Rif Dimashq offensive (February 2018–present)
The Rif Dimashq offensive (February 2018–present), code-named Operation Damascus Steel, is a military offensive launched by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) in February 2018 in a bid to capture the rebel-held eastern Ghoutasuburb. East Ghouta, a pocket of towns and farms, has been under government siege since 2013 and has been a major rebel stronghold in the vicinity of the capital of Damascus. According to the United Nations, nearly 400,000 people live in East Ghouta.
It was said that the potential capture of the whole rebel-held Eastern Ghouta enclave would represent one of the most significant victories for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the civil war and the worst setback for the rebels since their defeat in the Battle of Aleppo in late 2016.
With most of the suburbs of Damascus recaptured by the Syrian government by February 2018, there remained a significant swathe of the countryside near the capital city captured by jihadists from the rebels in 2012 that had been under siege by pro-government forces since 2013.
Syrian forces began bombarding and shelling the area in early February after Russian-brokered peace talks failed, killing 200 by 8 February, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. They again started bombarding it on 18 February, and did so for eight consecutive days before beginning the ground offensive.
The main rebel faction in the area was Jaysh al-Islam, based in Douma (with an estimated 10-15,000 fighters in the region in early 2018). The second largest was Faylaq al-Rahman, an official affiliate of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), controlling much of central and western parts of Ghouta, including the Jobar and Ain Terma districts. In addition, Ahrar al-Sham (based in Harasta) and Tahrir al-Sham (HTS - controlling smaller districts such as Arbin, Hawsh Al-Ash’ari and Bait Naim, with an estimated strength in the area of 500 in February 2018) had a far smaller presence.
On the evening of 18 February 2018, heavy artillery and airstrikes began targeting the rebel-held East Ghouta enclave. The Syrian Air Force launched large-scale air raids over the region, with warplanes reportedly striking rebel defensive positions, hospitals, and residential areas in and around the district towns of Douma, Hamouriyah, Saqba and Mesraba. Accompanying artillery shelling and rocket strikes pounded rebel territory. By the following day, the strikes had reportedly killed 94 civilians. Concurrently, government troops prepared for a ground assault, establishing positions on both the western and eastern axis of the pocket. Early rebel mortar attacks on central Damascus killed one civilian. Around midnight between 19 and 20 February, the Russian Air Force joined the offensive as well, targeting several rebel-held districts.
On 22 February, the SAA dropped leaflets over Ghouta, calling on residents to leave the area and urging opposition fighters to hand themselves over. Meanwhile, a total of 16 civilians were killed and about 128 were wounded in retaliatory rebel rocket attacks on Damascus between 18 and 20 February. On 24 February, despite the adopted resolution by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on a 30-day ceasefire in Syria, it was reported that airstrikes continued after the vote.
At around 08:30 A.M. on the morning of 25 February, hours after the UNSC called for a 30-day truce, a ground assault began with SAA forces capturing multiple points around the Bashoura Air Defense Battalion on the southeastern front of the pocket while approaching Hazrama and Tal Farzat. Shortly afterwards, it was reported that the army captured the town of Al-Nashabiyah, the villages of Hazrama and Al-Salihiyah, and the hilltop of Tal Farzat from Jaysh al-Islam fighters – continuing the advance towards Hawsh Zariqiyah. However, pro-government sources later reported Al-Nashabiyah and Hazrama had not been captured, but instead partially surrounded. At around 10:00 A.M., an assault on a new axis commenced with SAA units attacking the rebels on the Harasta-Arbeen front in the northwestern part of the pocket. The army's 4th Division reportedly also broke into the rebel-held Al-Ajami district of Harasta, capturing some buildings in the area. Meanwhile, it was initially reported that the heavily fortified village of Hawsh Dawahra was captured in the east of the pocket. However, it was later confirmed that the assaulting government troops were ambushed by the rebels, with up to 15 soldiers killed and a tank captured. The village remained under rebel control. Among the Army's weapons used to level entire areas of rebel trenches and fire support positions in the assault was the UR-77 (УР-77) Mineclearing System.
