Humanitarian crises

Eastern Ghouta: What is happening and why

Nearly 400,000 civilians are trapped as Syria's government pounds the rebel-held district with air raids and artillery.

What is happening?

  • Siege: Eastern Ghouta has been under siege by the Syrian government since 2013, and is the last rebel stronghold near the capital.

  • De-escalation zone: 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.

  • Relentless bombing: On Sunday, February 19, Syrian government forces backed by Russian warplanes escalated the offensive on Eastern Ghouta with a relentless bombing that killed hundreds of people within days. Amnesty International said it amounted to war crimes.

  • UN resolution: 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 "terrorists" groups.

  • Members from one of the excluded groups, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) were present in Eastern Ghouta, and were reportedly evacuated on Friday, March 9.

  • Ground offensive: On February 25, Syrian government forces launched a ground offensive targetting areas on the edges of Eastern Ghouta to enable their ground forces to advance.

  • By March 10, the Syrian government forces have captured the largest town in Eastern Ghouta, and have effectively split the enclave in three parts.

  • Evacuation: 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.

  • Bashar's visit: Footage released by state TV on March 19 showed Syria's 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.

  • On March 22, hundreds of opposition fighters and their families have been evacuated from the town of Harasta.

  • The evacuation comes as part of a deal brokered by the Syrian government's principal ally, Russia, between fighters in Harasta and a Syrian government delegation. 

Why Eastern Ghouta?

  • Capital nearby: Eastern Ghouta is about 10km east of central Damascus. Being so close to the capital makes it important for the Syria government to reclaim the area from the rebels.

  • As of March 4, government forces seized a number of districts including Al-Nashabiyeh and Otaya and have reached the centre of the besieged enclave to the edge of Beit Sawa and the outskirts of Mesraba, in central Ghouta.
  • The 104sq km district is home to about 400,000 civilians, half of whom are under the age of 18.

  • 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.

Humanitarian crisis

  • 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 killed.

  • 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 have been 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 fired rockets on the "safe corridor" that was supposed to allow for the evacuation of civilians.

Humanitarian aid

  • 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 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.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies