Middle East

Syria's Eastern Ghouta: The rebel-held enclave under siege since 2013

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Syria's battered Eastern Ghouta, the last opposition-controlled pocket around Damascus, has been besieged since 2013 and is now facing an intense bombing campaign.

Despite a crippling siege, infighting and a ferocious wave of bombardment, Syrian rebels have clung on to their Eastern Ghouta stronghold near Damascus - but a looming ground offensive might finally oust them. 

A renewed regime air campaign has left nearly 400 civilians dead in just five days, and signals the government is gearing up to make an all-out push to seize the enclave.

Here is a summary of what has happened in the rebel enclave, home to around 400,000 people:

Battles, bombings, escalation

In July 2012, more than a year after the start of the uprising against the government, Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels attack the capital from its outskirts in Ghouta.

Regime forces quickly reassert control but some areas fall into the hands of the rebels, who set up base in Eastern Ghouta.

Volunteers search for survivors after several air strikes in Syria
FILE: A rebel stronghold is being pounded by Syrian warplanes as the UN demands a ceasefire.
AAP

The region becomes the target of regular bombings and artillery strikes: markets, schools and hospitals are hit. 

Starting in 2013, Eastern Ghouta is totally under government siege - making food, medicine, and other goods hard to access.

In May 2017, it is chosen as one of four "de-escalation" zones under a deal between Russia, Iran and Turkey, key players in the conflict.

But the government maintains its blockade and renews bombardment in mid-November, leaving buildings and streets in ruins.

On February 5, 2018 a wave of intense bombardment leaves around 250 civilians dead and hundreds wounded in five days.

A fresh bombing campaign begins on February 18, with a simultaneous build-up of reinforcements around the enclave that suggest a ground assault is in preparation.

Chemical attacks 

The Damascus government is also accused of carrying out chemical attacks on Eastern Ghouta and other areas.

In August 2013, hundreds of people including many children are killed in a suspected toxic chemical attack on the region and another rebel bastion near Damascus, Moadamiyet al-Sham.

Washington accuses the Syrian government of responsibility, saying more than 1,400 people, including 426 children, died.

President Bashar al-Assad's regime denies involvement.

US and French retaliatory strikes are averted only after a last-gasp agreement between the US and regime supporter Russia that Syria's chemical weapons arsenal will be destroyed.

A UN report concludes days later that the use of sarin gas had been proved "unequivocally and objectively".

In January 2018 chlorine is suspected of having been used on several occasions in munitions launched by the regime into the region, claiming several lives.

On February 5 US ambassador Nikki Haley tells the UN Security Council that there is "obvious evidence from dozens of victims" to corroborate the chlorine attacks.

Following a French warning of punitive strikes, the Syrian government again denies it possesses chemical weapons.

Malnutrition, siege

Eastern Ghouta borders key agricultural fields and was once an important source of food for the capital. 

But the government's siege means the 400,000 people - half of them children - trapped there are now suffering severe food shortages and medication. 

Some food is grown locally and limited supplies are smuggled in, but humanitarian access is limited despite regular appeals from aid agencies. 

Following the release of shocking images of severely malnourished children in October 2017, the United Nations condemns "the deliberate starvation of civilians as a method of warfare".

The following month, UNICEF says childhood malnutrition levels in the region are the highest recorded in Syria since the war began.

"Eastern Ghouta is experiencing a Middle Ages-style siege," French ambassador to the UN, Francois Delattre, tells reporters in early January.

A boy runs through a bombed neighbour in Douma, eastern Ghouta.
File photo of a boy running through bombed area in Eastern Ghouta, which has suffered some of the worst violence in the Syrian war.
AAP

What happens next?

International Crisis Group analyst Sam Heller said the Assad regime is looking to "resolve the issue of Eastern Ghouta permanently - either with a military victory or through a negotiated settlement under military pressure."

Similar escalations have ended with rebels agreeing to "reconciliation" deals, exiting the area in exchange for a halt to bombardment.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted on Monday that Syria was executing that very strategy in Eastern Ghouta.

"The Aleppo experience, when the evacuation of fighters was organised, is completely applicable to Eastern Ghouta," Mr Lavrov said.

In Aleppo in 2016, regime troops conducted a month-long offensive, then secured a deal that evacuated the city's rebel-controlled half.

CSIS's Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Will Todman said the same thing could happen in Eastern Ghouta.

"Rebels won't be able to hold out indefinitely,” he said. “Several months or a year from now, I wouldn't be surprised if some kind of evacuation deal was agreed for at least parts of the Eastern Ghouta, although some rebel factions will likely fight to the bitter end.”.

But 32-year-old Ghouta resident Abu Zeid said he expects the regime is hungry for total conquest, not a deal.

"I don't think the rebels' withdrawal will resolve the issue. The regime's essential problem is with the people," he said.

Timeline

July 2012 – More than a year after the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels attack the capital from its outskirts in Ghouta. The region became the target of regular bombings and artillery stricks, with markets, schools and hospitals hit.

2013- Eastern Ghouta is besieged by the government, making food, medicine and other daily goods near impossible to access for the region’s 400,000 residents.

May 2017- Eastern Ghouta is chosen as one of the four “de-escalation” zones under a deal between Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

November 2017- The government maintains its blockade and renews bombardment, leaving buildings and streets in ruins.

February 5, 2018- A wave of intense bombardment leaves at least 250 civilians dead and hundreds wounded in five days.

February 18, 2018- A fresh bombing campaign began.

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