Regime shelling of encircled rebel neighborhoods in east Damascus sparks fear among residents of impending offensive

AMMAN: The Syrian regime struck rebel-held neighborhoods in eastern Damascus with rockets and heavy artillery fire for the second straight day on Sunday amidst fears of a renewed regime campaign to capture the territory, home to key smuggling tunnels.

Since Saturday morning, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces have launched dozens of surface-to-surface missiles, rockets and mortar shells into al-Qaboun and Tishreen—two adjacent neighborhoods in the eastern outskirts of the capital—as well as surrounding rebel-held territory.

Over the past 48 hours, some 18 residents have been killed with more than 40 more injured, a Syrian Civil Defense official told Syria Direct on Sunday.

“The rockets are still raining down on us,” al-Qaboun resident Abu Ahmad al-Halabi told Syria Direct in a voice message on Sunday. As he spoke, the sound of shelling was audible in the background.

On Sunday, mortar fire and elephant rockets injured several al-Qaboun residents, the Qaboun Media Office reported through encrypted messaging service Telegram.

The two-day military escalation in al-Qaboun and Tishreen is one of the most intense since July 2014, when the two neighborhoods signed a ceasefire with the regime.

The two neighborhoods are located just 1km northwest of the opposition-held East Ghouta suburbs, and are separated by the regime-held Damascus-Homs highway.

 Market in the Tishreen neighborhood of Damascus on Saturday.

“The bombardment came out of nowhere,” al-Halabi, the 34-year-old al-Qaboun, told Syria Direct on Sunday morning. “We were working, living our daily lives. We didn’t sense anything until the rockets began to fall.”

Al-Halabi says that he and his seven children tried to flee their neighborhood after the shelling began on Saturday, but they were prevented from passing through regime checkpoints and leaving the area.

With regime checkpoints leading out of the two neighborhoods closed, some residents have reportedly fled underground, using the extensive tunnels that connect al-Qaboun and Tishreen with the opposition-held East Ghouta suburbs.

“Large numbers of families” have used the tunnels to flee so far, Abu Taha, a resident and member of the sharia committee in al-Qaboun told Syria Direct on Sunday.

The most violent artillery strike over the past two days occurred when three surface-to-surface missiles reportedly struck a funeral procession on a road just east of Tishreen on Saturday, killing ten people and injuring dozens more.

Local resident Ahmad Ahmad was running late to the funeral and says he arrived just in time to see the missiles hit the procession.

“It was a horrifying sight,” Ahmad told Syria Direct on Sunday. “There were limbs flying in the air. If I hadn’t been a little late to the funeral, I’d be dead.”

Also on Saturday, regime forces reportedly fired missiles and mortar shells at a marketplace in Tishreen and several residential building in al-Qaboun, killing several people and causing material damages, local residents and citizen journalists told Syria Direct.

At the time of publication, Syrian state news agency SANA had not reported the strikes. However, pro-regime Damascus Now reported that “the Syrian Arab Army targeted positions of Jabhat a-Nusra [Jabhat Fatah a-Sham] in al-Qaboun and Tishreen with 17 surface-to-surface missiles.”

Syria Direct asked both residents and citizen journalists in the two eastern Damascus neighborhoods about rebel factions in the area. They denied the presence of any Jabhat Fatah a-Sham militants in the encircled neighborhoods. Qaboun and Tishreen are controlled primarily by Jaish al-Islam and Failaq a-Rahman, the two main opposition groups in the eastern Damascus suburbs.

‘The tunnels are a lifeline’

Regime bombardment of the two rebel-held neighborhoods has incited fears among civilians of an impending regime campaign to take al-Qaboun and Tishreen.

The tunnel networks connecting al-Qaboun and Tishreen to East Ghouta—vital supply lines for the latter—are of particular concern.

 Photo courtesy of Sitar a-Damashqi. A missile strike hitting al-Qaboun on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Reporter.

“The tunnels are a lifeline for East Ghouta, considering the siege. If the regime takes control over these tunnels, it would tighten the siege’s grip on East Ghouta," Sitar a-Damashqi, a citizen journalist in Tishreen, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

On Saturday, pro-regime Al-Masdar News reported that artillery fire on al-Qaboun and nearby Barzeh marks the beginning of a Syrian Arab Army (SAA) offensive to take the rebel-held pockets east of the capital.

“The Syrian Arab Army is launching nonstop missile strikes on the enemy defenses in order to weaken their fortification before storming the front-lines,” according to al-Masdar, citing reports from SAA personnel participating in the military campaign.

At the time of publication, Syrian military officials had not released any formal statements regarding a military campaign in eastern Damascus.

“We’re living under bombardment and there’s no use in asking anyone to stop,” Abu Rateb, a resident of Tishreen, told Syria Direct on Sunday.

“We’ve lost hope in the world. We understand now that the regime will do whatever it wants to do.”

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.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Reham Toujan

Reham is originally from Outer Damascus. She moved to Jordan because of the war. She joined Syria direct because she wants to write about human rights.

Adam a-Shami

Adam is 26 years old and is from Damascus. He studied economics but could not complete his studies due to the war. He moved to Jordan in 2013. Adam joined Syria Direct to learn the principles of journalism.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.