The same day as the ground operation started, a video surfaced of the Syrian Army's Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan speaking to government troops in Damascus, while being guarded by Russian and Syrian soldiers. During his speech, al-Hassan said: “Damascus awaits you, to dress her in victory… With God, we will be victorious, and with faith, we will be victorious. Remember that each one of you decided to fight to defend the truth, dignity, and to save Syria and its people”. Jaysh al-Islam claimed to have killed 70 pro-government fighters and captured 14 on the first day of the ground offensive. In contrast, the UK-based pro-opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported 13 soldiers and 6 rebels were killed, while two soldiers were captured.
Syrian Army advances continued on 26 February, with the reported capture of a large part of the Harasta orchards, including an elaborate tunnel complex. The advances were reported to be "notable". The next day at 09:00 A.M., a humanitarian corridor was opened for five hours. However, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence, it was shelled by rebel groups in order to prevent civilians from leaving the area. Early on 28 February, following a night-time operation, the army captured Hawsh Dawahra. During the fighting for Hawsh Dawahra, government forces utilized a mobile bridge to cross a moat near Sifco Laboratories and seize rebel trenches. The military also made attempts to advance towards the town of Al-Shifouniyah, where they made limited gains during the day. It was later reported that government troops managed to enter Al-Shifouniyah. The next day, the Syrian army captured Bashoura Air Defense Base, south west of Hawsh Dawahra.
After the third round of night-time assaults, government forces captured the village of Hawsh Al-Zarqiyah on 2 March, after which the military started shelling the nearby town of Utaya. Later in the day, the Battalion 274 base, south of Al-Shifouniyah, was also captured. Meanwhile, the rebels launched a counter-attack within Harasta, which went on for hours, resulting in numerous casualties on both sides. The next day, government forces took control of Utaya, Al-Nashabiyah and Hazrama, as well as most of Al-Shifouniyah. The military also attacked the town of al-Rayhan in the northeastern part of the Ghouta pocket, but was repelled. The advances took place following heavy fighting throughout the day for Utaya, with the army eventually seizing the town. Pro-government sources reported that the rebel defense of Utaya was "fanatical" and the most violent of the clashes took place in the town's northern outskirts. Following the capture of Utaya, the rebel defense of Al-Nashabiyah and Hazrama quickly collapsed, leaving the two towns fully surrounded. But within one hour, the military captured Al-Nashabiyah and Hazrama without resistance after it became clear the rebels had retreated from the towns in the final hours of fighting for Utaya so to avoid being besieged. Hours later, it was reported that the army was on the verge of also completely taking control of Al-Shifouniyah. At this point, Michael Stephens of the London-based think tankRoyal United Services Institute told The National that the fall of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta pocket was "inevitable". In the evening, the military reportedly reached two new rebel-held towns, while the rebel supply line along the Douma-Al-Shifouniyah road came within their artillery range. During their advances over the previous several days, the military broke through a 12-kilometer defensive belt linking Al-Nashabiyah with Rayhan and called “The Trench of Death”.
On 4 March, the rebels managed to recapture large parts of Al-Shifouniyah in a counter-attack. Meanwhile, the military captured the town of Beit Naem in the south of the pocket. Following the advances over the previous two days, the army started operations to split the Eastern Ghouta pocket in two, with three kilometers remaining for this to be accomplished. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Jaysh al-Islam claimed via Twitter that rebels had killed 150 soldiers since the previous night. Contrary to this, the SOHR reported 12 soldiers had been killed. Several hours after the capture of Beit Naem, the military had taken full control of Al-Shifouniyah.
By 5 March, 35 percent of the Eastern Ghouta pocket was taken by the military, which was two kilometers southeast of rebel-held Douma. That day, the 4th Armoured Division reportedly captured several farms to the northwest and came within one kilometer of cutting the Harasta-Douma road. Meanwhile, government forces were also reported to had made advances in the south of the pocket. Early on 6 March, most of al-Rayhan, in the northeast of the pocket, was reportedly captured after the army advanced north of Al-Shifouniyah. In the afternoon, pro-government sources also reported the capture of al-Muhammadiyah in the south of the pocket. During 6 March, farms around Mesraba, Beit Sawa and Hawsh Al-Ash’ari were captured by the army. The same day, Russia offered the rebels and their families safe passage out of Eastern Ghouta. The rebels rejected the offer as “psychological warfare” and stated their defense lines had been re-established after crumbling in the first days of the offensive.
