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Damascus suffers blowback as Assad escalates Eastern Ghouta carnage

The predominantly Christian neighbourhood of Qassaa has been a regular target of random shelling [Getty]

Date of publication: 24 February, 2018

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As the Syrian government escalates its attacks on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, rebels in outlying towns are retaliating with volleys of mortar shells and rockets into the capital.

As the Syrian government escalates its attacks on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus, rebels in outlying towns are retaliating with volleys of mortar shells and rockets into the capital, killing more than 25 civilians in the past two weeks and spreading fear among its 4 million residents.

Many parents have stopped sending their children to school. Some are skipping work and hunkering at home. Some are even contemplating leaving until the situation calms.

But the scope of the rebel attacks on Damascus pales in comparison to what has rained down from warplanes on Eastern Ghouta, where more than 400 people have been killed this week in the region only a short drive from the capital.

The intensity of the shelling has brought renewed anguish and suffering to the population, shattering a prevailing sense for some time now that the war - or the worst of it - was over.

Issam Dhahi, a 45-year-old resident of the Qassaa neighbourhood, said his two children have not been to school or university for the past 15 days, and the family only ventures out to buy necessities.

The predominantly Christian neighbourhood has been a regular target of random shelling, bringing life to a standstill.

Five people from his neighbourhood were wounded on Wednesday and five others were killed since the beginning of February, Dhahi said.

Usually packed shops in the mixed commercial and residential district now close at 5 pm, so people can get home before dark.

President Bashar al-Assad has consolidated his control over key areas of Syria in recent years with the support of Iran and Russia, but he has been unable to stop the rebels from occasionally striking at his seat of power from the sprawling Ghouta suburb.

The mortar and rocket attacks stopped almost completely last summer after a Russia-brokered deal was struck with the rebels, designating eastern Ghouta to be a de-escalation zone.

For months until December, Damascus was brimming with life, its cafes and restaurants packed with people and its streets jammed with traffic again. There was hope that with Homs, Aleppo and Deir az-Zour back in the government's control, the conflict was winding to a close.

That sense has been shattered after the government escalated its attacks earlier this month on Eastern Ghouta, the only remaining rebel stronghold near the capital.

Since Feb 18, militants in the rebel-held suburbs have hit back hard, sending dozens of shells and rockets to Damascus each day, striking in markets, residential buildings and near schools in the Old City, Qassaa, Bab Touma, Umayyad Square and the suburb of Jaramana.

In three days this week, 17 people were killed, including 13 on Tuesday when 114 shells hit Damascus and its countryside. Among the dead was Lama Fallouh, a programme officer at the Damascus Opera, who was killed when a shell struck near the landmark Umayyad Square in central Damascus, along with two brothers in their 20s in Jaramana and several children.

In Jaramana, where more than 14 people have been killed since the beginning of the month, streets are deserted.

The Syrian conflict began when the Baath regime, in power since 1963 and led by Assad, responded with military force to peaceful protests demanding democratic reforms during the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, triggering an armed rebellion fuelled by mass defections from the Syrian army.

The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.

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