Bombardment renewed as pro-Assad forces mass near Damascus
Ahead of their attempt to overrun the opposition-held area of East Ghouta near Syria’s capital Damascus, pro-Assad forces bombarded towns on Sunday.
After a surge of bombing and shelling killed at least 230 people and wounded more than 800 in the first nine days of February, there had been a lull in assaults on estimated 350,000 people in East Ghouta, besieged for more than five years.
But yesterday attacks were reported on 17 locations, with 11 people — including five children — said to be killed. There were six slain in Misraba and one each in Hazrama, 1 in al-Mhamadeyah, 1 in al-Nashabiah, 1 in al-Blaleyah, and 1 in Saqba.
Having halted their effort to take over more of opposition-held Idlib Province in northwest Syria — in large part because of Turkish forces establishing “observation posts” to limit any advances — the Assad regime’s military and its allies have begun moving large convoys of personnel, weapons, and armored vehicles to the East Ghouta frontlines. Both T-72 and T-90 battle tanks are being transported, as are Grad mobile artillery rockets.
Troops involved include Assad regime special forces; the 1st and 9th Armored Divisions; the 4th Battalion; three Republican Guard brigades; and the paramilitary Tiger Forces.
Word is awaited from the Russian military on whether it will carry out the bombing essential for any pro-Assad success. An unconfirmed report from Saturday said Russia was setting up the pretext that it must act against Jabhat al-Nusra, the group formerly allied to Al Qa’eda — even though Nusra, now part of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham bloc, has few fighters in East Ghouta.
In addition to the casualties from bombing and shelling, East Ghouta’s civilians are enduring a tightening siege, with scores of deaths from lack of food and medicine in what the UN has called a “catastrophe”.
Assisted by rebel in-fighting, pro-Assad forces took much of East Ghouta in spring 2017; however, they have been unable to make significant gains since then, despite regular bombardment which has broken a “de-escalation zone” agreed between Russia and rebels last July.
Kurdish Official: Assad Regime Forces To Enter Afrin
A senior Kurdish official says an agreement has been reached for the Assad regime’s army to enter the Kurdish canton of Afrin region in northwest Syria, hoping to check a Turkish-rebel offensive.
Badran Jia Kurd, an adviser to the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria, said the pro-Assad troops will deploy along some nearby positions and could enter the canton within the next two days.
“We can cooperate with any side that lends us a helping hand in light of the barbaric crimes and the international silence,” he declared.
But a spokesman for the Kurdish militia YPG, Nouri Mahmoud, said the Assad regime had yet to respond to calls to help protect Afrin.
And Jia Kurd acknowledged, “We don’t know to what extent these understandings will last because there are sides that are not satisfied and want to make (them) fail.”
The Turkish-rebel offensive was launched on January 18. It has made limited gains so far.
Both Russia and the US have taken a cautious line over the development. Moscow is blaming the Americans rather than Ankara, with whom the Russians are pursuing their political maneuvers. Washington supports the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, but is under pressure from Turkey — a NATO ally — to end any assistance and to encourage the withdrawal of the Kurdish militia YPG.
Turkey to Regime: Don’t Deploy in Afrin Unless You Remove Kurdish Militia
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned the Assad regime against movement of its forces in Afrin, “If they come in to defend the YPG, then nothing and nobody can stop Turkish soldiers.”
However, he said Turkey would have no issue with regime troops in Afrin if they would “cleanse” it of the Kurdish militia.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan later told Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone that the regime will face consequences if it strikes a deal with the YPG and that the Afrin operation will continue, according to Turkish media.
Assad regime media said on Monday morning that pro-Assad militia would enter Afrin “within hours” but by sunset there were no signs of a deployment. Turkey said the report of the troops were entering the region was “not true”.