Dozens of people were killed by Syrian regime airstrikes and artillery bombardment on Monday as Bashar al-Assad’s forces appeared to be readying for an all-out assault on Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.
As Assad’s troops and their Russian allies brought carnage to the outskirts of the Syrian capital, other pro-regime fighters were reportedly preparing to join with Kurdish forces to repel a Turkish incursion into the pocket of Afrin in northern Syria.
Turkey warned that it would open fire on regime forces if they sided with the Kurds, raising the prospect of the most direct confrontation between Turkish and Syrian troops since the start of Syria’s war in 2011.
At least 100 people were killed and more than 300 were injured in 24 hours of intense bombing in Eastern Ghouta, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Many of the dead were children and pictures showed rows of small bodies wrapped in bloodied white shrouds.
Five children from one family – Mohammed, Hassan, Hind, Fatima and Sa’adia – were killed along with both of their parents when their neighbourhood was bombarded, activists said.
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“Since this morning the bombing has not stopped,” Abu Jihad Darawi, a Ghouta resident, told The Telegraph. “I was in the street five minutes ago and 20 rockets hit houses around me. The people are living as if they are dead.”
The state of panic in the hearts of women and children after brutal air raids on residential neighbourhoods in #Hamouriya city in #EasternGhouta #SaveGhouta #Syria pic.twitter.com/AAhcRJf5zQ
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) February 19, 2018
Another exhausted resident declined to speak, saying wearily: “I think the image is clear now. Look at the photos of body parts on Facebook, they express what I want to say.”
Around 400,000 civilians are living inside Eastern Ghouta, which is the last major opposition-held area around Damascus. The suburb has been under siege by regime forces since 2013 and supplies of food are perilously low.
Pro-regime forces have been massing around Eastern Ghouta since the weekend and the intensified bombardment has led many analysts to believe that Assad’s fighters are preparing for a full scale attack to recapture the area.
“Ghouta is of major symbolic importance to the regime because it is so close to Damascus and it matters for economic and security reasons,” said Ibrahim al-Assil, a fellow at the Middle East Institute.
“If the regime takes it, they can tell their supporters that the war is almost over and the opposition only controls some pockets in the north, east and south but not in what the regime calls ‘useful Syria’ in the west.”
The regime will likely try to repeat in Eastern Ghouta the model it implemented during Aleppo and other sieges. After bombarding and attacking the area, it may offer rebel fighters and civilians a deal, where they are allowed to leave for an opposition-held province in the north in return for abandoning their territory.
But that model is likely to be complicated by the size of the Eastern Ghouta pocket, where hundreds of thousands of people would need to be evacuated.
As the bombardment of Eastern Ghouta intensified, Syrian state media said that pro-regime forces were preparing to move towards the Kurdish-held pocket of Afrin in northern Syria, where Kurd fighters are fighting against a Turkish incursion.
Syrian state media said the regime fighters would side with Kurdish troops from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and "join the resistance against the Turkish aggression”.
A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely-Kurdish military alliance backed by the US, said a “vanguard” of regime forces was moving to Afrin from Aleppo. But by Monday night it was not clear if they had actually arrived.
Mevlut Çavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, warned the regime not to take the side of the Kurds in Afrin. “
“If the regime is entering (Afrin) to oust the YPG, there is no problem. But if they are entering to protect the YPG, then no one can stop us and Turkish soldiers,” he said.
Turkey and the Syrian regime have exchanged threats and angry words for years but have not confronted each other directly on the battlefield. A clash in Afrin would be the most serious conflict between the two since 2011.
Mr al-Assil said it was likely that deal would be negotiated before there was outright combat and that the regime and Turkey would probably agree to secure the Turkish-Syrian border while Kurdish forces moved away.
“Everyone is interested in reaching a deal: the regime, the Kurds, the Turks, the Russians. I think the question now is what that deal will look like but I don’t think the parties are interested in fighting each other,” he said.
The political and military manoeuvring in Afrin reflects the complexity of the Syria war after seven years of fighting.
Syrian regime forces have recently attacked Kurdish fighters in the east of Syria, prompting the US to bomb Assad’s troops in defence of the Kurds. But in the north the Kurds and the Syrian regime are ostensibly on the same side against Turkey. ENDS