Increased airstrikes in east Damascus towns amid battle for rebel-held district

AMMAN: Syrian warplanes battered suburbs east of Damascus on Monday in a fifth consecutive day of intense airstrikes as part of an ongoing push by regime forces to capture a strategic, rebel-held town just outside the capital.

At least five regime airstrikes and “200 artillery shells” hit the rebel-controlled town of Ain Tarma on Monday, Mohammad Abu al-Yaman, a pro-opposition citizen journalist, told Syria Direct from the scene of the attacks.  

The bombings come amidst renewed fighting between rebels and regime forces on frontlines east of the Syrian capital.

Over the weekend, dozens of airstrikes killed at least 23 residents of East Ghouta’s Ain Tarma and the neighboring towns of Hazzah and Zamalka, according to a Civil Defense statement posted online on Sunday.  The majority of the bombings hit Ain Tarma, three kilometers due east of the Old City of Damascus.

Though the latest round of airstrikes on the East Ghouta town began last month, bombings became “continuous and systemic” in the past several days, Siraj Mahmoud, a Civil Defense spokesman in Outer Damascus, told Syria Direct on Monday.

 Civil Defense volunteers in Ain Tarma on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defense-Outer Damascus.

“Civil Defense members have been working more than 33 hours straight, looking for survivors beneath the rubble,” he said. “If the offensive continues, I expect that it will drain the Civil Defense’s remaining capabilities.”

Many civilians in Ain Tarma were displaced to the town in recent months and years by previous rounds of fighting.

As the bombs fall, “intense” ground fighting between rebel fighters and pro-Assad forces is continuing on the outskirts of Ain Tarma, Wael Alwan, spokesman for the Failaq a-Rahman group currently fighting regime forces in the town, told Syria Direct on Monday.

The battle for Ain Tarma is tied to a larger campaign by regime forces to capture neighboring Jobar, a strategically located, bombed-out district just two kilometers from the Old City of Damascus.

Jobar, currently split between areas of regime and rebel control, is the western gate to the besieged, rebel-held East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The district has been the focus of battles since rebels launched a ground offensive from it this past March, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Fighting in Jobar slowed in early May when a Russian-led plan to establish “de-escalation zones” in Syria went into effect. The East Ghouta suburbs were included in one of the four zones outlined in the agreement.

 Rescue operations in Ain Tarma on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defense-Outer Damascus.

But in early June, bombardment and ground fighting broke out again, with clashes now focused not on Jobar, but on neighboring Ain Tarma, a town immediately to the south.

Capturing Ain Tarma would give pro-Assad forces an entry point into Jobar, the target of the offensive, said Failaq spokesman Alwan.

“The goal is to enter Ain Tarma and [neighboring] Zamalka to completely surround Jobar,” he said.

Syrian state media outlet SANA did not appear to mention the recent escalation or ground fighting in Outer Damascus, instead reporting that “armed groups” in East Ghouta “fired shells” into regime-held Damascus on Sunday, injuring seven civilians. 

The pro-regime daily al-Watan reported on Monday that the Syrian Arab Army was able to “retake a number of buildings and kill a number of fighters from the Jabhat a-Nusra terrorist organization.” 

Former Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra, now known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, is a member of the rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), whose forces participated in March’s Jobar offensive. 

Rebel spokesman Alwan claimed on Monday that HTS fighters are not currently present on the Jobar front.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.