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Eastern Ghouta: What happened and why

It was the last rebel stronghold near the Syrian capital.

ghouta-district

After a fierce seven-week offensive that left much of Eastern Ghouta in rubble, and an alleged chemical attack, the Syrian army regained control of the areas which have been held by opposition fighters since 2012.

Russian military police reportedly began patrolling in the area on April 12, as part of an evacuation deal reached with rebel groups.

Here is how it all unfolded:

What happened?

  • Siege: After the outbreak of anti-government protests in 2011, Eastern Ghouta became a rebel stronghold of opposition fighters and the Syrian government imposed a siege on it since 2013.
  • De-escalation: Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed in 2017 to designate Eastern Ghouta a "de-escalation zone", in which Syrian and Russian fighter jets were expected not to fly.
  • According to Russian and pro-government sources, rebels in Eastern Ghouta violated the agreement by launching mortar shells at Damascus.
  • All-out campaign: On February 19, Syrian army forces backed by Russian warplanes escalated the offensive on Eastern Ghouta, killing hundreds of people within days.
  • On February 24, the UN Security Council - including Russia - voted in favour of a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire that excludes operations against said "terrorist" groups.
  • On February 25, the Syrian army forces launched a ground offensive to retake control of the area.
  • Evacuations: On March 9, fighters from a group excluded in the UN ceasefire resolution were evacuated from Eastern Ghouta to other areas in Syria under opposition control.
  • By April 8, all opposition groups in Eastern Ghouta agreed to evacuate.
  • On April 12, all of Eastern Ghouta was declared under the control of the Syrian army, and Russian military police patrols.

Ground offensive

  • On February 25, Syrian government forces launched a ground offensive on the edges of Eastern Ghouta to enable their ground forces to advance.
  • By March 11, the Syrian forces captured Mesraba the largest town in Eastern Ghouta, which lies 10km east of Damascus.
  • This split the area into three parts: Douma and its surroundings, Harasta in the west, and the rest of the towns further south.
  • Bashar's visit: On March 19, Syrian state TV release footage that showed President Bashar al-Assad greeting soldiers in Eastern Ghouta.
  • "The people of Damascus appreciate all of you for protecting the city, and we will remember this for tens of years, or even generations," Assad told the soldiers.
  • Chemical attacks: On April 8, local medics reported deaths they said were caused by a toxic gas attack on the besieged town of Douma, claims denied by Syria and Russia as "fabrications". 
  • The US president and the Turkish president separately threatened that those behind the attack will pay a heavy price.

Evacuation

  • On March 9, members from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front), one of the groups excluded in the UN ceasefire resolution, were reportedly evacuated.
  • On March 22, hundreds more of opposition fighters and their families were evacuated from the town of Harasta.
  • On March 24, a 17-bus convoy left Eastern Ghouta late in the day, carrying more than 994 people and bound for Idlib, a rebel-held town in the north.
  • On March 27, a convoy of 100 buses departed from the Irbin corridor towards rebel-held Idlib province in the north, evacuating at least 6,750 people marking the largest evacuation to date, according to state media.  
  • On April 8, the Russian army said it had struck a deal with Jaish al-Islam to withdraw about 8,000 of its fighters and some 40,000 of their relatives.
  • As of April 12, it is unclear if all fighters have been evacuated.

Why Eastern Ghouta?

  • Capital nearby: Eastern Ghouta is about 10 kilometres east of central Damascus. Being so close to the capital makes it important for the Syrian government to reclaim the area from the rebels.
  • According to the Syrian government, rebels in Eastern Ghouta have also been shelling the capital.
  • Ongoing war: On March 15, the civil war in Syria will enter its eighth year, with more than 465,000 Syrians killed and over 12 million displaced from their homes.
  • The 104sq km Ghouta district is home to about 400,000 civilians, half of whom are under the age of 18.

Casualties

  • Death toll: 1,473 civilians have been killed in Eastern Ghouta over the past 30 days, according to the death toll compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on March 20.
  • This includes 301 children and 185 women.
  • Chlorine gas: Syria's Civil Defence rescuers said victims in Eastern Ghouta were showing symptoms "consistent with exposure to toxic chlorine gas".
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described allegations of gas use as "bogus stories".
  • Truce violations: At least four civilians were killed on the first day of the "dishonest" truce, local activists reported.
  • Syria's state news agency SANA says that "terrorists" are using civilians as human shields, and that they fired rockets on the "safe corridor" that was supposed to allow the evacuation of civilians.

Humanitarian aid

  • Starting from Tuesday, February 27, civilians were supposedly offered to flee Eastern Ghouta through a "humanitarian corridor", during a daily five-hour pause announced by Russia.
  • The first aid convoy to enter Eastern Ghouta was on March 5. Russia's foreign minister had blamed the "militants entrenched there, who still continue shelling Damascus, blocking aid deliveries and the evacuation of those wishing to leave".
  • The Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria had announced a second humanitarian convoy planned for Thursday, March 8, but it made it in only on Friday, postponed by heavy shelling on Thursday.
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross also confirmed that the Syrian government troops confiscated medical equipment bound for the enclave.

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