Thousands of Syrians Flee as Two Major Battle Fronts Reach Critical Stage

Russian-backed government forces press on to capture last big rebel bastion near Damascus ■ Turkish and allied rebel fighters shell northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin

A child sleeps in a bag in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, March 15, 2018.
\ OMAR SANADIKI/ REUTERS

Thousands of civilians fled from besieged enclaves at opposite ends of Syria Friday as two major battles in the multi-sided war entered decisive phases, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped in the path of both assaults.

Airstrikes killed scores of people in eastern Ghouta, a war monitor said. Weary residents streamed out on foot for a second day, as Russian-backed government forces pressed their campaign to capture the last big rebel bastion near Damascus.

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On another front, Turkish and allied rebel forces shelled the northern Kurdish-held town of Afrin heavily, killing at least 27 people and forcing 2,500 people to flee, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

The Kurdish YPG militia defending Afrin said it was battling Turkish forces who tried to storm the town from the north.

The Syrian war entered its eighth year this week having killed half a million people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, including nearly 6 million who have fled abroad in one of the worst refugee crises of modern times.

Syrians from the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region, just outside Damascus, walk through a regime-controlled corridor in Hamouria in Eastern Ghouta, after leaving the besieged enclave on March 16, 2018
STRINGER/AFP

The government launched its offensive on eastern Ghouta a month ago, and Turkey began its cross-border assault in Afrin in January. In both areas, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped inside encircled pockets on the battlefield.

An estimated 12,000-16,000 people have left Ghouta in recent days, while fighting in the Afrin region has reportedly displaced more than 48,000, said Linda Tom, a United Nations humanitarian spokeswoman in Syria.

Syrian civilians ride in the back of a pickup truck in the regime-controlled corridor east of the Eastern Ghouta enclave, March 15, 2018
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP

The two offensives, one backed by Russia and the other led by Turkey, have shown how Syrian factions and their foreign allies are aggressively reshaping the map of control after the defeat of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

After the bombings in eastern Ghouta claimed the lives of over 500 citizens in February, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution demanding a 30-day truce in Syria to allow aid deliveries and medical evacuations with the support of Syrian ally Russia after a flurry of last-minute negotiations.

Despite the resolution, bombings persisted. Iranian General Mohammad Baqeri, whose government backs Syrian President Bashar Assad, said Tehran and Damascus would respect the UN resolution, But added the truce did not cover parts of the Damascus suburbs "held by the terrorists."

Turkey forcefully rejected Western calls to suspend its offensive in northwest Syria, saying the United States misunderstood the extent of a UN ceasefire resolution. Ankara has said the UN resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire across Syria does not apply to its campaign in Afrin against the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey sees as a terrorist group.

Syrian civilians with their belongings, fleeing fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels, in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, Thursday, March. 15, 2018
/AP

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the Syrian government airstrikes on eastern Ghouta and shelling from the rebel-held zone into Damascus probably constitute as war crimes and must be prosecuted. He added that the perpetrators of such crimes in Syria should know they were being identified and that dossiers were being built for future prosecutions.

Hussam Aala, Syria’s ambassador in Geneva, said that Zeid was “selective and biased” and that the debate was “politicized.” According to Aala, the Syrian army had taken every step to protect civilians and had opened “humanitarian corridors for the passage of civilians to separate them from the terrorists,” he said, referring to the insurgents in eastern Ghouta.