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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

More than half a million killed in Syria's war

Activists and fighters in eastern Ghouta say bombardment has included incendiary material that causes fires and burn injuries

Lights and smoke are seen during Syrian government bombardment on the rebel-controlled town of Arbin, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. Ammar Suleiman / AFP
Lights and smoke are seen during Syrian government bombardment on the rebel-controlled town of Arbin, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus. Ammar Suleiman / AFP

More than half a million people have been killed in Syria since the war broke out in 2011, said a UK-based based monitor, as the country’s rebel-held city of Douma faces a “catastrophic” situation after becoming the main haven for thousands fleeing a government offensive.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that about 511,000 were killed in the past seven years, during which more than 350,000 have been identified. The remainder were cases the Observatory knew deaths has occurred but did not know the victims’ names.

It added that more than 19,800 children are among the dead.

The Observatory said that about 85 per cent of the dead were killed by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, whose allies include Russia and the Lebanese group, Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, the UN children’s agency UNICEF reported a 50 per cent increase in the number of children killed in the conflict last year compared to 2016.

"In 2017, extreme and indiscriminate violence killed the highest ever number of children - 50 per cent more than 2016,” the UN agency said. It added that 2018 was off to an even worse start.

As the war enters its eighth year, fierce fighting continues in several areas, including eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus, Afrin near the Turkish border and the southern province of Deraa.

Monday's aerial attack on Deraa was the first on the area since the US and Russia brokered a deal to make it a "de-escalation zone" last year, rebels and residents said.

The local council of eastern Ghouta’s main town, Douma, said on Monday that the city faces a “catastrophic” situation.

Since February 18, hundreds of people have been killed in the Syrian army’s offensive of the rebel-held area, which is their last major stronghold near the capital.

Assad forces have captured more than half of the rebel enclave and have entirely besieged Douma, cutting it off from neighbouring areas.

The Douma council said thousands of families were taking shelter in open streets and public gardens as basements and shelters have become overcrowded.

"After more than 20 days of the barbaric campaign and mass annihilation of eastern Ghouta... this has led to a deterioration of the humanitarian and food situation to a catastrophic level," the council said in a statement.

Siraj Mahmoud, spokesman for Ghouta’s civil defence corps, said that was happening in the area was not only the Syrian government’s faults, but also that of the international community.

“It is a crime by anyone who is watching the news and able to do something, but didn't,” he told The National.

Mr Mahmoud said many residents compelled to expand their underground shelters to accommodate the newly displaced feel as though they are digging their own graves.

“Civilians don't have real shelters. They are more like graves they dig in order to protect themselves against the heavy bombing,” he said.

Many have already found themselves buried in the shelters that they had hoped would protect them.

“There are many who are still under debris and we can’t take them out because of the heavy bombing, especially targeting the civil defence teams,” said Muayad Al Hafi, a civil defence volunteer.

Eastern Ghouta is now divided into three enclaves under the control of different rebel factions.

Hamza Berkdar is the official spokesman of Jaish Al Islam, which is now in control of Douma, on the northern side of Ghouta.

Conventional military wisdom is that attacking militaries suffer higher casualties than those defending territory, and Mr Berkdar said that over the course of the three-week battle, rebels had killed more than 200 of the Syrian government’s forces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 146 pro-government forces had been killed as of Saturday.

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Mr Berkdar said the rebels were continuing to fight back, but that they were overmatched by the government and its allies.

"There were Russian officers in the regime's operation room in which the regime directed its elements,” he said.

There have been increasing reports of negotiations between rebel and civilian representatives in Ghouta and the Syrian and Russian governments, and Mr Berkdar sounded somewhat as if he were trying to convince the civilian population to remain supportive of the rebels.

Mr Berkdar also warned that some of the regime soldiers fighting in Ghouta are conscripts from nearby parts of Damascus that have surrendered to the government in recent years.

"Your destiny will just be like the destiny of other areas in rural Damascus,” he said. “You will either be expelled or [you stay] and your sons will be sent to the frontlines to be killed defending the wrong side, such as what happened with the people of Al Tall or Barada Valley."

"This is your land and your sons will defend it,” he said. “The coming days will be better. There are already-made plans. We will not let you down. We have been defending you for seven years and will let not you down today."

The Douma council appealed for international help, saying even burials of the dead at the main city cemetery had been suspended due to the intensity of aerial strikes.

At least 70 people were buried in a public park in Douma as the aerial strikes made it difficult to reach the main burial grounds on the outskirts of the city.

Residents said dozens of people were still buried alive under rubble, with rescuers unable to reach them due to the intensity of the raids. They also said the loss of remaining farmland to Assad forces would worsen the plight of civilians.