On Tuesday evening anti-government fighters in the embattled East Ghouta suburb of Damascus launched a major attack, firing several missiles and artillery shells into a crowded shopping district of government-held Jaramana area, resulting in a civilian massacre.
The Guardian has described the attack as "one of the deadliest rebel attacks on the Syrian capital" which according to early reports took the lives of 38 civilians, including women and children. Local reporters say that number may climb higher.
And according to Middle East based Al-Masdar News, which has a correspondent on the ground close to the scene, a near simultaneous attack on the Mezzeh District of Damascus resulted in the deaths of a woman and five children.
Explosions light up the Damascus sky with Mt. Qasioun in the background during previous fighting in the summer of 2017. Photo provided by a local Damascus photographer, via Leith Fadel.
The Guardian reports that the particular shopping area in Jaramana hit by a volley of rockets was particularly busy as Mother's Day - celebrated in Syria on March 21 - brought throngs of families into crowded markets:
State media said the opposition fire had hit the area of Jaramana, which residents said was full of shoppers – many buying presents before Mother’s Day. A taxi driver, who asked not to give his name, said he had been nearby when the rocket hit a street known for its cheap clothes and food shops.
“The place was full of people buying presents for Mother’s Day,” the 41-year-old said. A nurse in her 30s, who asked not to be named, said the projectile had hit a shopping area “next to a security checkpoint”. “The intensity of the blast was terrifying,” she said.
Though given scant attention in international media since the start of the now 7-year long war, Damascenes have had to endure living under the constant threat of mortar attack from al-Qaeda linked groups operating in the suburbs and Damascus countryside as "the new normal".
Some victims of today Massacre in Damascus when a shell launched by Eastern Ghouta militants hit a crowded market pic.twitter.com/HpAbVQDcF6— H.K 🇸🇾 (@Ibra_Joudeh) March 20, 2018
While the Syrian government has retaken most of Syria's populous urban centers, and much of the country has returned to some degree of stability, some observers have described the next phase of the war as an "endless insurgency" - expected to continue for years as the al-Qaeda insurgency goes underground.
The intensity of indiscriminate mortar fire from Ghouta on civilian areas of the Damascus city center has markedly increased of late as the Syrian Army continues its ground incursion into the sprawling suburb which has been held for years by jihadist factions seeking the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the defeat of the army. And according to The Guardian, the army is making progress in Ghouta:
Regime and allied forces have retaken more than 80% of the area and splintered the rump of the enclave into three pockets, each controlled by different rebel groups.
The ground fighting as well as consistent government aerial bombardment has resulted in significant civilian casualties, with each side trading blame for disregarding civilian lives. The government for its part has accused the armed groups who have long operated in the Ghouta area of using civilians as human shields, instead of allowing them a safe exit through 'safe corridors' established by the Syrian Army.
Meanwhile, President Assad early this week took the unusual step of driving through the Syrian capital's congested city center on his way to visit recaptured parts of Ghouta in a Honda.
Video footage of Assad driving the car through what appeared to be routine Damascus traffic and without any visible security escort was published to official "Syrian Presidency" social media accounts.
الطريق إلى الغوطة (1/8) pic.twitter.com/QH21aeGURX— Syrian Presidency (@Presidency_Sy) March 18, 2018
"We're going to Ghouta, to see the situation," Assad told the camera at the start of a series of eight brief published videos. "Every meter of the areas that we're driving through may have a drop of the blood of a Syrian fighter, of a hero among heroes, so that we can all pass through it and for life to return," commented Assad as he drove himself to greet Syrian troops at newly recaptured parts of the Damascus suburb. "Let's not forget there are civilians and we must preserve their lives," he added.
The surreal footage spread quickly through social media, and elicited the following commentary from The New York Times:
In bypassing the news media, Mr. Assad delivered an alternative view of the war, one in which he is assured and in charge, casually cruising past bombed-out buildings, often driving with just two fingers, an elbow propped casually out the window.
It is entirely possible that Tuesday evening's mass rocket and mortar attack on the busy government-held civilian shopping area in Jaramana was intended as highly visible revenge attack for Assad's prior 'public relations' casual drive to recaptured parts of the Ghouta suburb.