Syrian government gains more ground in rebel-held eastern Ghouta

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Smoke rises from the besieged Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 27, 2018. REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh

The Syrian regime has delivered a serious blow to the rebel-held eastern Ghouta as its forces started seizing more ground from territories that have been controlled by the rebels for five years.

Government forces have reportedly advanced through the rebel-controlled territory east of the Syrian capital of Damascus and captured the town of Mesraba, which lies between the large towns of Douma and Harasta.

This means that the territory of the Islamist rebels have been effectively separated into three, with Douma and Harasta cut off from each other, as well as from the rest of the towns located further south. However, a spokesman for Jaish al-Islam, one of the insurgent groups camped in eastern Ghouta, denied the reports that the rebel territory has been split up, saying Mesraba is still under control of the insurgents.

The government’s attacks on eastern Ghouta have intensified in the last three weeks, with the pro-regime forces capturing about half of the rebel’s stronghold while causing widespread destruction in the Damascus suburb. Around 976 people have been killed in the intensified attacks, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the backing of Russia, initiated relentless air raids and bombardment of the region.

The continued attacks are an attempt by the government to pressure the insurgent groups into so-called “evacuation deals.” These deals involve the rebels surrendering their territory, and in exchange, they will be granted safe passage to opposition areas in northwest Syria, along with their families and civilians who do not wish to come under the rule of Assad.

A small portion of the insurgents has agreed to such a deal. On Friday, members of the rebel group Nusra Front left eastern Ghouta after accepting the terms of the deal.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Secretary warned the Syrian government about the use of chemical weapons, saying it would be unwise to use poison gas in eastern Ghouta. In April, the U.S. carried out strikes against Syria after reports of a suspected gas attack in northern Syria.