On February 18th, 2018, the Syrian government began it’s offensive to recapture all of rebel-held East Ghouta, a mixed urban and agricultural region bordering the capital of Damascus. By the time the offensive officially ended on April 14, more than 133,000 civilians had fled the pocket with at least 51,553 them forcibly displaced to rebel-held Idlib and Aleppo in the north.1.“UN: More Than 130,000 Have Fled Syria’s Ghouta in Four Weeks” : VOA2.Arfeh, Hasan. “Humanity in a Humanitarian Emergency” The Atlantic Council (18 April 2018) 1,745 civilians had been killed by indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery fire and 539 pro-government soldiers had been reported killed in the operation. Fifty-seven of the 539 government deaths were officers, including two Brigadier Generals and six group commanders.
A Rebel Bastion
Since the advent of the conflict in Syria, the territory of East Ghouta has been a thorn in the side of the government. Assisted by armed locals, opposition forces ousted government military elements from the region in November 2012 and established their own stronghold there, besieged by regime forces.3.“Living Under Assad’s Siege” : New York Times Subjected to constant bombing and a particularly deadly chemical weapons attack in August of 2013, the farms and marshes of Ghouta became a battleground that saw rebel groups Jaish al-Islam, Faylaq ar-Rahman, and Jabhat an-Nusra face off against Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers, Hezbollah forces, and government-aligned militias.4.“More than 1,400 killed in Syrian chemical weapons attack, U.S. says” : Washington Post5.“Members of Pro-Government Syrian Social Nationalist Party Participate in East Ghotua[sic] Offensive” : Southfront At great cost to manpower as well as vehicle reserves, government forces have slowly advanced in the region, seizing outlying towns and villages since 2013 in a series of offensives.6.“Which rebel groups are fighting in Syria’s eastern Ghouta?” : DW
The situation remained fairly unchanged throughout late 2017 and into early 2018, as Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq ar-Rahman forces continued to wage a war of attrition on the eastern front of Ghouta and as fighting in the western suburb of Harasta waxed and waned with severe casualties suffered by both sides.7.https://i.imgur.com/Yxo4g9X.png8.https://i.imgur.com/MhdRows.png9.“مميز_اقتحام_المجاهدين_لتحصينات_النظام”, an Ahrar al-Sham video production, shows some of the losses suffered by the group. Neither side saw any aggregate gain of ground, as nearly all gains made by pro-government forces consisted of territory recaptured from previous defeats.10.“The regime forces advance in 2 areas in the Eastern Ghouta and control 8 farms and buildings near Harasta city” : SOHR By the end of January and after 280 reported government deaths, little had been achieved in the government counterattack in Harasta, in spite of claims that hundreds of rebel fighters had been killed, and the eastern front was quiet once again aside from mortar shelling and Jaish al-Islam sniper attacks.11.“Syrian Army launches powerful assault in Harasta” : al-Masdar News
As the first month of 2018 ended, all eyes turned to Damascus. With ISIS reduced to a string of villages along the lower Euphrates and opposition-controlled Idlib reduced by a third and hemmed in by Turkish observation posts, seemingly the entire force of the SAA and allied militias was brought to bear on East Ghouta. The first two weeks of February were relatively quiet for a reason: the government was preparing for what they hoped would be the final offensive on the beleaguered enclave.
Preparations for the Offensive
Traditionally, Republican Guard, Military Intelligence, National Defense Forces, and Iraqi militias manned the East Ghouta front-lines. The Republican Guard’s 105th Brigade spent most of 2017 conducting probing attacks and failed offensives against rebels in Ayn Terma and Jobar, with more than 100 reported deaths explicitly attributed to the brigade. Iraqi militias such as Imam al-Hussein, al-Zahraa brigades, Liwa al-Zulfiqar, and Liwa Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas have also long been present in Syria’s capital, along with foreign fighters in the Arab National Guard.
When Ahrar al-Sham managed to besiege the government vehicle management base in Harasta on December 31, massive reinforcements were diverted from other fronts. The bulk of the 4th Division and Qalamoun Shield Forces previously operating in Idlib quickly arrived in Harasta alongside units from the 9th and 10th Division. These units would remain in the area until the start of the East Ghouta offensive on February 18th.
