Bashar al-Assad visits besieged enclave in eastern Ghouta
Exodus continues with number displaced rising above 270,000 in the last week
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad talking with government troops in eastern Ghouta in the leader’s first trip to the former rebel enclave outside Damascus in years. Photograph: AFP / Syrian presidency Facebook page
Confident of victory in eastern Ghouta, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad on Sunday visited army positions around the besieged and trisected enclave. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled this battleground and the Turkish offensive in the Afrin theatre in the north, swelling the number of displaced over the past week to more than 270,000.
The most dramatic exodus took place in the northwestern Afrin district where since Wednesday 200,000 Kurds have piled into vehicles to escape the Turkish onslaught and find refuge in government-held territory north of Aleppo. The Turkish offensive has routed the US-recruited, trained and armed Kurdish Popular Protection Units, Ankara regards as a terrorist organisation due to its connection with Turkey’s separatist Kurds.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed his forces – comprised of Turkish army soldiers and Syrian militiamen – had captured the enclave’s main town and would soon conclude the conquest of the canton. Mr Erdogan’s press secretary Ibrahim Kalin said Afrin would not be handed back to Damascus, indicating Ankara’s intention of connecting Afrin to an adjacent Turkish-held enclave, settling Syrian refugees in the canton, and imposing a lengthy occupation.
When Damascus condemned the Turkish offensive as a “violation of Syria’s sovereignty, Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated preservation of Syrian territorial integrity is the goal of both Ankara and Damascus and Turkish troops would not engage the Syrian army. Attacks could involve allied Russian and Iranian forces, elicit violent responses, and finish off the joint effort launched by Russia, Iran and Turkey to end the war.
At least 68,000 farmers and townspeople in the shrinking and fractured eastern Ghouta area adjacent to Damascus streamed on foot along corridors protected by the government’s Russian ally, to be bussed to government-designated shelters served by the International Red Cross (ICRC) and, its local partner, the Syrian Arab Red crescent.
Mobile clinics tended lightly wounded while ambulances ferried serious cases to hospitals in Damascus.
An army officer supervising arrivals in the industrial town of Adra, north of eastern Ghouta, said 25,000 had been settled in schools and were receiving food, water and medicine. Others exited a corridor in the south and were taken to other areas monitored by Russia’s reconciliation office. Men and boys of military age, reportedly, received amnesty if they pledged not to join insurgent ranks.
Three armed groups in Eastern Ghouta – Saudi-sponsored Jaish al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman, and Ahrar al-Sham – have called for negotiations with Russia in a bid to halt the army’s offensive. The forth and smallest, al-Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, branded a “terrorist” group, has remained defiant. All four are jihadi, at different degrees of radicalisation.
Since Syria’s army has captured 80 per cent of the enclave, the plea could fall on deaf ears. The only option left to the jihadis is to surrender or seek transfer to other insurgent-held areas in northwest Idlib province, Turkish-conquered territory in the north, and pockets around Deraa in the south.
Following a visit to Syria, ICRC president Peter Maurer warned the situation in Syria has “degraded” in the 10 months since his last trip and appealed to “the powers behind the fighting [not]to allow it to drag on.