UPDATE — 3/10, 4:16 p.m. EST: According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has seized the area surrounding Douma, the largest town in the besieged region of Eastern Ghouta. One of the final rebel-held enclaves in all Syria, Douma is in central Ghouta. It is believed the SAA is attempting to isolate rebel groups into pockets and lay siege to individual towns to overcome rebel groups.
Although reports conflict, Syrian state television announced the weeks-old offensive had witnessed troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad capture Mesraba, and Syrian troops were preparing to retake Harasta.
Weeks of intensive fighting in the region are estimated to have claimed the lives of over 1,000 civilians.
Declaring he would continue to fight terrorism in his country, President Bashar al-Assad has escalated the Syrian Arab Army’s assault on Eastern Ghouta despite calls from the United Nations to observe a 30-day ceasefire.
An anonymous Syrian army commander said Thursday a Syrian Observatory for Human Rights report was correct that the area had been split in two, effectively holding 400,000 hostage, according to the UN.
Justifying Damascus’ pressing forward with the offensive, in his first public comments since launching Operation Damascus Steel in mid-February, Assad claimed civilians living in Ghouta want a return to state rule:
“Therefore we must continue with the operation and in parallel open the way for civilians to leave.”
Defying the UN Security Council resolution demanding a 30-day pause in fighting, Assad has stepped up aerial and artillery attacks on Eastern Ghouta, and has committed additional troops to support a ground assault on the shrinking rebel-held enclave from the east.
In addition, Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations says the territory was hit with a chlorine gas attack on Wednesday with reports indicating between 50 and over 100 civilians effected — one of several such incidents human rights observers and U.S. authorities say have occurred over the past month.
Assad claims the offensive against the region which lies to the east of Damascus is controlled by Islamist groups, some of which are linked to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — formerly known as the al-Nusra Front — and al-Qaeda.
Since late February, Damascus has reclaimed one-quarter of the region from Syrian opposition groups.
An offensive which has displaced a further 10,000 civilians, the UN assailed Assad for “legally and morally unsustainable” arguments to account for the offensive.
Bracing for the worst, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein told reporters Damascus and its allies were preparing Eastern Ghouta’s next “apocalypse.”
“This month, it is Eastern Ghouta which is, in the words of the Secretary General, hell on earth,” al-Hussein said.
Mr. al-Hussein’s comments arrived at the same moment in which humanitarian aid convoys were forced to retreat from several quarters of Ghouta when met with artillery strikes.
An International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman told reporters the convoy was able to offload approximately half of its relief aid, but withdrew over concerns for the team’s safety.
It is estimated more than 1,000 civilians have died, with an additional 4,800 injured since Damascus launched its offensive against the region two weeks ago.
Editor’s note: Updated @ 6:48 p.m. EST
[Reuters] [Anadolu Agency] [CNN] [BBC] [Al Jazeera] [Photo courtesy AFP via Daily Star]