Beginning of the end for Ghouta rebels: Thousands flee relentless regime assault

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Hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters and their relatives began evacuating a key besieged town in Eastern Ghouta on Thursday.

Their departure was the first rebel surrender from the region east of Damascus where more than 1,500 people have been killed in one of the most ferocious regime onslaughts of the Syrian conflict.

Syrian TV broadcast footage showing dozens of white buses, with opposition fighters and civilians on board, driving out of the Harasta. Among the 1,580 evacuees were 413 gunmen, reports said. More are expected to leave in the coming days.

Yahya Al-Aridi, spokesman for the Syrian opposition, told Arab News he did not see it as a “surrender” because of the overwhelming firepower used by the government military and the “superpower” supporting them — Russia. Iran also backs President Bashar Assad with dozens of heavily armed militias.

The devastation wrought on Eastern Ghouta shows that the world appears to have lost its conscience, Al-Aridi said. “The (UN) Security Council is being hijacked by Russia. The power of Iran has no deterrence. We hear words, we hear statements, we hear claims, we hear screams and cries from the West, but nothing happens,” he said.

The departure from Harasta of opposition fighters from the Ahrar Al-Sham group could serve as a blueprint for other militants in other towns, bringing Assad’s regime closer to recapturing the entire territory following years of siege.

The regime assault has sparked a tide of displacement in the Damascus suburbs as civilians try to escape the violence. Some have moved deeper into the opposition-held enclave, while some 50,000 others have crossed the front-lines, to regime-controlled areas.

They included dozens of civilians who appeared to be wounded, some hobbling on crutches, another with an eye injury.

Regime airstrikes pummelled parts of Eastern Ghouta in the morning, striking Arbin and Zamalka and killing 19 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Later, opposition fighters fired rockets from Eastern Ghouta into Damascus, killing two people, state media reported.

Between 18,000 and 20,000 people were expected to stay in Harasta under government rule, a military source told Reuters.

The air and ground attack, which escalated on Feb. 18, has seen the once sprawling territory at the doors of the capital shrink to three disconnected opposition-held islands.

The international medical charity Doctors Without Borders said the advancing regime forces had captured or destroyed 19 of the 20 hospitals the group was supporting just one week ago. It said medical staff were fleeing the approaching front lines.

The opposition holds just 20 percent of the Eastern Ghouta territory they held one month ago, according to the Syrian Observatory. But that territory includes several densely populated residential zones including Douma, the largest town in Eastern Ghouta.

Al-Aridi said the rebels had been “defending their lands, their families and their honor, while Russia, along with 80 Iranian militias and the remnants of the Assad regime, is targeting people who are trying to protect themselves.

“We try to save as many Syrians as possible because no one else cares about Syrians. This has been going on for seven continuous horrible years.”

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