UPDATE 1900 GMT: Pro-Assad forces have carried out bombing and shelling of areas of East Ghouta today.
4 civilians were killed in #Mesraba city and 1 in #Saqba city, and many others injured after continuous bombing targeted residential areas in #EasternGhouta cities. #CivilDefense teams rushed to help the wounded and continue the rescue operation. #SaveGhouta pic.twitter.com/mwtyLaO1lD
— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) February 18, 2018
Pro-Assad activists are continuing their cheerleading for bloodshed:
#Syria Preparations for launching #EasternGhouta liberation ops under the leadership of the Ali Muhanna of Al Sahabat regiment, Samer Ismail of AL Haydarat regiment. We are ready to receive the commands from Suheil Al Hassan to start harvesting the jihadists and send them to hell pic.twitter.com/IDc6kBbIYF
— Ivan Sidorenko (@IvanSidorenko1) February 18, 2018
Pro-Assad activists are hailing an imminent, massive assault on East Ghouta near Syria’s capital Damascus, an area which is home to more than 350,000 people.
The activists are circulating videos showing the movement of pro-Assad forces in convoys, including from northwest Syria after their attacks on opposition-held Idlib Province.
Those attacks had hoped to overrun much of the province but the offensive has been limited by Turkish intervention. So forces are being moved towards East Ghouta, which has no international protection from a five-year siege, shelling, bombing, and even chemical attacks with sarin and chlorine.
The pro-Assad troops on the move reportedly include the paramilitary Tiger Forces, led by Colonel Suhail Hassan, an iconic figure for regime supporters. Both T-72 and T-90 battle tanks are being transported, as are Grad mobile artillery rockets.
Huge Syrian Army reinforcement to liberate East Ghouta from Islamists’ control near Damascus. pic.twitter.com/yAdugIOdEl
— Bassem (@BBassem7) February 17, 2018
But will Russia provide the bombing and missile strikes that have been necessary for any pro-Assad success on the ground? Pro-opposition outlets are claiming a statement by the Russian military in Syria that it will join the assault, despite agreeing a “de-escalation zone” with rebels last July.
Qasioun News said a statement on “non-official pages”, from Russia’s main base at Hmeimim in western Syria, is setting out the pretext that operations will “eliminate the Jabhat al-Nusra terror group in case the peaceful ways didn’t work”.
In fact, Jabhat al-Nusra — formerly affiliated to Al Qa’eda and now part of the Islamist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — has only a small number of fighters in East Ghouta. The main rebel factions in the area are Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman, who have withstood pro-Assad attempts to advance for months despite constant bombardment.
A prominent pro-Assad propagandist celebrates the impending attacks:
Syriana Analysis explains the battle for East Ghouta, shedding light on the history of the war in the area and the imminent battle that is coming in the upcoming days. https://t.co/zBn8MJJK8S
— vanessa beeley (@VanessaBeeley) February 18, 2018
East Ghouta has been besieged since 2012, with a tightening of the blockade since early 2017. Scores of people have died from lack of food and medicine in what the UN has called a “catastrophe”.
Even without Russian involvement, pro-Assad forces have sharply increased bombing and shelling this month. In a space of six days, more than 230 people were killed and more than 800 wounded.
As the Assad supporters cheer, East Ghouta resident Om Mohamed, an aid worker and mother of two, says:
You think: “Where are the children, and how will they eat today?” And then it’s, “What about tomorrow? Will there be one?”
Sometimes I watch them while they’re sleeping and just pray we can keep them alive….
Sometimes my son sneaks out to play with his friends. It makes me crazy. He goes to sleep knowing I am cross with him. I go to sleep every day praying that God will grant us another day together.