Splitting the pocket
On 7 March, the military captured Beit Sawa and Hawsh Al-Ash’ari, clearing the way for an attack on nearby rebel-held Mesraba. Later, Mesraba was being struck by “preparatory fire” before a planned infantry assault. By nightfall, pro-government forces had cut the Eastern Ghouta pocket in two with artillery fire. At this point, government troops advancing from the east were between 1 and 1.3 kilometers from reaching the army's Harasta vehicle base on the pocket's western edge. The rebels reported they were deploying more guerrilla-style ambushes in lost territory in an attempt to stop further advances. On 8 March, the military captured the town of Hawsh Qubaybat, as well as the Aftris Air Defence Battalion base, near the rebel-held town of Aftris.
On 10 March, after 24 hours of fighting, the army seized Mesraba, as well as the Kilani gas station on the main highway, thus splitting the rebel enclave in Eastern Ghouta into three sections with artillery fire. The three separated pockets were Harasta, Douma and the southern part of Eastern Ghouta. The rebels denied Eastern Ghouta had been entirely split, but the SOHR stated the roads between the three parts were indeed cut due to artillery fire. Government shelling during the day reportedly focused on underground shelters and mosques that were used as hiding places for civilians. Government forces also advanced towards the Harasta vehicle base, although they failed to capture Madyara, the last town separating them from the base. The next day, the rebels continued to put up fierce resistance to prevent the linking up of government troops with the vehicle base. Still, despite this, the SAA eventually captured Madyara, thus physically splitting Eastern Ghouta in two and reaching the Harasta vehicle base.
On 12 March, government forces were 200 to 300 meters from physically cutting off Harasta from Douma. Later in the day, the military finished encircling Harasta and cutting it off from Douma. The army had also reportedly captured the town of Aftris, thus fully clearing the rural areas of the southern part of Eastern Ghouta. The battle for the town lasted several days due to heavy rebel defenses which consisted of a wide anti-tank ditch and several well-fortified layers of trenches and tactical positions in and around it. Government forces also shelled rebel positions on the Jobar axis during the day. Meanwhile, tensions erupted in the rebel-held town of Kafr Batna, with the rebels shooting at civilian protesters who were demanding an evacuation deal with the government. One protester was killed. On 14 March, the Syrian Army entered the southern part of al-Rayhan, as well as the northern neighborhood of Hamouriyah, and captured 40% of Jisreen. By the end of the day Al-Ahlam food factory and an army station to the south of Beit Sawa has been also captured from joint forces of Tahrir al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman By the next day, the military was in control of the eastern half of Hamouriyah.
250 people were reportedly killed within the first two days of the opening bombardment phase, the highest 48-hour death toll in the Syrian conflict since the 2013 chemical attack on eastern Ghouta. According to a medical worker, the situation forced doctors to use expired drugs, including anesthetics, because they had no other option.
On 21 February, SOHR reported 260 people had been killed since the night of 18 February, with 106 killed on 20 February alone. According to Doctors without Borders (MSF), 13 health facilities had been destroyed or damaged because of the airstrikes.
On 22 February, Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria, reported that "80 percent of the population of the town of Harasta was living underground". The same day, the number of health facilities stricken had grown to 22 as medics and doctors stated that "the medical system in eastern Ghouta is near collapse", and that only three facilities remained fully operational. International organizations claimed there was "clear evidence that hospitals were deliberately targeted".
On 23 February, it was reported that one journalist, Abdul Rahman Ismael Yassin, died from injuries sustained in a 20 February airstrike. Between 18 and 24 February, more than 520 civilians were killed and 2,500 wounded in the Eastern Ghouta area due to the Syrian government and Russia's air and artillery strikes.
