In Depth

Syria: 12,000 civilians flee Eastern Ghouta as army advances

Government air strikes prompt mass exodus and mark ‘beginning of the end’ for rebels

Thousands of civilians are fleeing Eastern Ghouta as the besieged enclave teeters “on the brink” of falling to Syrian government forces.

More than 12,000 men, women and children, many carrying blankets and bags, have been seen leaving the town of Hamouria, on the outskirts of Damascus, the BBC reports.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reports that 41 civilians were killed in regime air strikes on the town this morning.

The mass evacuation is believed to be the largest single-day exodus since the start of the war in 2011, Al Jazeera reports.

Many civilians in the until-now rebel-held region are understood to be “trying to secure guarantees of safety from Russian officials”, according to The Guardian. The newspaper says that evacuations are expected to continue over the coming days, “marking the beginning of the end for the most important opposition stronghold in Syria”.

The seemingly inevitable fall of Eastern Ghouta into government hands has left the international community “scrambling to come up with arrangements for how to feed and house the people it believes may still be in the area”, The Guardian adds.

Where is Eastern Ghouta?

The suburb is northeast of the Syrian capital, Damascus, and is a mixture of dense built-up areas and agriculture. Around 400,000 civilians are believed to live there, though current population figures are difficult to determine and are frequently changing.

President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has had the area under siege since 2013. It is the last enclave in Syria still held by anti-government rebels.

Who is attacking?

The Syrian army began a relentless aerial bombing campaign on 18 February, in a final push to reclaim the region from rebel forces.

Ten days later, Syrian forces launched a ground offensive, fighting rebels on multiple fronts in an attempt to penetrate the enclave. The regime has also carried out heavy shelling and - allegedly - chemical attacks.

The offensive has split the enclave into three rebel-controlled sections, with access between them cut off by government troops.

How many people have been killed?

The BBC reports that at least 1,100 people, many of them children, have been killed in violence in Eastern Ghouta since the government intensified its offensive last month.

What has the United Nations done? 

The 15 nations of the UN Security Council (UNSC) voted unanimously on 24 February to demand a ceasefire for one month. Minutes after the vote, bombing raids were carried out by Assad’s regime, The Guardian says.

On 28 February, the council attempted to implement a second ceasefire, again backed by Russia and again ignored and violated almost immediately by Syrian government forces, which sent ground troops into the enclave on the same day.

What is Russia doing?

Although it has voted for ceasefire resolutions, Russia has proved to be a thorn in the side of the UNSC, originally stalling for three days on the first ceasefire proposal in a row over its wording.

A key ally of Assad, Russia has overseen five-hour “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting around Eastern Ghouta to allow for the evacuation of civilians and the entrance of aid convoys, says Al Jazeera.

In a statement on 6 March, the Russian military offered to “provide transport and security for the rebels and their families looking to leave” the besieged surburb - a move the BBC says could “pave the way for a deal under which the rebels would surrender Eastern Ghouta to the government”.

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