The line between life and death in Damascus

‘What we saw in Aleppo could pale in comparison to what’s to come in Eastern Ghouta’

DAMASCUS — Damascus is a tale of two cities. On one side, buildings stand tall, divided by neat rows of flowering trees. On the other, it’s a vision of hell.

In the regime-controlled west, people attend work, school and dinner parties. In rebel-held Eastern Ghouta a few hundred yards away, they hide in basements, awaiting the next air strike.

The military siege of the eastern suburb of the capital, home to nearly 400,000 residents, began in 2012 and has become one of the longest and most brutal in modern history.

For five years the enclave of 103 square km has been pummelled by the Syrian regime, and more recently by Russia’s bombs, in efforts to dislodge the opposition from its stronghold and protect Bashar Al Assad’s seat of power.

Satellite imagery captured last week by McKenzie Intelligence Services and shared with The Daily Telegraph lays bare the level of destruction. The most striking image shows the dividing line between Al Qassaa on the regime side and Jobar on the rebel side. Grey smudges denote the remains of levelled buildings. Craters dot the roads and streets have been wiped off the map. Smoke rises from the latest strikes.

“There is little sign of daily life here,” said McKenzie’s Stuart Ray, a former British military intelligence officer. “We could see no cars driving or people on the streets, no shopkeepers opening their stores. It’s a wasteland.”

According to the United Nations, 91 per cent of Jobar has been destroyed by the regime’s strikes, which have intensified in recent weeks. Government territory is regularly hit by mortars from rebel areas of Ghouta, but the damage is nothing to the devastation of the barrel bombs.

The UN identified about 3,853 destroyed, 5,141 severely damaged and 3,547 moderately damaged buildings in the more densely-populated western parts of the enclave. In the Ein Terma neighbourhood, where 18,500 still live, satellite images show 71 per cent of buildings destroyed or damaged.

In Zamalka, another major neighbourhood, 59 per cent of buildings are destroyed or damaged. There has been no water or electricity for two years.

Russian and Syrian bombs indiscrimately land on schools and hospitals almost daily.

Since the regime’s offensive escalated two weeks ago, 14 medical facilities have been taken out of service, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM). More than 10 medical staff and volunteers have been killed, with 20 injured. Doctors treat and operate on patients in underground rooms to escape the air strikes.

“From looking at the satellite images, you can see it’s a scorched earth policy,” Ray said. “In contrast to Sarajevo, the damage is incomparable. Even in the worst hit areas of Sarajevo some buildings still stood.”

He said it was possible the Syrian regime had used thermobaric weapons, explosives that use oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a high-temperature explosion, in an area west of Douma.

“All the trees and vegetation are gone and the buildings are no longer there but there are no craters,” he said. “It’s possible they were trying to clear that area to serve as a buffer.”

The conflict enters its eighth year this month, having seen hundreds of thousands of people killed and half the pre-war population of 23 million forced from their homes.

Eastern Ghouta is not the first Syrian territory to be decimated. Swathes of Homs, Aleppo and Raqqa are uninhabitable after campaigns to oust rebel fighters and Daesh.

“Eastern Ghouta is straight out of the Aleppo playbook,” one Western diplomat told The Daily Telegraph. “I’m afraid we’ll have no option but to sit and watch it all play out again.

“What we saw in Aleppo could pale in comparison to what’s to come in Eastern Ghouta,” he added.

There is a fear that the battle will become one of attrition. Al Assad’s “starve or surrender” tactic, as it has become known, has proved effective and is much less costly for his troops.

Cut off from the outside world, residents survive on what they can grow to eat and whatever they can smuggle in through one of their remaining tunnels. Tending to crops has become a deadly business, however, and few dare to venture out in full view of the drones overhead. Bread in Eastern Ghouta costs nearly 22 times the amount it does in government-held Damascus. Several children have died of malnutrition. Aleppo fell within weeks of a government offensive in December 2016. Eastern Ghouta could take months.

Under a truce declared by Russia, the Syrian government this week opened a “humanitarian” corridor for those who wanted to leave. So far only an elderly Pakistani couple have passed through. Residents fear a repeat of Aleppo, where civilians who made it out of the city were tortured, arrested or displaced. “Russia is the only one who can stop this now,” the diplomat said. “But they seem impervious to international condemnation and shame.”

However, he noted at January peace talks in the Russian city of Sochi there appeared to be tensions emerging between Syrian and Russian positions.

“It was remarkable how hostile Damascus was to the Sochi initiative,” he said. “On the final day of the peace talks, they tried three times to strong-arm [Russian foreign minister Sergei]Lavrov to change the final communique. The question is whether Russia is serious about exerting pressure on Assad, or if it is no longer capable.”

In turn, the UN feels held to ransom by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. But Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s Syria envoy, warned: “We cannot afford the luxury of giving up.”

—The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018

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