AMMAN: Regime warplanes unleashed up to 100 airstrikes across the encircled, rebel-controlled Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta over the past 24 hours, with local activists and medical workers telling Syria Direct that it’s “open season” as the attacks killed dozens of residents in their homes and in a crowded public market.
The scores of airstrikes constitute one of the single bloodiest days in East Ghouta since regime forces launched a campaign to cut the region’s vital food and medical supply routes via underground tunnels this past February.
The simultaneous air and ground assaults, which continued at the time of publication, killed at least 33 East Ghouta residents. Civil Defense first responders, however, cautioned on Tuesday that the figure is expected to increase as rescuers pull bodies from underneath the rubble of collapsed buildings.
The deadliest incident occurred on Monday when a five-missile airstrike targeted a crowded public market in East Ghouta’s de facto capital of Douma, killing 23 residents.
Graphic footage from the attack shows a frenzied rescue operation. Civil Defense first responders leave dead bodies lying in the streets as civilians call for help to other victims of the attack.
Around the same time, 6km south of Douma, a Civil Defense crew rushed an injured young boy to a medical point following an airstrike. The boy, alone, cries out “I want my parents…I want my parents.”
East Ghouta residents carry an injured man following an airstrike on Hamouriyah on Monday. Photo courtesy of Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images
Although Syrian state media outlet SANA did not comment on the airstrikes, the agency did report on Monday that “terrorist groups” from East Ghouta fired mortars on residential neighborhoods in Damascus, injuring six people.
For the 450,000 residents of East Ghouta, such suffering is not new amidst a years-long encirclement, dire food and medical shortages, outbreaks of contagious diseases and near-constant regime bombardment.
“This is a city that wakes up to the sound of airstrikes and artillery fire,” Naser Abu al-Karam, who works in the Douma market that was hit by airstrikes, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “People here in Douma know that they’re in danger.”
“When a man leaves his home, he says goodbye to his family because he genuinely does not know if he’ll return,” he added.
While the ongoing campaign for East Ghouta’s supply routes is largely stalemated with little ground changing hands, local sources told Syria Direct that the heavy wave of airstrikes coincides with the regime’s multi-front ground offensive to break through dug-in rebel frontlines elsewhere in the opposition-controlled pocket.
There are ongoing clashes “on every front as of this moment,” said Siraj Mahmoud, the head of the East Ghouta Civil Defense’s press office. For years, government forces have slowly carved away at East Ghouta territory, reducing opposition control of the east Damascus suburbs to just 100 sq. km, with the ultimate goal of recapturing Douma.
But with the grinding offensive yielding little results for the government in recent days, local activists accuse the regime of deliberately targeting civilians in an attempt to both distract and punish opposition forces.
“For four years now, this is what Assad’s forces do,” Abu Wisam al-Ghoutani, a citizen journalist from the East Ghouta town of Hamouriyah told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “They bomb civilians to put pressure on the rebels.”
Previous airstrikes have destroyed hospitals and other medical infrastructure as a multi-year blockade mostly prevents medicine and other life-saving supplies from entering East Ghouta, doctors’ options are limited to basic triage in ill-equipped field hospitals in the aftermath of airstrikes.
Syrians run for cover as smoke billows following an airstrike on Ain Tarma, in the eastern Ghouta area, a rebel stronghold east of the capital Damascus on March 27, 2017. Photo courtesy of Mohammed EYAD / AFP
In Douma, Salim al-Ghoutani is a local medical worker who says that there is little that his team can do to treat the most serious emergency cases.
“I’ve seen life-threatening injuries that just can’t be treated…patients who need to be evacuated, but we’re unable to do anything,” he told Syria Direct.
“It’s nothing short of a disaster here, if I’m being completely honest,” he added. “The regime doesn’t distinguish between civilian areas and the battlefronts. Hospitals, schools, it’s all open season to them. They’ve got no red lines.”
With additional reporting by Eyad Mohammed Madhar, Mohammed al-Falouji, Shefaa Yasin and Yasmine Ali