An emergency aid delivery crossed front lines into the besieged rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta on Friday but ran quickly into danger from shelling, the top UN official in Syria said, amid a fierce government offensive.
In less than two weeks, the Syrian army has retaken nearly all the farmland in eastern Ghouta under cover of near ceaseless shelling and air strikes, leaving only a dense sprawl of towns – about half the territory – still under insurgent control.
The onslaught has killed more than 1,000 people, the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said on Thursday. The war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on Friday gave a death toll of 940 civilians in the campaign.
For eastern Ghouta‘s civilians, trapped in underground shelters but deprived of food and water, there is a constant dilemma – whether to seek supplies or stay inside.
“People were hopeful after the bombardment decreased and went out onto the streets. But then air strikes began again, and there are still people under the rubble that we couldn’t get out,” said Moayad al-Hafi, a man in the town of Saqba.
Damascus and its main ally Moscow have both said the assault is needed to stop rebel shelling of the nearby capital Damascus and end the rule of Islamist insurgents over civilians in eastern Ghouta.
But UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has said, in comments criticised by Syria’s government, that the assault was “legally, and morally, unsustainable”.
There was a pause in the government’s bombardment overnight, but it soon resumed air strikes and shelling of Douma after the convoy of 13 trucks carrying food parcels crossed into eastern Ghouta, according to residents and the Observatory.
Syrian state television and a witness later said bullets and mortars were fired from inside the rebel enclave at the al-Wafidin crossing point, through which the convoy had entered eastern Ghouta.
“Shelling in proximity of Douma (in) eastern Ghouta today is putting the…convoy at risk,” UN resident coordinator Ali al-Za’tari said in a statement.
The fighting had resurged, he added, “despite assurances of safety from parties including the Russian Federation”. Za’tari called anew for a cessation of hostilities.
A Douma resident, in a voice message over which the sounds of loud explosions were audible, said four jets were in the sky and residential areas had come under air attack.
The food parcels were supposed to be delivered on Monday when another aid convoy entered Douma, but the fighting and bombardment then forced it to leave early without unloading all its supplies.
Defeat in eastern Ghouta would deal the rebels their biggest blow since the fall of Aleppo – Syria’s second city – in December 2016 by forcing them from their only big stronghold left near Syria’s capital.
For President Bashar al-Assad, it would mark a significant victory as he builds on the military momentum created by Russia’s entry into the war in 2015 that has restored his rule over large swathes of the country.
In many cases, rebel enclaves have surrendered in deals that allowed them and their families, along with civilians who did not wish to come back under Assad’s rule, to depart for other opposition areas.
“ONE MEAL IN SEVERAL DAYS”
Bilal Abu Salah, a resident of Douma, said shortages were causing great hardship. “Entire families eat one meal in several days,” he said.
UN aid agencies have pleaded with the Syrian government and its ally Russia to halt the campaign and let aid in.
The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people live in rebel-held areas of eastern Ghouta. The government and Russia’s military have opened what they say are safe routes out of the enclave, but no inhabitants are known to have left yet.
Damascus and Moscow accuse the insurgents of shooting at civilians to prevent them fleeing the fighting into government areas. Rebels deny this and say the area’s inhabitants have not crossed into government territory because they fear persecution.
The terror of the bombardment and the increasingly unbearable living conditions may push people to brave the fighting and flee, according to one resident of Douma.
“I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want any harm to happen to my family,” said Abu Ahmad al-Ghoutani, who said he has two children.
State media have reported people in eastern Ghouta raising Syrian government flags and holding small protests in support of Assad. The Observatory has reported that people protested in one of the area’s villages to demand both an end to the bombardment and the departure of the rebels.
Medical facilities have been hit, adding to shortages of equipment that have made it harder to treat the wounded.
The government’s offensive has come close to splitting the enclave in two by bringing the narrow strip joining its two halves under fire, a commander in the alliance supporting Assad said on Thursday. Rebels deny that.
Tens of thousands of people have fled further into the enclave in the face of the warfare, a UN official said on Thursday, and residents of Douma said shelters are crowded with the new arrivals.
State television reported on Friday morning that the army had control over the village of Beit Sawa, where rebel officials on Thursday said insurgents had recaptured some positions. Government forces will now advance along other fronts, it said.