Based on martyrdom reports and visually confirmed statements, the following units were deployed for the East Ghouta offensive by late February:
Syrian Arab Army units
- 4th Division – Suicide Battalion (Special Forces), various unknown units
- 7th Division – 68th Brigade
- 9th Division – 52nd Armored Brigade, 58th Brigade, 103rd Battalion, 89th Regiment
- 10th Division
- 14th Division – 556th Regiment and 554th Regiment Special Forces
- 24th Division
- Republican Guard – 83rd Brigade, 104th Brigade, 105th Brigade, 398th Brigade, 138th Armoured Battalion, 358th Battalion, 401st Battalion, 402nd Commando Battalion
Air Intelligence, General Intelligence, Military Intelligence (multiple branches), Military Police, Security and System Maintenance Unit
Ali Shali Hawks Group, Baath Brigades, Black Forces 30, Free Palestine Movement, ISIS Hunters, Liwa al-Baqir, PLA Lighting Forces, Sea Commandos, Syrian Hezbollah, Tiger Forces (Hadi, Haider, Luyuth, Nabhan, Shawahin, and Tarmah Groups), Qalamoun Shield Forces
Foreign allied militias
Arab Nationalist Guard, Iraqi militias (Imam al-Hussein, al-Zahraa brigades, Liwa al-Zulfiqar, and Liwa Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas), Russian Military Police, Russian artillery units, unknown Lebanese militia
The Offensive Begins
12.“Syrian forces begin new offensive in Eastern Ghouta” : al-Jazeera Military movements were preceded by intense bombardment by ground-based artillery and SyAAF aircraft, which resulted in the deaths of upwards of 71 in the initial stages.13.“Assad regime air strikes kill 71 and wound 325 in 24 hours, says monitoring group” : The Independent Within forty-eight hours, several hospitals had been hit by strikes and over 100 civilians had been killed, while rebel forces returned fire and killed and injured dozens of civilians in the Jaramana and Mleiha districts.14.“New Bombing Campaign Hits 5 Hospitals, Among Worst Days in Syrian History” : UNOCHA15.“A number of areas in the capital Damascus are targeted by more shells” : SOHR As government troops began to advance, Jaish al-Islam forces skirmished with SAA troops on the al-Zaghariyah front amid heavy shelling.16.Jaish al-Islam sourceOn the evening of February 18th, the offensive began, announced as “Operation Damascus Steel” and including virtually every aforementioned military outfit.
17.“Syria bombardment kills 100 in rebel enclave as ground assault looms” : The National Government news media reported the dispersal of leaflets throughout the enclave, directing civilians towards safe points and urging them to leave the area.18.“Syrian Army helicopters throw leaflets on Ghouta to inform civilians about safe corridor” : SANAThe intensive bombing campaign continued, as Russian and Syrian government warplanes hit numerous civilian targets and killed dozens more people.
19.“Syrian Observatory Says Strikes Hit Ghouta After U.N. Vote” : New York Times On the 25th, Jaish al-Islam forces repulsed an attack around Hawsh al-Dawahirah, capturing two government soldiers and killing at least a dozen while claiming to kill more. A severely damaged T-55 tank was also captured.20.https://i.imgur.com/okJJF0U.png21.https://i.imgur.com/TtTyGUj.png Pro-government pages reported up to 29 deaths on the Hawsh al-Dawahirah front between February 25th and 26th. This front was jointly manned by Republican Guard and Tiger Force units operating under the command of Brigadier General Nadr Sa’ad al-Din.22.https://twitter.com/GregoryPWaters/status/969648553600671744On the 24th, as the United Nations Security Council declared the onset of a 30-day ceasefire in the besieged area, fierce combat began.
23.https://i.imgur.com/57dFchL.png Jaish al-Islam official sources quietly confirmed their retreat from the village.24.https://i.imgur.com/1thhTfV.png Throughout the previous week intermittent clashes had also ensued along the Harasta front, with at least 19 government deaths reported here by February 28th, including three Lebanese members of the Jaafariyah Forces.Following a large-scale assault on the evening of the 28th, government sources began claiming the expulsion of rebel elements and the full capture of Hawsh al-Dawahirah, along with positions south of the village.
25.“Within its continuous attack, the regime forces impose its control over more towns in the Ghouta” : SOHR Nine fighters, including men from the State Security and Tiger Forces’ Tarmah Group were reported killed in the attack on Shifouniyah on March 3rd. SAA helicopters continued to drop leaflets over Ghouta as the crossing points shifted following bouts of rebel shelling on the checkpoints.26.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XPby4TAEms&feature=youtu.beAttempting to capitalise on their success at Hawsh al-Dawahirah, government troops attempted to advance into al-Shifouniyah village but found their advance stymied, in spite of a rebel retreat from the town of al-Otaya.
