As deadly shells fall, fear spreads anew in Syrian capital

Syrians search for victims under the rubble of a destroyed building that attacked by Syrian government forces airstrikes, in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. (Ghouta Media Center via AP)
Updated 24 February 2018
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As deadly shells fall, fear spreads anew in Syrian capital

DAMASCUS, Syria: As the Syrian government escalates its attacks on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, rebels in outlying towns are retaliating with volleys of mortar shells and rockets into the capital, killing more than 25 civilians in the past two weeks and spreading fear among its 4 million residents.
Many parents have stopped sending their children to school. Some are skipping work and hunkering at home. Some are even contemplating leaving until it all calms down.
The scope of the rebel attacks on Damascus pales in comparison to what has rained down from warplanes on eastern Ghouta, where more than 400 people have been killed this week in the region only a short drive from the capital.
But the intensity of the shelling has brought renewed anguish and suffering to the population, shattering a prevailing sense for some time now that the war — or the worst of it — was over.
Issam Dhahi, a 45-year-old resident of the Qassaa neighborhood, said his two children haven’t been to school or university for the past 15 days, and the family only ventures out to buy necessities. The predominantly Christian neighborhood has been a regular target of random shelling, bringing life to a standstill.
Five people from his neighborhood were wounded Wednesday and five others were killed since the beginning of February, Dhahi said. Usually packed shops in the mixed commercial and residential district now close at 5 p.m., so people can get home before dark.
“My son’s car was hit yesterday with shrapnel. ... Today, a condolences ceremony at a church in Qassaa was canceled because of fear. Everyone is staying at home,” he said.
President Bashar Assad has consolidated his control over key areas of Syria in recent years with the support of Iran and Russia, but he has been unable to stop the rebels from occasionally striking at his seat of power from the sprawling Ghouta suburb. The mortar and rocket attacks stopped almost completely last summer after a Russia-brokered deal was struck with the rebels, designating eastern Ghouta to be a de-escalation zone.
For months until December, Damascus was brimming with life, its cafes and restaurants packed with people and its streets jammed with traffic again. There was hope that with Homs, Aleppo and Deir Ezzor back in the government’s control, the conflict was winding to a close.
That sense has been shattered after the government escalated its attacks earlier this month on Ghouta, the only remaining rebel stronghold near the capital. Since Feb. 18, militants in the rebel-held suburbs have hit back hard, sending dozens of shells and rockets to Damascus each day, striking in markets, residential buildings and near schools in the Old City, Qassaa, Bab Touma, Umayyad Square and the suburb of Jaramana.
In three days this week, 17 people were killed, including 13 on Tuesday when 114 shells hit Damascus and its countryside. Among the dead was Lama Fallouh, a program officer at the Damascus Opera, who was killed when a shell struck near the landmark Umayyad Square in central Damascus, along with two brothers in their 20s in Jaramana and several children.
The whistle and thud of mortar rounds and rockets can come at any time. At home and at work, residents take shelter in corridors and bathrooms when the first shell hits.
“It feels like war all over again,” said a mother of three who asked not to be identified because she feared for her family’s security. “I get so scared every time my children or husband leave the house, I count the seconds till they’re back.”
The government has refused to order schools to shut down, although private schools and university can make their own decisions on whether to close.
In Jaramana, where more than 14 people have been killed since the beginning of the month, streets are deserted.
Ghabi Nakazi, the 60-year-old owner of a clothes factory, said he still goes to work despite safety concerns.
“Nothing will stop me,” he said, calling on the army to eliminate what he said were “terrorists” holed up in the nearby suburbs.


Air strikes kill five as southern Syria assault looms

Updated 22 min 56 sec ago
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Air strikes kill five as southern Syria assault looms

  • Russian-backed regime forces have for weeks been preparing an offensive to retake Syria’s south
  • Late Saturday, Assad’s Russian allies began bombing the rebel-held south for the first time since summer 2017

BEIRUT: Air strikes on rebel towns in southern Syria killed five civilians and knocked a hospital temporarily out of service on Sunday, a monitor said, in fresh signs of a looming government assault.
Russian-backed regime forces have for weeks been preparing an offensive to retake Syria’s south, a strategic zone that borders both Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The regime has sent military reinforcements to the area, dropped flyers demanding rebels surrender, and ramped up air strikes in recent days.
Late Saturday, President Bashar Assad’s Russian allies began bombing the rebel-held south for the first time since summer 2017, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Russian raids continued into Sunday.
“Five civilians including two women were killed on Sunday in Russian strikes on the towns of Al-Herak, Al-Sura, and Alma,” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
The raids on Al-Herak hit near a hospital, damaging it and forcing medical staff to shut it down at least temporarily, he said.
The three rebel-held towns are located in Daraa province, known widely as the cradle of Syria’s seven-year uprising.
Daraa and the adjacent province of Quneitra are mostly held by opposition forces, while the government controls most of the province of Sweida to the east.
Assad has repeatedly pledged to retake all of Syria, but key parts of the south fall under a “de-escalation zone” agreed by Russia, the US, and Jordan in July 2017.
Since then, Moscow’s air force — active in Syria since 2015 — had refrained from bombing the south.
But violence began ratcheting up on Tuesday and has since left 25 civilians dead in regime and Russian bombardment on southern rebel zones, the Observatory said.
Rebels have returned fire into government territory, killing a girl in Sweida province and wounding three people in the provincial capital of the same name on Sunday, Syria’s state news agency SANA said.
Escalating bombardment has displaced some 12,000 people from rebel towns in Daraa’s eastern countryside, according to the Observatory.
Many have sought refuge in poorly-resourced displacement camps further west, with little access to food or water.
They have few other options, with Jordan saying on Sunday it could not accept any more than the 650,000 Syrian refugees it is already hosting.
“Jordan has not and will not abandon its humanitarian role and its commitment to international charters, but it has exceeded its ability to absorb (more refugees),” Jumana Ghanimat, minister of state for media affairs, told AFP.
The United Nations has warned that renewed hostilities could put 750,000 lives at risk.
In an effort to avoid a deadly offensive, the US, Russia, and Jordan are holding talks aimed at reaching a negotiated settlement for Syria’s south.
Any deal, analysts say, would have to take into consideration Israel’s concerns that its arch-foe Iran was entrenching itself in southern Syria.
On Sunday, the Israeli air force fired a Patriot missile at a drone approaching its northern border from Syria, forcing it to turn back.
Assad has acknowledged negotiations over the south, but warned that if they failed, his troops would have “no choice” but to retake the area by force.
His troops have already recaptured two “de-escalation zones” this year: Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus and parts of the central Homs province.
They have seized four villages in the south so far, leaving 13 regime forces and 15 rebels dead, according to the Observatory.
Many of those rebels have previously received backing from Jordan and the US, but Washington has urged them not to expect American help should the regime start a new assault.
The US warning was contained in an Arabic-language message distributed to rebel commanders and seen by AFP.
“We must clarify our position: we understand that you must make a decision (to fight) based on your interests, the interests of your people and your faction as you see them,” the message read.
“You should not base your decision on an assumption or expectation of military intervention from our side.”
The US did not immediately confirm the letter’s contents.
One opposition commander in the south who received the letter said it did not surprise him.
“The letter’s contents mean that America will not be able to help the south — in other words, they are saying ‘you’re on your own,’” he told AFP.