The Syrian army is poised to slice opposition-held eastern Ghouta in two as forces advancing from the east link up with troops at the enclave’s western edge, a pro-Damascus military commander said today.
The advance puts the zone effectively under Syrian government control as the remaining strip of territory was within weapons range.
The government, backed in the war by Russia and Iran, is seeking to crush the last major opposition enclave near Damascus in a ferocious campaign that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says has killed 898 civilians in the last 18 days, including 91 yesterday.
Defeat in eastern Ghouta would mark the worst setback for rebels since the opposition was driven from eastern Aleppo in late 2016 after a similar campaign of siege, bombing, ground assaults and the promise of safe passage out.
The pro-Damascus commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, confirmed a report by the Observatory late yesterday that the enclave had effectively been sliced in two.
But Wael Alwan, the Istanbul-based spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, one of the main opposition groups in eastern Ghouta, denied that the territory had been cut in half. “No” he said in a text message when asked if the report was correct.
An aid convoy that intended to go to Ghouta later today was postponed, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations said.
“Today’s convoy is postponed,” ICRC spokeswoman Iolanda Jaquemet told Reuters. The United Nations had asked the government to commit to a ceasefire today to let in more aid.
“The UN continues to received reports of escalating fighting in East Ghouta and shelling on Damascus,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) said in a statement.
“We continue to call on all parties to immediately allow safe and unimpeded access for further convoys to deliver critical supplies,” it said.
The United Nations says 400,000 people are trapped in the towns and villages of eastern Ghouta. They have been under government siege for years and were already running out of food and medicine before the assault. Many civilians have fled from the frontlines into Douma, a town in the enclave.
Opposition groups said they were deploying more guerrilla-style ambushes in territory they had lost, trying to stop advances by the army and their allies which rebels accuse of using “scorched earth” tactics.
“Nothing is secure and battles are raging and it’s difficult to predict what will happen,” said Abu Ahmad al Doumani, a Jaish Al-Islam fighter on one of the front lines.
The UN Security Council yesterday called for the implementation of a 24 February resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire across Syria and it voiced concern about the country’s humanitarian plight.