27.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qy7wJhUHAX0&feature=youtu.be The village of al-Shifouniyah followed after a brief Jaish al-Islam counter-attack .28.http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=8611529.“Syria regime forces control third of Ghouta enclave” : The Daily Mail Jaish al-Islam and the Tiger Forces’ Haider Regiment continued to fight over the crucial front line town of Rayhan, just east of Douma. Government forces prematurely claimed victory over the town on March 5th, while Jaish al-Islam recaptures all lost points the following day. Beit Sawa, the entrance to the urban core of East Ghouta, fell on March 7th.30.https://twitter.com/QalaatAlMudiq/status/971461368066072576Government forces advanced into Beit Nayem under heavy fire support on the 4th, capturing most of the town and contesting the northern portions.
31.“Syria regime captures half of Ghouta enclave as death toll climbs” : Channel NewsAsia At the same time, a rebel counter attack near Beit Sawa led to the brief capture of two points in the city.32.https://i.imgur.com/Sna82oG.png Government forces attempted another advance on Rayhan but were repelled again, with armor losses.33.https://i.imgur.com/jxqzV6Q.png In Beit Naym, five members of the Palestinian Liberation Army were reported killed on March 10th. Also on March 10th, the government captured Misraba and by the 11th the units advancing from the east met with government units advancing through the Harasta orchards, effectively dividing the rebel pocket into two.34.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nB-T5PrWd5M The advances around Harasta followed the deaths of 13 more government fighters between March 1st and March 10, including Republican Guard, ISIS Hunters, and reconciled rebels from Quneitra.Government forces captured Hawsh Ashari and the air defence base west of the urban centres of Kafr Batna and Saqba on March 8th.
35.“Eastern Ghouta: Syrian regime forces cut rebel-held enclave in three” : CNN On the eastern front of the pocket, the Tiger Forces made their first successful advances on the town of Rayhan on March 12th before again falsely claiming the full capture of the town on March 16th.36.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KtcI2ExoZNY37.“Elite Syrian forces wrest control of long-standing rebel stronghold” : al-Masdar News Pages reported at least six government deaths in the fighting around Rayhan that day, including five men from Deir Ez Zor. On March 13th, ISIS launched a surprise attack in the south Damascus neighbourhood of Qadam, sparking a still-ongoing battle for the Yarmouk pocket. Government forces captured the towns of Hammouriyah on March 15th and Jisreen on March 16th from Faylaq al-Rahman.38.“Pleas for safe passage for civilians trapped in eastern Ghouta” : The Guardian Three government deaths were explicitly attributed to the capture of Jisreen and Hammouriyah, including a 15 year old child fighter among the Tiger Forces.On March 12th, government forces garrisoned in Harasta’s Armoured Vehicle Base pushed through rebel lines and linked up with units advancing into the town of Mudayra, completing the siege of the town of Harasta.
39.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwV9-fIqbWc&feature=youtu.be Jaish al-Islam recaptured several positions in and around Misraba Farms on March 19th, which they held until March 21st.40.https://www.facebook.com/Syrian.RG.ARMOR/posts/1818807291746787 At least one government death was reported in the Jaish al-Islam advance. On the Harasta front, Ahrar al-Sham reached a deal with government forces to evacuate from Harasta, having suffered heavy losses in weeks of fighting.41.“Syria rebels agree to evacuate town in Ghouta” : Reuters This deal was concluded on the 21st, with evacuations beginning the next day. Between the siege of Harasta on March 12th and the last reported death on April 12th, 13 more government fighters were reported killed along the front. Despite the relative lack of advances and the surrender of Harasta, this five-day period had the most reported deaths per day of the offensive. However, 18 of the deaths reported on March 21st almost certainly occurred during the initial fighting around Hawsh al-Dawahirah.Fighting on the Rayhan front continued on the 17th and 18th, with government forces losing several tanks and four members of Special Task Force in the action.
42.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzD0swwxCEg Four government deaths were explicitly attributed to these advances, including the death of a Colonel from Hama. The nearby al-Hamza neighborhood was also captured as rebel forces retreated into Irbeen and Zamalka.43.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rDxXUo6l0Y Government troops finally broke into Rayhan and seized most of the town, prompting an unsuccessful counterattack by Jaish al-Islam forces on that front.44.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-OseYKx-RI&feature=youtu.beAs rebel forces left Harasta by bus, Syrian army units captured several sections of Ayn Terma town, and fully secured the neighbourhood on the 24th, showing the breadth of their gains the next day.
