Regime forces advance in Syria’s battered Ghouta

A Syrian youth pulls a cart as he walks down a street past destroyed buildings in the rebel-held besieged town of Ayn Tarma in the eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on March 2, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 03 March 2018
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Regime forces advance in Syria’s battered Ghouta

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces have advanced inside Eastern Ghouta, a monitor said on Saturday, as fighting intensifies on the ground to retake the battered rebel enclave east of Damascus.
Russia-backed government forces on February 18 launched an assault of the besieged region, pounding the area with air strikes, killing more than 630 civilians.
On February 25, clashes on the ground between the armed opposition and regime forces intensified on the edges of the enclave, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
Since Thursday, regime forces have advanced inside the region, retaking an area in the enclave’s southeast, as well as another and two military bases in the south from main opposition group Jaish Al-Islam.
“Regime forces and their allies have intensified their attacks on rebel positions in the past 48 hours,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Government fighters are trying to advance inside Eastern Ghouta to cut off the main town of Douma and its surroundings in the north of the enclave, as well as isolate the southeastern area of Al-Marj, Abdel Rahman said.
The Observatory says “Russian advisers” are taking part in the battles alongside regime forces in Eastern Ghouta, backed by heavy air strikes and shelling.
Since February 25, 60 regime and allied fighters have been killed, while 34 rebels from Jaish Al-Islam have also died, it said.
Rebels today control only a third of the area they once held in Eastern Ghouta in 2012, as regime forces have gradually taken back territory from them.
Eastern Ghouta’s 400,000 residents have lived under regime siege since 2013, facing severe food and medicine shortages even before the latest offensive.
The ground offensive coincides with the start of a five-hour daily “humanitarian pause” announced by Russia and in force since Tuesday.
The bombardment has lessened but continued to claim lives since, and trucks loaded with desperately needed aid have remained unable to enter the enclave.
Moscow said it would provide safe passage to non-combatants wishing to leave the enclave during the pause, but no Syrian civilians have left since Tuesday, according to the Observatory.
The daily pause falls far short of a nationwide 30-day cease-fire demanded by the UN Security Council at the weekend.
More than 340,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.


Syrian refugees remain skeptical about return

Updated 36 min 24 sec ago
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Syrian refugees remain skeptical about return

  • There are currently about 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age in the country
ANKARA: While Moscow and Damascus urge the repatriation of Syrian refugees based on improving living conditions in the country, their call seems largely unheard by Syrians who think that the conditions on the ground are not yet encouraging enough for them to return.
Just in November 2018, some 10,232 Syrians have been caught by Turkish border troops crossing illegally into Turkey.
Experts underline that the repatriation process should be carried out voluntarily and with consideration for the socio-economic, political and security risks during the restoration process of the country. Otherwise, it may be premature.
The Syrian regime recently set up a coordination committee for the repatriation of displaced Syrian nationals to their original cities and towns.
Moscow also prepared a plan in July for coordinating the return of Syrian refugees to safe areas in their homelands. The plan was based on the establishment of working groups with Amman and Beirut, with the presence of US and Russian officials.
The reopening of the Nassib border crossing between Syria and Jordan in mid-October has also encouraged Assad government to issue calls for the Syrian nationals to return home.
Following the seven-year-long civil war, about 5.6 million Syrians are believed to have fled abroad to neighboring countries, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, while some preferred to set off for a new life in Europe.
About 114,000 of them have been repatriated this year, according to data announced by Moscow.
The risk of facing maltreatment when they return to government-held areas also caused concern among Syrian refugee communities.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has announced that since October more than 700 returnees, mostly from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, have been arrested and 230 of them were detained in government-controlled parts of Syria.
Omar Kadkoy, a Syrian-origin researcher on refugee integration at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, thinks that conditions for repatriation aren’t ripe yet.
“Many Syrians link the return to political change, but status quo has the upper hand. Plus the risk of being drafted to military, the non-functioning economy, and the lack of safety despite all the recent developments create unappealing conditions for return,” he told Arab News.
To encourage the return of Syrians, Assad regime has recently offered an amnesty for army deserters who will allegedly not be punished but will still have to serve the mandatory two years of military service.
However, those who joined opposition groups against regime forces are exempted from the amnesty, sparking concerns that it aims to attract only Assad supporters home.
According to Kadkoy, who has been living in Ankara for four years, the tempo of life is faster and harder in Turkey, but better compared to where Syrians come from and Syrians are getting used to this complex environment.
“This means they’re settling down after seven years and building their future: Kids in schools and universities, parents filling different layers of the labor market, and flourishing businesses,” he noted.
Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey established 151 new companies in October mainly in the wholesale sector. Concentrating their activities in Istanbul, they invested about 34 million Turkish liras (about $6.3 million) and opened employment opportunities to many.
On the other hand, thousands of Turkish families reportedly began filing requests to adopt orphan Syrian children in Turkey. There are currently about 1 million Syrian refugee children of school age in the country.
According to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, there are three major factors preventing many Syrian refugees from feeling that it is safe for them to return home.
“First, the Assad government is continuing to seize and demolish homes in areas that had been held by anti-government forces, meaning that for many Syrian refugees there is no home to return to,” Roth told Arab News.
Second, Syrian prisons remain full of people vulnerable to torture and execution.
“Few will want to return home if they face a serious risk of detention,” Roth noted, adding that the Assad government has not accounted for the thousands who have “disappeared” in its prisons, many of whom have been killed or died due to horrible treatment.
Roth also said that there has been no accountability whatsoever for the Assad government’s deliberate strategy of bombing or besieging and starving civilian areas.
“Few will have any confidence that such atrocities will not resume if there has been no justice for the senior officials who directed them,” he added.
Ammar Hamou, a Jordan-based Syrian journalist, thinks that although Syria and Russia are trying to send assurances to Syrian refugees to encourage them to return, in fact the policy of the Syrian regime is contrary to official statements.
“The country is still in the grip of security, arrests are present, and reserve recruitment exists. One of my friends is a refugee in Jordan. He visited Syria two weeks ago, and when he decided to return he was surprised that he was wanted for military service,” he told Arab News.