AMMAN: Civil leaders and rebel fighters told Syria Direct on Monday that ceasefire violations are increasing in the Marj region, 14km east of central Damascus.

Two days after the cessation of hostilities went into effect on February 27, regime forces took new territory in Marj, located in the southeast section of the East Ghouta suburbs and comprised of 28 villages. They reportedly captured a village that was home to satellite television broadcast stations.

“From the beginning of the truce [on February 27], not a single day has passed in Marj without bombing,” Khalid Abu Suleiman, member of the Outer Damascus Provincial Council, which organizes civilian life and municipal services in the rebel-held area, told Syria Direct Monday.

“Truce violations are increasing every day, to say nothing of the [regime's] daily attempts to sneak in and storm points in Marj,” said Abu Suleiman.

The text of the ceasefire called on signatory parties to “refrain from acquiring or seeking to acquire territory from other parties to the ceasefire.”

What people on the ground in Marj say is that not only are they under bombardment, but humanitarian aid is not arriving, despite terms in the ceasefire “to allow humanitarian agencies, rapid, safe, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their [regime and rebel] operational control.” 

Marj is in green. Map courtesy of all4Syria.

In Marj, the two strongest rebel factions signed the truce, and say they are adhering to it because they are seeking to hold the territory already in their possession, while the regime is looking to gain new ground.  

“All of the brigades operational in Marj are part of either Jaish al-Islam or Feilaq a-Rahman,” both signatory parties to the truce, and not Jabhat a-Nusra or the Islamic State, said provincial council member Abu Suleiman.

Meanwhile, pro-regime media reports regular bombardments of Marj. “Warplanes targeted militants' locations in the Marj area,” Al-Watan reported on March 13.

This past Sunday, rebels foiled a regime attempt to advance in the region with the aid of armored vehicles, reported pro-opposition Shaam News Network on Monday.

Why Marj?

Marj is the breadbasket of East Ghouta because of its fertile agricultural land. The cluster of 28 villages serves as “the agricultural storehouse for East Ghouta, with huge agricultural plots and fruit-bearing trees...that have helped ease the siege” on East Ghouta, said Abu Suleiman.

A regime takeover of one of the main food sources for East Ghouta—encircled for nearly four years— will squeeze civilians even harder, a rebel fighter in Marj told Syria Direct. 

“The regime's advance here could mean the starvation of East Ghouta residents,” said Abu Hamza.

Marj sits in between Douma to the north, the headquarters of rebel group Jaish al-Islam, and the southern zone of East Ghouta. A rebel loss of Marj would break up areas of contiguous opposition control in East Ghouta, said Abu Suleiman.

Rebels held most of the Marj region until late 2015, when the regime began an offensive there and captured the village of Marj a-Sultan and the airport within it, reported Al-Jazeera on December 12.

The regime continued to make progress in Marj into the new year, with state-owned news agency SANA reporting on February 16 that the Syrian Arab Army had captured “a number of farms” in the area.

When the ceasefire went into effect 11 days later, rebels hoped that it would provide some respite on the Marj front.

Aside from daily bombardment, residents of Marj say they have not received humanitarian aid, contrary to the terms of the ceasefire. Instead, the aid destined for Marj was reportedly diverted to neighboring, pro-regime Jeramana camp, a member of the Political Body in East Ghouta, which represents Ghouta residents in political processes, such as ceasefire negotiations, told Syria Direct Monday.

Marj residents are upset that representatives in the Political Body “do not have a strong position towards the UN concerning the regime's bombing [of the region], its exception from the ceasefireand the lack of humanitarian aid,” said provincial council member Abu Suleiman.

On Sunday, Marj residents expressed their dissatisfaction with their representatives for failing to take a firm stance in the face of repeated ceasefire violations.

Local notables signed an announcement announcing their withdrawal from the representative body for “being unaware of our suffering and our brothers' suffering in the southern section” of East Ghouta.