Thousands flee Syrian rebel enclave as war marks grim seven-year milestone

Thousands flee Syrian rebel enclave as war marks grim seven-year milestoneThe last of the messages from inside the besieged Eastern Ghouta neighbourhood of Hammouriyeh came in the dead of the night on Wednesday. “More than 5,000 people are at risk of annihilation,” the doctor wrote in a breathless text. “Please get our voice out to the world, this might be the last message I’m able to send. “The wounded are in the streets and the planes are targeting anything that moves,” he said. “The regime forces came from the east side. I tried to escape but I couldn’t. I witnessed an entire family getting killed by an air strike in front of me. I’m by a basement now trying to send this to you.” The internet connection in the town went down shortly after, and by Thursday morning rebel-held Hammouriyeh had fallen. His fate, and that of those down in the basement, is unknown. Thousands escaped Syria’s rebel-held Eastern Ghouta into government-held territory Credit: AFP The neighbourhood’s residents have borne the brunt of the government offensive on Eastern Ghouta in the last few days, with a relentless onslaught of barrel bombs, mortars and chemical strikes intended to leave them with little option but surrender. Some 12,000 civilians streamed out of the enclave along “humanitarian” corridors yesterday, as rebel defences crumbled under the intense campaign of bombing and starvation. State TV showed weary men, women, and children carrying plastic bags stuffed with clothes walking towards government-held Damascus, where a line of buses was waiting. Those interviewed on camera praised the Syrian army and President Bashar al-Assad and said armed groups had humiliated them and held them against their will. It’s impossible to judge their sincerity, but any comment suggesting the contrary would likely have seen them arrested, or worse, shortly after. Others in Hammouriyeh decided to instead flee further into rebel territory in neighbouring areas, fearful of arrest by government forces should they be caught. Syrians from rebel-held Eastern Ghouta arrive at the regime-held checkpoint in Adra Credit: AFP It is an irony not lost on the opposition that this major defeat – one that will likely mark the turning point in the battle for the much-prized enclave – came on the revolution’s seventh anniversary.   Their peaceful demonstrations that sparked the civil war in 2011 ended in the most violent way imaginable yesterday. The Telegraph asked Syrians from both sides of the conflict how many more grim anniversaries they thought their country would mark. The shortest answer given was three. “And what will be left by the end? Jawad Abu Hatab, prime minister of the opposition Syrian Interim Government, asked. “Absolutely nothing.” “The tragedy just repeats and repeats on an endless loop and each time we lose a bit more of our humanity.” The scenes playing out in Eastern Ghouta could just as easily have been from eastern Aleppo that brutally cold winter it fell to the government in 2016 following an almost equally long and brutal siege. Or from the Damascus suburb of Daraya, or indeed the central city of Homs before that. In each case, residents were expelled and bussed to areas less strategic to the government. And in each case, the international community said never again. Smoke rises into the sky from what activists said was Free Syrian Army fighters destroying a tank that belonged to forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the Qaboun area, Eastern Ghouta Credit: Reuters Never again has become never mind. The doctor may have got his message out to the world, but is anyone even listening? The West had counted on the Syrian war winding down, but it has only been ratcheting up. Each year has been more deadly than the last. The UK voted not to militarily intervene against Assad in 2013, after a sarin gas attack that killed more than 1,000 in the same besieged enclave now under assault. An ugly chain of events followed. The Islamic State or Iraq and the Levant (Isil) formed and spread across Syria and neighbouring Iraq. The jihadists raped and enslaved thousands of Yazidi women and girls, terrorised millions under its control and killed anyone that stood in the way of its prophesied caliphate. Assad only grew stronger as the world united in a coalition against Isil, which it deemed the greater and more immediate of the evils, and his patron Russia became emboldened. Moscow, a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council, has dismissed just about every resolution attempting to hold the dictator to account. And in the absence of any real consequences, other state actors have begun moving pieces on the Syrian chessboard. Wounded children receive medical treatment at a field hospital after an attack on the Zamalka neighbourhood Credit: Getty Turkey launched in January its own offensive against Kurdish forces along its border, where some 700,000 Syrian civilians are now currently besieged. Israel has taken to regularly carrying out bombing raids on hostile Iranian and Lebanese Shia militia Hizbollah positions near Damascus. The UN”s toothlessness has forced the US, UK and France to quietly plot their own potential move against the government, but it is unclear what would trigger the trilateral action or what it would look like. In the meantime they pin their hopes on Russia pushing the regime towards a political solution and back to stalling UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva. But even Western diplomats quietly concede the outcome is unlikely given what little leverage they have left. With so many foreign powers trying to carve their bit out of Syria, many of its citizens are left wondering what will even be left for them. “The thing that’s new is that for most of the Syrians living outside, there’s no more hope for return,” said the novelist Dima Wannous, who left Damascus in 2011 and now lives in London. “Syria has been swallowed up. You feel you no longer have a place, you no longer have a country.”


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