AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian government war planes have intensified air strikes on suburbs of the capital Damascus that have fallen under rebel control, taking the death and destruction to new levels in the 19-month-old conflict.
Civilians have been the main victims, activists say. Footage posted by the opposition shows scenes of carnage, with mangled bodies and houses reduced to rubble.
The activists say that while the air raids target the rebels, they also aim to inflict maximum damage to drive a wedge between the opposition and the civilian population, who bear the brunt of suffering when the fighters slip away.
The strikes on Damascus have zeroed in on the densely populated Sunni Muslim areas known as the Eastern Ghouta, a stronghold of rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Activist Moaz al-Shami said Assad’s forces had resorted to heavy aerial bombardments after failed attempts by ground troops to seize back the suburbs. State media has said the military is “cleansing” what it describes as terrorists from the area.
“The regime has tried to control the Eastern Ghouta several times and each times it had to withdraw because the rebels slipped away then came back to attack its forces,” Shami said.
“Now it is trying to annihilate it from the air.”
Shmai has documented the bombardment with videos and interviewing families of the dead.
The footage is graphic. A man sobs as he pulls the severed torso of a woman from under the rubble of a house. A father runs with a child wounded in the head by shrapnel. An old woman cries in front of destroyed homes.
In the Zamalka neighborhood in the east of Damascus, footage showed dozens of people searching through the rubble of a building at night with the help of a bulldozer and floodlights.
“Here was a five-storey building that is now leveled by MiG fighter jets. We have already found four dead and dozens of wounded,” Mohammad Abdallah, a member of the opposition Revolution Command Council, said in the video.
Opposition campaigners said the planes were also bombing farmland in the Ghouta from where rebels have been launching guerrilla operations against government forces.
The Ghouta is an area of old farms and orchards that has become built up over the last few decades as economic hardship forced people to sell homes in the capital and rural migrants came to the city.
Most of the population has fled the bombardments to the suburb of Jaramana or to Sunni towns to the north. But a significant proportion, too poor to afford to leave, have remained.
“The problem is that lots of refugees have taken shelter among the trees and the fields of the Ghouta and are getting bombed. Ordinary farmers who eke out a living on the land have been killed,” said Ahmad Thaer of the opposition Irbin Coordination Committee.
Footage showed the aftermath of an air strike on farmlands near the eastern suburb of Hammouriya. Dozens of adults were shown running with their children away from destroyed houses.
Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies In London, said the strategy was designed to destroy large areas, disrupt rebel movements, turn the population against them and prevent the opposition from forming alternative administrations in rebel-held areas.
“The regime is adopting a very brutal strategy. It is terror. It creates a lot of confusion about what the right thing is to do among the civilians population. It places a huge burden among the rebels who need to defend more than attack,” he told Reuters.
“The point is not to regain territory but to inflict enough suffering to fragment the opposition and contain them enough and so they would not be able to stand on their feet.”
The authorities have not commented directly on the air campaign but a military statement this week said an “iron fist” was needed against what it described terrorists bent on destroying Syria.
The government has increasingly relied on air power as the uprising against Assad, an Alawite whose family has ruled the Sunni Muslim-majority country for four decades, degenerated from peaceful street protests to civil war.
Air raids have been stepped up on other rebel-held areas in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib and in the desert region of Deir al-Zor in the east, holding back advances by the poorly-armed rebels.
Maarat al-Numaan, a town strategically situated on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, has been bombed almost continuously since rebels took it over two weeks ago.
The IISS’s Hokayem said the strategy could backfire as the bombardments was strengthening the resolve of the Sunnis, who largely see themselves as victims of the ruling elite.
“The more this kind of regime response continues the more people will perceive the airforce first and foremost as an Alawite instrument and they will perceive themselves as the Sunni victims of an Alawite regime,” he said.
Editing by Oliver Holmes and Angus MacSwan