March on Douma: Regime captures strategic high ground after 50-day ‘scorched-earth campaign’

AMMAN: One day after losing two key hilltops in East Ghouta, rebel sources told Syria Direct on Tuesday that regime forces will now be able to fire down into East Ghouta “deeper than ever before,” as residents of nearby towns expressed fear of an encroaching invasion.

Monday’s losses of the twin hilltop villages of Tal Kurdi and Tal Sawan follow more than 50 consecutive days of fighting. Now the Assad regime and its allied militias have a prime vantage point for firing down directly onto Douma, the battered de facto capital of the rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus.

Armed with "light and medium weapons,” Jaish al-Islam led the battle to drive away regime forces, Mohammad al-Maki, a participating rebel commander told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

A-Maki and the spokesman of a second participating faction both described the regime’s 50-day assault on the two hilltop villages as a “scorched-earth campaign,” with a near-constant barrage of airstrikes, heavy artillery fire and incendiary rockets.

The regime’s “desperate effort” to defeat the rebels at any cost eventually worked, said a-Maki. “This, in addition to the weakness of the accompanying factions that Jaish al-Islam had,” said the commander, who helms the Brigades of Glory, a faction of roughly 100 fighters.

When asked about the importance of the regime’s Monday victory, the commander said: “The loss of Tal Kurdi and Tal Sawan cannot be understated.”

The regime “will now be able to fire into East Ghouta deeper than ever before,” a-Maki said. “Additionally, the regime will be able to effectively cut off East Ghouta’s towns from each other with their artillery fire from this high ground.”

Early Monday evening, Jaish al-Islam released a statement on Twitter acknowledging the group’s defeat on the Tal Kurdi front following more than 50 days of “excruciating battles.”

“Assad’s militias implemented a scorched-earth policy, which forced the mujahedeen to retreat from the area.”

Rebel forces claim to have killed 300 regime and allied soldiers throughout the battle for the two hills, said Hamzah Beriqdar, spokesman for East Ghouta’s largest rebel faction, Jaish al-Islam.

Regime forces intensified their campaign on Tal Kurdi and Tal Sawan in late September after capturing an adjacent strategic rebel position, the Katibat al-Ishara military base.

The September victory essentially cut off Tal Sawan and Tal Kurdi from the rest of East Ghouta, and opened an eastern front for the shelling of Douma just 3km away, Syria Direct reported.

Almost immediately after the Katibat base fell, Assad’s forces turned their resources to conquering the two hilltop towns. Pro-regime forces “had us isolated,” Beriqdar tells Syria Direct.

“We had no choice but to retreat.”

‘Entering the line of fire’

Fearing a pending offensive, thousands of local residents fled Tal Kurdi and Tal Sawan in July, heading further into East Ghouta, including Douma, rebel sources told Syria Direct in September.

Since May, the regime has slowly carved away at the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. The crux of the regime campaign for the roughly 100-square-kilometer rebel pocket has concentrated on the area’s de facto capital, Douma, which the regime encircled in June 2012. Once home to half a million residents before the war, Douma is a shell of its former self, one of the most barrel-bombed sites in Syria.

After capturing Tal Kurdi and Tal Sawan, multiple East Ghouta military and civilian sources tell Syria Direct that the regime’s next step in their march on Douma is likely the town of a-Rihan.

Located just west of the two hilltop villages, a-Rihan is a village that serves as the eastern entrance to Douma. If the regime captures a-Rihan, “they will be inside of Douma,”Abu Mustafa, an East Ghouta resident, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Even for East Ghouta residents outside the regime’s direct line of advance on Douma, some say they fear an imminent “new wave of displacement” to begin after the Syrian Arab Army’s victory on Monday.

“People are becoming increasingly afraid after the fall of Tal Kurdi and Tal Sawan,” Ayman Abu Anas, an East Ghouta resident, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. Given the regime’s newly acquired elevated position, “many more towns will be entering into the line of fire for the first time.”

Pro-opposition media outlets reported light shelling across East Ghouta on Tuesday. Inclement weather and poor visibility accounted for the relative calm across the rebel-held territory, local sources told Syria Direct.

Pro-regime media outlet Damascus Countryside Now highlighted the government’s artillery targeting of “terrorist positions” across Douma and East Ghouta on Monday while praising the Syrian Arab Army’s “tightening stranglehold” on East Ghouta following their capture of Tal Kurdi and Tal Sawan.

“The end of the East Ghouta armed militias is fast approaching,” the outlet announced on their Facebook page yesterday. “They may be trying to hold out, but it’s too late for East Ghouta; their defeat is imminent.”

East Ghouta’s rival Islamist faction Failaq a-Rahman made no mention of the rebel withdrawal. Regime and allied forces have been largely successful at seizing control over portions of East Ghouta by exploiting deep—and at times violent—divisions between the area’s leading rebel groups.

Hundreds of East Ghouta residents protested in late October against deep divisions and a lack of coordination between East Ghouta’s two predominant rebel groups—Failaq a-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam—following months of assassination attempts and arrests, Syria Direct reported.

“Fear is endemic in East Ghouta today,” resident Ayman Abu Anas told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “Residents have witnessed the regime’s scorched-earth tactics, and people worry that their towns will be the next ones to come face to face with the regime’s hellfire.

“If the rebel factions don’t come together, towns will crumble one by one, and East Ghouta will fall.” 

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Ahmad al-Majareesh

Ahmad was studying Arabic Literature at Damascus University when the war intensified in 2012. Originally from Daraa, Ahmad wants to write about people in his home province.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.

Dima al-Dimashqi

Dima grew up in Old Damascus before moving to Egypt to finish her degree in Islamic Law. She joined the Syria Direct training program because she believes quality journalism can contribute to the rebuilding of her country.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.