45.“Tearful Syrians leave rebel enclave in largest evacuation yet” : Yahoo News Government news crews showed hundreds of civilians, including the sick and the wounded, departing Harasta, Irbeen and Douma through government-secured checkpoints.46.Syrian Arab News Agency interview Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq ar-Rahman fighters were quiet during this period, waiting for evacuations to unfold.47.Jaish al-Islam, Faylaq ar-Rahman Telegram accounts show no fighting during this period of time.As fighting paused and as the government secured its gains, more evacuation deals were made that saw thousands of civilians along with hundreds of rebel fighters leaving Irbeen and Douma.
48.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClrnCPK7Olk&feature=youtu.be49.Transcript of a speech by Issam al-Buwaydhani, Jaish al-Islam’s senior leader, urges locals of Douma to remain “steadfast” and be prepared for further battles. Although some evacuations from Douma occurred on the 1st and 2nd, numerous Jaish al-Islam fighters retained their weapons, prepared to continue the fight.50.“Syria: government takeover of Eastern Ghouta near complete” : al-Jazeera Government forces geared up for an attack on the town beginning on the 3rd, as a Jaish al-Islam spokesperson stated that no “divisions have occurred between the free forces” and that Jaish al-Islam was remaining in Douma until al-Buwaydhani said otherwise.51.Information found on Jaish al-Islam Telegram channel. The relative calm of the preceding nine days is reflected in the timeline of deaths seen below.As negotiations continued for the fate of Douma, Jaish al-Islam leadership attempted to compromise with the government without major success, and prepared their city for a major assault.
52.“Syrian government launches assault on last rebel enclave in Ghouta” : Reuters Over the following two weeks, loyalist pages reported at least 27 combat deaths that had occurred in the 24 hours of fighting in and around Douma, making it one of the bloodiest days of the entire offensive and one of only two days with more than 20 reported deaths that resulted in no significant territorial gains. On the evening of April 7th, government forces launched a chemical attack on Douma, killing at least 70 people sheltering in an apartment.53.“Syria war: at least 70 killed in suspected chemical attack in Douma” : BBC The following day, Jaish al-Islam surrendered to the government under intense civilian pressure after the attack.54.“Alleged chemical attack strikes rebel-held Douma in Syria, killing at least 40” : Chicago Tribune55.Jaish al-Islam official announcementOn April 6th the government began it’s air and ground offensive to capture Douma. Indiscriminate air and mortar strikes killed more than 30 civilians in the town, while rebel mortar fire killed four civilians in Damascus.
56.“Syrian army declares Ghouta rebel enclave completely retaken” : Yahoo News Later in the week, Jaish al-Islam commander Issam al-Buwaydhani toured a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Aleppo, signalling a complete departure of Jaish al-Islam from East Ghouta.57.https://i.imgur.com/TkwqTpd.pngOn April 14th the government declared East Ghouta fully recaptured, although weapons checks and IED defusal operations continued during which at least six men died.
Of the 544 reported deaths, 3.3% were among foreign fighters, including six Palestinians and three Russians. In total, 17 Palestinians died fighting for the government, however those directly linked to refugee camps were counted as domestic Syrian fighters. Twenty percent of the deaths were among Latakia and Tartous fighters, a nearly 50% decrease from previous months. Instead, Damascus witnessed an influx of Hama and Homs units, from which 16.2% and 14% of the deaths came from, respectively. This largely represents the arrival of the Hama and Homs based Tiger Forces.
In spite of heavy losses, government forces claimed a significant victory by securing East Ghouta. This “thorn” that had been troubling Damascus for years had finally been removed, even though a new problem had erupted with the entrance of IS forces into Hajar al-Aswad to the south. Losses for both sides were difficult to bear. Government forces lost numerous tanks, officers, and hundreds of men throughout the offensive, and both Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham admitted to the loss of a severe number of their own soldiers.58.Jaish al-Islam official announcement Jaish al-Islam burned much of their armoured vehicle fleet in Douma before departing, and abandoned hundreds of rifles and countless boxes of ammunition and supplies.59.“Jaish al-Islam burns equipment before leaving city of Douma” : SMART News Agency The deaths of nearly 2,000 civilians is perhaps the most bitter pill to swallow.
For now, Damascus remains afflicted by war, as ISIS continues its resistance in Hajar al-Aswad in spite of on ongoing major offensive by SAA and allied militia forces at the time of publication.60.“Syrian Army Deploys Troops in Yarmouk, Inflicts Heavy Losses on ISIL Terrorists in Al-Hajar al-Aswad” : al-Manar It remains to be seen what East Ghouta’s fate will be, whether it will see reconstruction and renewed prosperity or whether it will remain in ruins for the near future.
This article was written as a collaboration between Gregory Waters and Trent Schoenborn. The latter’s work can be found here.