Douma surrounded as Syrian army advance cuts rebel-held Ghouta in two
The Syrian rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta has been split in two after a government advance captured the town of Mudeira, state TV reported, which was the last link between the major towns Harasta and Douma and the south of the enclave.
State television and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the town has fallen, with the channel broadcasting footage from the town. The major town of Douma is now surrounded, a military media unit run by the Lebanese group Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian government, said.
More than 1,100 civilians have been killed in the onslaught on the biggest rebel stronghold near Damascus since it began three weeks ago with a withering bombardment, said the Britain-based Observatory.
Advancing from the east, government forces of President Bashar al-Assad drove a wedge into the enclave on Saturday by capturing the town of Misraba. The capture of Mudeira links the government’s eastern and western fronts, cutting off the towns of Douma and Harasta from other rebel-controlled towns further south.
Syrian army forces had also come within firing distance of the main Harasta and Douma highway, the Observatory said on Saturday, which makes movement between the two towns difficult and effectively cuts them off from one another.
President Assad and his ally Russia consider the rebels terrorist groups. But the violence of their assault has prompted condemnation from the international community and repeated calls by United Nations aid agencies for a humanitarian ceasefire.
Activists and fighters in Eastern Ghouta in recent days have said the bombardment has included incendiary material that causes fires and burn injuries. Local doctors have also reported several incidents of bomb attacks followed by the smell of chlorine and choking symptoms.
The government has denied using either incendiary weapons or chlorine gas bombs.
Rebels deny negotiated withdrawal reports
On Saturday night the Free Syrian Army faction in Eastern Ghouta vowed to fight on in a statement, saying they had taken a decision not to accept a surrender and negotiated withdrawal.
However, on Sunday a committee from the rebel-held town of Hammuriyeh told AFP they had met with Syrian officials to discuss a partial evacuation of fighters and civilians.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman also said negotiations were taking for evacuations from multiple rebel towns.
"A decision could be taken any moment for Hammuriyeh, Jisreen, and Saqba," Abdel Rahman.
Rebel group Faylaq al-Rahman, which controls the towns, denied any negotiations were taking place.
"There are no direct or indirect negotiations with the Russian enemy or its allies," said the group's spokesman, Wael Alwan, late on Saturday.
The second main rebel group in Ghouta, Jaish al-Islam, has also denied rumours it is negotiating its own withdrawal.
But it has engaged in talks with the United Nations and world powers on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a militant group once linked to al-Qaeda. Those negotiations resulted last week in Jaish al-Islam releasing 13 HTS members it was holding.
The Russian Centre for Reconciliation, based alongside Russia's air force at the Hmeimim military airport in western Syria, told a Russian news agency it was facilitating negotiations with rebels in Ghouta.
Syria warned over chemical weapons
In Muscat, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it would be "very unwise" for Syrian government forces to use weaponised gas, citing the unconfirmed reports of chlorine attacks in Eastern Ghouta.
Visiting Oman, Mattis stopped short of threatening to retaliate against Syrian forces if a chlorine attack were confirmed. But he noted America's cruise missile strike on 6 April last year on a Syrian air base over a sarin gas attack and said President Donald Trump had "full political manoeuvre room" to take whatever decision he believed was appropriate.
While the government and Russia say they have set up safe routes into government-held territory, no civilians are known to have crossed through them yet.
Damascus and Moscow accuse rebels of firing on anybody who tries to leave, something the insurgents deny though a Reuters witness said there was shelling and gunfire near one exit route on Friday.
Rebels and some Eastern Ghouta residents contacted by Reuters have said people there do not want to come back under Assad's rule for fear of persecution, an idea the government says is groundless.
On Saturday, the army found 60 civilians cowering in a basement in Misraba. Activists in Eastern Ghouta said thousands of people from Mesraba had already fled into Douma, further into the rebel territory, before the army took it.
Syrian state television reported on Sunday that rebel mortar fire had killed four people after hitting a taxi. Assad has sworn to end rebel shelling of the capital.
Defeat in Eastern Ghouta would deliver the rebels their biggest blow since December 2016, when a government offensive drove them from Aleppo, their largest urban stronghold.
Backed by Russian warplanes and other military assistance since 2015, Assad has gained momentum on several fronts across the country, driving rebels from numerous pockets and recapturing swathes of the east from Islamic State.
But he is still far from regaining control over the entire country. Rebel groups hold large areas of the northwest and southwest, while northeastern Syria is in the hands of Kurdish fighters and allied militias.
Meanwhile, the increasingly global nature of the war means that military attempts to regain several of those areas could pit Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers against forces that are also directly supported by powerful foreign countries.