About 15,000 people flee opposition area seven years since protests that led to war
The Syrian opposition enclave of Ghouta is on the brink of falling to regime forces, three weeks into a relentless air blitz and seven years to the day since the first stirrings of anti-regime protests, which went on to spark nationwide insurrection, then a devastating war.
Up to 15,000 people had fled from the town of Hamouriyah by nightfall on Thursday into regime-held areas, their exit aided by Syrian and Russian forces who had besieged them throughout much of the conflict, their defiance withering as another bloody anniversary was marked.
Airstrikes and ground assaults have split Ghouta into three areas. Those who remained in the enclave on the eastern edges of Damascus on Thursday were trying to secure guarantees of safety from Russian officials.
The exodus was expected to continue through the night and for the rest of the week, marking the beginning of the end for the most important opposition stronghold in Syria, and allowing the Syrian regime and its allies to eventually claim control of most of the capital.
The probable fall of Ghouta has left the international community scrambling to come up with arrangements for how to feed and house the people it believes may still be in the area, possible as many as 400,000.
Syria has become a war of numbers, all of which make for numbing reading. Nearly two-thirds of its pre-war population are internally displaced or have fled into neighbouring countries. More than 500,000 people have been killed, more than 100,000 people remain under arrest or forcibly disappeared, most of them in government prisons, and a generation of children have faced what the UN describes as psychological ruin.
The death toll in Ghouta is thought to be above 1,500, with many victims still buried under rubble. Entire neighbourhoods have been flattened by bombing that has regularly been labelled indiscriminate and merciless.
Aid agencies had pleaded to be allowed to deliver food and medicine to populations that Syrian and Russian officials claimed were led by terrorist groups. The same militants were on Thursday attempting to broker terms of a civilian evacuation and their eventual departure.
A doctor from Ghouta said many local people remained unsure of what to do. Few appeared to trust guarantees of safe passage that were being offered by the same troops who had bombed them intensely since mid-February.
“As doctors, we will continue our work,” said a physician. “We are from this community. If they remain here, we will stay here. If they choose something else, we will reassess our choices.
“They are taking town after town and everything has been burned. It is systematic destruction that is meant to bring down the entire area on the heads of its residents. There is no place to flee to. People are scared of a slaughter.”
Like other Ghouta residents contacted by the Guardian, the doctor asked to remain anonymous, fearing retribution from regime officials if he decided to flee. A local journalist also declined to put his name to his words.
“Today, there are civilian movements that are demanding at the very least for the United Nations to guarantee the evacuation of these families,” he said.
“The thousands who left the central part of eastern Ghouta are doing so without any guarantees, to regime areas, and no UN organisation can oversee them. They are in areas controlled by the regime.”
Mahmoud Bwedany, a student, said: “What will happen … other than the violation of human rights and forced displacement, is they will take the military-age youth to the army and they’ll arrest whoever is on their wanted list. The scene makes you weep. We need someone to stand up to the regime and Russia.”
An opposition counterattack in Hamouriyah reclaimed some neighbourhoods on Thursday night. However, a sense of resignation hung over other parts of the enclave that had been central to the opposition’s stand against the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.
The protest movement that erupted on 15 March 2011 was underpinned by a class struggle, with the ranks of the original rebel groups largely comprised of the country’s working poor. Ghouta, 15 minutes’ drive from the presidential palace, had defied multiple attempts to retake it, as the rebel strongholds of Homs, Aleppo and Zabadani fell.
It was first hit by airstrikes in late 2012, then devastated by a massive sarin attackin August 2013, which killed more than 1,300 people, and was linked by the UN, UK, US and France to the Syrian military.
Ghouta locals said they feared Syrian officials would wreak revenge on them if they were forced to cross into regime-controlled territory, and the impunity that has characterised the conflict would mean there would be no retribution for any forced disappearances.
All 11 attempts to sanction the Syrian government at the UN security council have been blocked by Russia and China. Plaintive demands by UN officials that civilian populations be spared from bombing have been routinely ignored and Syria’s health and education systems have been systematically targeted.
The US national security adviser, HR McMaster, blamed Russia and Iran for the deaths and said they should both pay a political and economic price for their support of the Assad regime.
McMaster said Russian bombers conducted more than 20 sorties a day against eastern Ghouta, while Moscow had impeded aid deliveries and international investigations into Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his people.
Speaking at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, McMaster claimed that over the past six years, Tehran had provided more than $16bn (£11.5bn) to the regime and transported foreign Shia militias and weapons to Syria.