On 24 February, MSF warned that "casualty numbers in Syria’s besieged East Ghouta enclave are soaring beyond imagination as the capacity to provide healthcare is in its final throes". The next day, according to SAMS-supported medical staff, 1 child was killed and 11 people suffered breathing problems due to an alleged chlorine attack.
On 2 March, two children managed to leave Eastern Ghouta under the cover of darkness via a humanitarian corridor. According to the Russian Center for the Reconciliation of the Warring Sides, the rebels repeatedly shelled the corridor intended for the exit of civilians from that area and were also keeping hostage the population in the rebel-controlled Eastern Ghouta, threatening to punish those wishing to leave. The same day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that the Syrian government air strikes and shelling on the Ghouta are "likely war crimes, and potentially crimes against humanity", while MSF stated that 15 out of 20 facilities supported by them in East Ghouta have been hit by bombing or shelling.
On 4 March, it was reported that thousands of civilians had fled advances by Syrian government forces in eastern Ghouta over the previous two days. According to a Russian military source, armed groups imposed a curfew and banned mass gatherings of people to prevent them from leaving the shrinking pocket. On 5 March, the rebels reportedly promised to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone, while 46 trucks carrying aid from the United Nations, the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent for almost 30,000 people went in to the pocket via the Al-Wafideen crossing. It was claimed that the Syrian government officials removed trauma kits and surgical supplies from trucks, with U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert saying that "the Syrian regime is pilfering aid". The convoy pulled out later after shelling with UNHCR saying that 10 trucks had not been emptied, though 247 tonnes of food and medicine has been delivered, as well as evacuation of 13 civilians. Syrian government shelling and airstrikes killed 89 people during this day, making it the deadliest day there since the U.N.'s Security Council demanded a cease-fire across Syria. Meanwhile, an aid worker from SOS Chrétiens d'Orient accused opposition fighters of deliberately targeting densely populated residential areas of Damascus city, with particular preference for the Christan borough of Bab Tuma within the Old City district.
On 7 March, activists in the residential town of Hamouriyah released videos appearing to show phosphorus bombs being dropped and many victims struggling to breathe. Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad denied the reports during a press conference. Four days later, the White Helmets group said that the Syrian government hit Irbin with chlorine gas, phosphorus bombs and napalm.
In early to mid-March, the United Nations' human rights chief accused the Syrian government of orchestrating an "apocalypse" in Syria. The MSF stated that in the eastern Ghouta "key items, particularly for surgery, have run out", and that "the majority of residents are living in basements and makeshift underground shelters, in unsanitary conditions with limited safe drinking water and often no hygiene or sanitation facilities." The United Nations' refugee agency representative to Syria, Sajjad Malik, said that the Eastern Ghouta was "on the verge of a major disaster" and there were dead bodies still in destroyed buildings.
On 14 March, 437 civilians have been evacuated from Douma, meanwhile a humanitarian convoy delivered 137 tonnes of food to the area. The next day as Army fought to fully capture Hamouriyah, thousands of civilians fled towards the government-held territory with at least 12,500 leaving on that day according to SOHR.
On 22 February, in response to the military escalation, Sweden and Kuwait proposed a resolution at the UN Security Council, consisting of a 30-day truce in Syria. The resolution was subsequently rejected by Russia. However on 24 February, after about a week's worth of government bombardment operations, the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously approved a resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire in Syria.
On 25 February, an Iranian General, Mohammad Bagheri, said that the truce did not cover parts of the Damascus suburbs "held by the terrorists" and that attacks would continue.
On 26 February, Russian PresidentVladimir Putin ordered a daily five-hour "humanitarian pause" in the eastern Ghouta. The ceasefire was to start the next day from 9 am until 2 pm local. However on the same day Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated both Ahrar al Sham and Jaysh al Islam are to be excluded from cease-fire agreements for collaborating with al-Nusra . In early March, a Russian offer of safe passage out of Eastern Ghouta for the rebels and their family members was rejected by the rebels.
