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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Syria government forces take almost complete control of Eastern Ghouta town 

The falling of the rebel enclave to Assad is 'inevitable', says analyst

Syrian government forces took almost complete control of the town of Al Shayfouniya in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus on Saturday, pressing an assault into the last rebel stronghold near the capital, a monitoring group said.

It came as Turkey said it had captured a Kurdish town in the northwestern Afrin region of Syria where it has been fighting the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia since January, helped by allied Syrian opposition fighters.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his country's forces had captured the town of Rajo from militants, while the military said the army had taken control of seven settlements, including Rajo, on Saturday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said Turkey was in control of about 70 per cent of the town, which lies about 25 kilometres north-west of the city of Afrin city.

The Britain-based monitoring group also said Turkish jets had hit pro-government forces for the third time in 48 hours in the area, killing 36 of them. The pro-government forces are allied to the YPG.

The Syrian war has escalated on several fronts this year, with the collapse of ISIL giving way to other conflicts between Syrian and international parties.

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For the past two weeks President Bashar Al Assad's forces have been winning back territory from rebels with military support from Iran and Russia. And with no sign of decisive western pressure, Eastern Ghouta appears on course to eventually fall to pro-government forces too.

"It's inevitable, the strategy of bombardment is designed for only one result, which it to take back Ghouta," Michael Stephens of London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute told The National. "This is certain to happen."

The Jaish Al Islam opposition group said its fighters had withdrawn from positions in two areas – one of them in Al Shayfouniya – due to intense bombardment. It accused Mr Al Assad and Russia of waging a "scorched earth" campaign.

A news service run by Hizbollah meanwhile named three other areas it said the Syrian army had captured at the eastern and southeastern rim of the rebel enclave.

According to a pro-government commander, Damascus-aligned forces aim to advance into Eastern Ghouta one "bite" at a time.

"What is happening at present is biting and taking some villages from the eastern side," the commander said.

Mr Al Assad's forces have been attacking opposition fighters in the Maraj area of Ghouta for almost two weeks. The Observatory on Friday said they had captured two villages in addition to hills and farmland, while the commander said government fighters had taken some villages in the Maraj area.

A Syrian man awaits to be treated at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held town of Douma, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, following air strikes by regime forces on the area. Hamza Al Ajweh / AFP
A Syrian man awaits to be treated at a makeshift hospital in the rebel-held town of Douma, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, following air strikes by regime forces on the area. Hamza Al Ajweh / AFP

Assad forces had also made "notable" advances on the western edge of the rebel enclave at Harasta, he added. The Observatory said government fighters had seized a group of buildings in that area.

With the reported death toll in Eastern Ghouta exceeding 670 since the air bombardment started on February 13, the US administration upped the ante on Friday, threatening the Assad regime that it “will not tolerate the atrocities” and calling on Russia to immediately uphold a ceasefire all over Syria.

The White House, following US President Donald Trump's calls to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, issued a statement on Friday stressing the urgency of the situation in Syria.

The leaders agreed that “the Syrian regime, and its Russian and Iranian supporters, should immediately and fully implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 2401”, the White House said, calling for an immediate ceasefire across Syria.

It addressed Moscow directly, calling for a halt of its bombing in Eastern Ghouta and to pressure “the Assad regime to halt offensive operations against civilian areas, and to hold Syria accountable for the deteriorating human rights conditions … caused in part by the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical weapons, attacks on civilians, and blocking of humanitarian aid”.

“The United States will not tolerate the atrocities of the Assad regime,” the White House added.

Responding to comments made on Thursday by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the three leaders said they “shared their serious concerns over Putin’s recent statements on nuclear weapons development, which they agreed detract from productive discussion of a range of issues between Russia and the West”.

Mr Trump’s audience is “not Assad but Putin” said Nicholas Heras, a fellow who studies Syria at the Centre for New American Security.

The US president is “putting Russia on notice”, Mr Heras told The National. “He is reacting viscerally to the footage coming out of Eastern Ghouta of starving children, hospitals being blasted to rubble, and to chemical weapons being used against civilians.”