.

Syria Direct reached out to the Tiger Forces via the unit’s official Facebook page multiple times on Sunday and Monday, but received no response by time of publication.

Spokesmen for the rebel factions Failaq a-Rahman, Ahrar a-Sham and Jaish al-Islam in East Ghouta told Syria Direct on Monday that they had not yet engaged in any ground battles with the Tiger Forces reportedly stationed just outside the enclave.

However, the spokesmen said their factions were “preparing” for a potential battle as the Tiger Forces reportedly amassed just outside the encircled pocket.

The East Ghouta suburbs, which the SAA and allied forces encircled in 2013, are home to an estimated 400,000 residents. The besieged enclave is one of four regions across Syria included in a Russian- and Iran-brokered de-escalation deal, announced last May.

Pro-government airstrikes and artillery fire on East Ghouta have killed and injured thousands of civilians since late December, Civil Defense spokesman Siraj Mahmoud told Syria Direct last week.

“I can’t imagine anything worse than what we’re going through right now,” Mohammad Ratib, owner of a money exchange in the East Ghouta town of Douma said on Monday. “My home was already bombed and damaged a week ago” he said.

Ratib was able to repair his house, he said, but is seeking shelter elsewhere as pro-government bombing shows no signs of abating.

“I’m just trying to find a safe place for my wife and son,” said Ratib. “I’m getting my basement ready so we can live in it permanently.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Ammar Hamou

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

Lina al-Abed

Lina is from Deir e-Zor. She studied economics at Damascus University before moving to Jordan in 2012 due to the war. Through Syria Direct’s training program, she hopes to use reporting to serve her people and her country by communicating their suffering to the world.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.