AMMAN: The Syrian Arab Army and its allies captured a strategic rebel base in the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus on Monday, the latest advance in a grinding campaign inching towards the city of Douma, the epicenter of opposition military resistance near the capital.
By capturing the Katibat al-Ishara military base, regime and allied forces have opened an eastern front for the shelling of Douma, which lies less than 3km due west of the new regime front lines.
Syrian state media reported the capture of “terrorist havens” in East Ghouta on Monday, and rebel faction Jaish al-Islam acknowledged its retreat from Katibat al-Ishara in a statement released the same day.
Since May, the Damascus suburb of Douma—home to half a million residents before the the war—has been subject to near daily artillery shelling from the north in addition to a deteriorating humanitarian situation with shortages of critical medical supplies.
Jaish al-Islam fighters engage regime forces in East Ghouta on Monday. Photo courtesy of Jaish al-Islam.
Monday’s advance has sparked fears among Douma residents that the regime will now begin shelling the city from the east as well.
“The fear is palpable” in the city, Douma resident Mohammed told Syria Direct Wednesday.
“Douma is now at the mercy of the regime’s artillery…from another front,” said Mohammed. “There’s no denying that we’re afraid that that the city is going to experience an increase in the pace of the bombings.”
Since July 29, regime forces have launched 117 attempts over 58 days to capture the rebel base, Jaish al-Islam wrote in its Monday statement. “Assad’s gangs,” reportedly fired more than 5,000 mortar shells and launched 390 airstrikes before finally taking control of the base.
As the regime continues to slowly chip away at encircled East Ghouta—the roughly 100-square-kilometer rebel pocket adjacent to Damascus—capturing the Katibat al-Ishara base provides the regime not only with a strategic military high ground but also a staging point for a march on Douma.
Taking the base “is no small feat,” Firas al-Abdullah, a Douma-based citizen journalist, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “The regime has a secure foothold in this base and now Douma lies squarely before them.”
Before any advance on Douma, the regime would likely attempt to first build on its latest gains. To the west of Katibat al-Ishara are the towns of a-Rihan and a-Shifuniyah and to the northeast, Tal Kurdi and Tal Suwan are now just one kilometer away from total encirclement.
Katibat al-Ishara lies 3km due east of Douma. Photo courtesy of Al-Masdar News.
Opposition military sources told Syria Direct on Wednesday that local residents evacuated Tal Kurdi and Tal Suwan two months ago, and headed further into East Ghouta to towns and cities including Douma.
“The regime is eyeing Douma, and in the process they are carving up Ghouta,” al-Abdullah added.
Assad’s government scored a major political victory late last month when Darayya, another nearby Damascus pocket of resistance, surrendered following years of encirclement, and some Douma residents fear a similar fate.
As the encirclement around the city continues to constrict, “we’re afraid that Douma is becoming the next Darayya,” al-Abdullah told Syria Direct.
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.
Syrian army forces captured most of East Ghouta’s southern agricultural region in May in a lightening advance after weeks of infighting between Jaish al-Islam and forces led by rival faction Failaq a-Rahman facilitated the rapid regime advance and prevented rebel reinforcements from reaching fronts with the regime.
Jaish al-Islam and rival Islamist factions Failaq a-Rahman and Jaish al-Fustat, made up of Jabhat a-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham) and Fajr al-Ummah, began overtly battling for dominance in multiple towns across the regime-blockaded East Ghouta suburbs on April 28. The infighting followed months of back-and-forth skirmishes, assassination attempts and arrests.
Jaish al-Islam has not coordinated with other rebel groups on the Katibat al-Ishara front since rebel infighting broke out in April, Hamza Beriqdar, spokesman for Jaish al-Islam’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.