Syrian army intensifies offensive in Ghouta
The Syrian army intensified its onslaught in eastern Ghouta on Saturday with advances that a war monitor and state media said had splintered the enclave, though a rebel official denied this. Syrian state television broadcast from inside Mesraba, a town lying along the road connecting the northern and southern halves of the rebel-held stronghold.
The capture of Mesraba and advances into nearby farmland brought important roads directly under fire by the army, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
That has in effect cut the large towns of Harasta and Douma off from each other and the rest of the enclave, it added. However, Hamza Birqadar, a spokesman for Jaish al-Islam, one of the two main insurgent groups in eastern Ghouta, denied that either Harasta or Douma had been cut off.
The relentless three-week assault on the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus has captured about half its area and killed 1000 people, according to the Britain-based Observatory. State television showed a huge plume of dark smoke rising behind houses and trees in eastern Ghouta, with the sound of blasts in the background.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia, his main ally, say the campaign is needed to end rebel shelling of Damascus and end the rule of Islamist insurgents over the area's civilians. The offensive follows the pattern of previous assaults on rebel strongholds, deploying air power and tight sieges to force insurgents to accept "evacuation" deals.
These involve rebels surrendering territory in exchange for safe passage to opposition areas in northwest Syria, along with their families and other civilians who do not want to come back under Assad's rule. Late on Friday, a small number of fighters and their families from the former al Qaeda affiliate previously known as the Nusra Front left eastern Ghouta under such a deal.
But the group represents only a small portion of the insurgent presence in the enclave. Jaish al-Islam and the other main eastern Ghouta rebel group Failaq al-Rahman have said they are not negotiating a similar deal for themselves.
Capturing the enclave would represent Assad's biggest blow against the rebels since they were driven from Aleppo in December 2016. It would seal a string of military victories for the Syrian leader since the entry of Russian jets into the war on his side in 2015 turned the course of the conflict against the insurgents.