Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated once again that his regime cares little about the lives of its own people. The barbaric campaign of airstrikes and bombardments launched by government forces in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta , on the outskirts of Damascus, have killed at least 270 people in three days. Eastern Ghouta, with an estimated population of 400,000, is one of the last significant areas held by militants fighting the regime. It fell into the hands of the rebels in the early stages of the seven-year-long civil war, and repeated government attempts to overrun it were foiled. It was here that chemical weapons were used in 2013, killing hundreds of people. When most other rebel-held parts of Syria, including Aleppo, were recaptured by government troops, militants have moved to Eastern Ghouta and Idlib. Now both areas are under attack. In the use of heavy firepower, the assault resembles the government campaign in Aleppo and elsewhere. In Aleppo, one of Syria’s largest cities, Syrian and Russian jets pounded rebel targets in late 2016; this was followed by a ground attack by government troops and Iran-trained militants. Similarly, Eastern Ghouta, which was under a government blockade for years, appears to have been surrounded by ground forces, which could advance to rebel positions inside the city any time.
There is a wide range of militant groups in Eastern Ghouta, including the Saudi-backed Jaysh al-Islam, the Qatar-funded Faylaq al-Rahman, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. The government says the city is occupied by terrorists from these groups and that the few civilians remaining there are used as human shields. The militants in Eastern Ghouta and the jihadist elements amongst them have repeatedly shelled government-controlled neighbourhoods in Damascus. Generally the rebels appear to have lost the momentum against Mr. Assad in the civil war. Nonetheless, the government narrative is problematic as it holds all residents of Eastern Ghouta responsible for the occupation of the area by militants. The years-long blockade of the area that has deprived Eastern Ghouta of food and medicines, and the indiscriminate bombing, killing of unarmed civilians including children, expose the monstrosity of the Assad regime. From the very beginning of the civil war, the regime and its Russian and Iranian backers have paid little attention to human suffering, be it in Hama, Homs, Aleppo or Eastern Ghouta. Given the brutality it has unleashed now, the government could capture Eastern Ghouta as well. But at what cost? After seven years of war and 400,000 deaths, Syria is a broken, bleeding land, thanks to Mr. Assad and his friends and foes. The real tragedy is that none of the parties involved is interested in ending this war.