On 14 March, the Russian government reported over 300 people had fled Eastern Ghouta for Damascus since the implementation of the humanitarian corridor on 27 February.
Rebel response to the offensive
On 2 March, Ansar al-Islam launched a raid in Hama to aleviate pressure from Ghouta killing 30 Pro-Government forces at a checkpoint and released a video showing the attack.
On 14 March, rebel groups of Syrian Liberation Front, Turkistan Islamic Party and Jaysh al-Izza launched a retaliatory military offensive in northwest Hama Governorate in response to the SAA's Eastern Ghouta operation. Within hours of the operation, after opening rocket attacks and artillery shelling on SAA positions, rebel shock troops stormed and captured the town of Kernaz and most of Al-Hamameyah, forcing government forces to retreat. Syrian and Russian jets responded to the offensive with air strikes on rebel tactical positions. However, the same day, the Syrian Army launched a counter-attak which successfully recaptured Karnaz and Al-Hamameyah, reversing all rebel gains.
- Involved parties
- Syria – The Foreign Ministry accused militants in Ghouta of targeting Damascus and using people as "human shields."
- United Nations – "It's imperative to end this senseless human suffering now. Such targeting of innocent civilians and infrastructure must stop now," Panos Moumtzis, the UN's Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis said in a statement. Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed for an "immediate suspension of all war activities in eastern Ghouta." Speaking to the UN Security Council, he described residents as living in "hell on earth".
- UNICEF – The reports of deaths of children prompted the children's agency to issue a blank statement with only a footnote. “No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones,” UNICEF’s Geert Cappelaere said in the footnote.
- France – President Emmanuel Macron said: "France clearly, vigorously, condemns what is taking place in eastern Ghouta." The foreign ministry issued a statement that read the attacks “deliberately target inhabited areas and civilian infrastructure, including medical ones. They constitute a grave violation of the international humanitarian law...these acts engage the responsibility of the Syrian regime, but also that of Russia and Iran, which are its main backers and who, in the framework of the Astana agreements, have vouched for a ceasefire that is supposed to apply to Ghouta."
- Germany – Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "The killing of children, the destruction of hospitals -- all that amounts to a massacre that must be condemned and which must be countered with a clear no. That is something that we as Europeans need to work towards."
- Holy See – On 25 February, Pope Francis said that Syria was being "martyred" by the continued attacks "killing civilians in the eastern Ghouta district." He also called for an immediate end to violence and access to humanitarian aid.
- Iran – Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told the BBC's Lyse Doucet that Iran believed in a political solution to the conflict, not a military one. Iran says it is in close contact with Syria, Russia and Turkey to try to reduce tension in the Eastern Ghouta.
- Qatar – The Foreign Ministry issued a statement that read: "The State of Qatar expresses it's strong...condemnation of the massacres and intensive aerial bombardments carried out by the forces of the Syrian regime."
- Russia – Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said their reaction was an attack on "terrorism" and not directed at civilians. In keeping with the existing agreements, the fight against terrorism cannot be restricted by anything." Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "These are groundless accusations. We don't know what they are based on." The allegations "are not backed up with any specific information. We do not agree with them," he added.
- Saudi Arabia – The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that read: "We stress the need for the Syrian regime's violence to end, and to have humanitarian aid and relief to enter. The political path to the crisis solution must be taken seriously, in accordance with the agreed principles of the Geneva Declaration 1 and the UN Security Council Resolution 2254."
- UAE – The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation issued a statement that read: "Syria has suffered enough through severe conflict and the systematic targeting of civilians and cannot bear more bloodshed.".
- United Kingdom – "The UK will press Russia to support a ceasefire to allow for the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid. Protecting Syrians and getting them the lifesaving aid they need must be paramount."
- United States – State DepartmentspokeswomanHeather Nauert stated that the US is "deeply concerned" about the Syrian government's escalation of the siege on the enclave, denouncing what she called the "siege and starve tactics" of government forces.
- Amnesty International issued a statement that read: "International community still failing to act as ‘war crimes on an epic scale’ unfold in the besieged suburb of Damascus."