Syrians walk past destroyed buildings in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on Friday. Image Credit: AFP

Douma: Syrian regime forces on Saturday cut off the largest town in Eastern Ghouta from the rest of the opposition enclave in a blow to rebels defending their last bastion near Damascus.

Regime troops and allied militia have recaptured half of the besieged region in a blistering assault launched on February 18 that has prompted global outcry.

They have pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy, eating away at rebel-held towns and successfully isolating Ghouta’s main town of Douma on Saturday.

Regime fighters seized control of the road linking Douma with the town of Harasta further west, and also captured the town of Misraba, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Regime forces have therefore divided Eastern Ghouta into three parts - Douma and its surroundings, Harasta in the west, and the rest of the towns further south,” the Britain-based monitor said.

Ghouta, under regime siege since 2013, is the last remaining opposition-controlled zone on the outskirts of the capital.

Keen to secure Damascus, regime troops launched a fierce bombing campaign on February 18 and then began a ground operation.

Rebels in recent days tried to slow the advance with an attempted counter-offensive but were struggling to hold off Bashar Al Assad’s forces.

Syrian regime television on Saturday reported that the army had “intensified its operations... and was advancing in three main zones.”

An AFP correspondent inside Douma said shelling and air strikes were rocking the town on Saturday, trapping residents indoors.

Rescue workers and medics were struggling to navigate the town’s rubble-littered roads to bring wounded residents back to field clinics.

Douma is the main bastion of Jaish Al Islam, one of two main Islamist factions present in Eastern Ghouta.

Residents fleeing the regime’s advance in other towns had sought refuge in Douma.

The offensive has killed more than 975 civilians, including more than 200 children, and wounded several thousand people, according to the Observatory.

Eastern Ghouta is home to around 400,000 people, in desperate need of humanitarian assistance after the five-year siege made food and medical aid exceedingly rare.

On Friday, a joint aid convoy of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivered food aid to hunger-stricken residents.

The delivery had been due to enter on Thursday but was delayed due to developments on the ground.

It was the second aid operation in a week that was disrupted by military operations, after deliveries on Monday were cut short due to bombardment.

In addition to clashes around Douma, fighting on Saturday raged to the west near the town of Medeira and further south near Hammuriyeh, Saqba, and Efteris.

Those towns were the main strongholds of Ghouta’s second Islamist group, Faylaq Al Rahman.

Fighters from Hayat Tahrir Al Sham also have a presence in the enclave.

On Friday, 13 HTS members and their family members were bussed out of the enclave through the Al Wafideen checkpoint.

Jaish Al Islam said the fighters would be evacuated to the northern province of Idlib, in an arrangement struck following consultations with the United Nations and other international players.

Such evacuation deals have been repeatedly agreed in Syria’s seven-year war, most notably in the second city of Aleppo in late 2016.

After a ferocious month-long government assault, thousands of rebel fighters and civilians were bussed out of the city’s east.

That paved the way for Syria’s regime to announce the full recapture of Aleppo - the largest blow to date to the fractured opposition movement.

Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011 with protests against Al Assad but has since developed into a full-blown war that has drawn in global powers.

Russia has intervened on behalf of Syria’s regime, while Turkey has backed rebels against Al Assad, rival extremists, and Kurdish forces.