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Syria's Douma bears the brunt of Assad's bombing

Heavy fighting in long rebel-held Eastern Ghouta comes as Assad's forces launch offensives on several fronts
A cloud of smoke rises following an air strike by Syrian government forces on Douma 5 February, 2015 (AFP)

More than 1,000 air strikes by government forces have fallen on 12 out of Syria’s 14 provinces, including the main cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs, since the start of this month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said.

In a statement issued on Thursday, the UK-based watchdog said at least 270 civilians have been killed, including 48 women and 49 children. The number of those injured stands at over more than 1,200.

The watchdog also documented the use of 537 barrel bombs, adding that these deadly devices largely fell on residential neighbourhoods in Idlib, Deraa, Hama, Quneitra, Lattakia, and Rif Dimashq, in the countryside outside the capital Damascus. The Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently told international media that his army did not possess barrel bombs, although human rights groups have widely documented their use.

The announcement comes amidst a flare up in fighting across much of Syria, with clashes being reported in the south, north and also near the capital.

Douma, the administrative centre in the Ghouta area east of Damascus, has borne the brunt of the fighting and has been bombarded heavily this past week, with activists putting the number of people killed as close to 150 on Wednesday. According to sources on the ground, the fighting calmed slightly on Thursday but tensions remain high. The fighting first flared up last week, after opposition groups in the district, sent rockets flying into government-controlled Damascus.

The Syrian government has been using an array of rockets, mortar fire and barrel bombs, which have either partially or completely destroyed at least 500 houses, an activist Facebook page has claimed.

The Syrian National Coalition, an exiled opposition organisation, called on the international community to focus on the atrocities Assad was committing in the suburbs of Damascus.

“Killing children and elders with barrel bombs, using poisonous gases is as ugly as the beheadings and burnings carried out by Islamic State militants,” said Khaled Khoja, head of the coalition as a press conference in Istanbul. 

One activist, who also preferred not to be named for security reasons told Middle East Eye that the humanitarian situation in Eastern Ghouta was “disastrous”.

“There’s the [two year] siege, with no food, no water, no electricity, no medicines…and on top of that there’s the constant bombing from above in the sky,” said the activist, who is originally from Dhouma. While she fled the fighting recently, she claims to have kept a network of sources inside the troubled city.

“Children are dying from hunger…the food they are surviving on is horrific. Some of it is meant to be food for the animals,” she said.

“People cannot leave because of the siege…it’s very dangerous especially for families,” the activist continued. “Those who managed to leave do so mostly by tunnels.”

Zaher, another activist who managed to leave Douma a week ago, told the Middle East Eye that the Syrian government has always reserved the hardest pounding for Douma.

“Douma would always get shelled if the government lost ground in other parts of Ghouta,” he explained. “Because the regime sees it as the centre of the opposition’s political, military, and economic decision-making. Most of the leaders from the opposition groups are from or based in Douma too.”

“The state Douma is in when I left is catastrophic. The warplanes did not stop except when it was raining. Everyone would see it as a blessing whenever it rained, because that meant we got to live for another day,” he added.

Barrel bombs have been used by the Syrian army over Douma and other towns in Ghouta, yet Zaher describes vaccum missiles as being far more deadly. 

“One missile can destroy an entire neighbourhood,” he said. “It sucks up the oxygen in an area and targets the basic foundations of buildings. We are talking about illegal warfare. A five story building will be completely destroyed. Barrel bombs are a mercy compared to vacuum missiles,” he added.

Vacuum bombs are a type of thermobaric weapons that go off at high altitude dispersing a cloud of fuel that triggers a second explosion.

The Syrian News Agency SANA has previously described Eastern Ghouta as being under " the draconian rule of terrorist organisations," while praising the Syrian army's efforts in evacuating families from there.

Aid group MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, support more than 100 hospitals and medical points in Syria and has been caught up in the carnage.

On 5 February, MSF’s two medical facilities in Eastern Ghouta were hit by air strikes, forcing all the staff and patients had to be evacuated. The organisation says that 60 air strikes were reported in that area on that day alone. According to an MSF medical source, 68 people were killed in that bombing.

“A thick cloud of dust covered the place,” an MSF worker who would only identify himself as AK for security reasons said in testimony seen by Middle East Eye.

“The bombs brought the entire buildings to the ground, with residents inside. There was indescribable, horrifying destruction. We immediately started evacuating as many victims as we could, driving them to hospitals in the region.”

AK was hit in his arm but described his injury as “superficial.”

“As paramedics, we never discount the possibility that we could become one of the statistics,” he added. “We had already been bombed before while evacuating wounded people. One of my colleagues was seriously injured in that bombing. He lost an arm. He is still alive but he can’t work anymore.”

The almost four-year-old conflict is widely regarded as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 200,000 people have been killed and millions more have either been internally displaced or been made refugees.

The latest round of fighting across the country promises to make this human catastrophe even worse.

This week, it was announced that the Syrian army has now embarked on a large-scale assault along the borders of the Golan Heights in conjunction with Hezbollah and Iranian fighters who are supporting Assad’s forces.

A Syrian security source was quoted as saying that the operation is aimed at “breaking the stretch of territory that the [rebels] are trying to establish” at the border.

It is the first time since the civil war broke out that the Syrian government publicly admitted to Assad’s army being backed by the two external forces, although their presence has been widely reported.