An injured child being treated in rebel-held eastern Ghouta near Damascus © EPA

A fierce government assault on a besieged rebel-held suburb outside the Syrian capital has become one of the deadliest attacks of the country’s seven-year war, opposition activists say, with bombardments killing 210 people in the past two days, including 52 children.

Syria’s daily death toll on Monday reached its highest point in three years, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, estimating that 127 people died in the bombardment of the eastern Ghouta district outside Damascus by pro-regime forces. Heavy air and artillery strikes have pummelled the area since the weekend, with activists reporting dozens more strikes on Tuesday. Rebels have responded by firing mortars at the capital.

Eastern Ghouta, a short drive from the centre of Damascus, is one of the last pockets of Syria under rebel control despite being under a government-imposed siege for more than five years. The ferocity of the fighting there shows how deadly Syria’s war continues to be, despite predictions that the conflict would wind down in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour.

“This could be one of the worst attacks in Syrian history, even worse than the siege on Aleppo,” said Zedoun al-Zoebi, head of the UOSSM group that provides medical supplies to opposition-held areas.

The UK-based observatory, which has a network of activists across Syria, said the casualty toll including wounded had risen past 1,000 in less than 40 hours. Photographs uploaded by activists showed rooms covered with white-shrouded corpses, many of them the bodies of children.

“The warplanes never leave the sky now . . . there is no safe space left anywhere in eastern Ghouta. These areas are facing mass extermination,” said Sirraj Mahmoud, a spokesman for the Syria Civil Defence rescue workers.

Artillery fire targeting Damascus also killed at least 11 civilians and wounded no fewer than 35 others, according to Diary of a Mortar Shell in Damascus, a website that documents attacks on the Syrian capital.

Eastern Ghouta near Damascus map
Eastern Ghouta near Damascus map

The war has long since descended into multi-sided conflict that has become increasingly internationalised. Turkey has made incursions in the north, Russia and Iran are fighting with the regime, and the US has sided with Kurdish militias battling the jihadi group Isis in Syria’s east.

The complexity of the situation on the ground was underlined on Tuesday when the Turkish military fired on forces loyal to the Syrian government heading into a contested region in the north-west of the country on Tuesday. A convoy of pro-government fighters was moving into the Afrin district to reinforce the Kurdish YPG militia, which controls the area.

The YPG, which is one of the group’s ostensibly backed by the US-led coalition, has been under attack by the Turkish military inside Syria for the past month. Ankara, which considers the Kurdish group a terrorist organisation, has warned Damascus not to get involved.

Rebel territory that once spanned the country has now shrunk to small pockets in the north-west, south, and the eastern Ghouta region. Yet even as the balance of power now lies largely between the Syrian regime and Kurdish forces, fighting has only intensified in recent weeks as rival forces try to snap up territory ahead of any future Syria negotiations.

Bassma Kodmani, an opposition leader who is part of the UN-led peace talks for Syria, warned Russia, now one of the major power brokers for Syria, that if it backed the regime offensive to take eastern Ghouta, it would “kill the political process”.

In an interview with the Financial Times, she also criticised western powers over their silence on rising violence in areas such as eastern Ghouta. “It’s a deadly calculation on the part of Russia. And if this is implicitly allowed by the others [western nations], this is totally irresponsible,” she said.

Eastern Ghouta has not only suffered sporadic offensives by regime forces seeking to recapture the area, but periods of extreme hunger and malnutrition.

The government is widely expected to begin another campaign to try to storm eastern Ghouta and wrest back control of an area whose rebels have been a thorn in Mr Assad’s side because of their ability to fire rockets on the city. A special forces unit of the Syrian army, known as the “Tiger Forces”, has arrived in recent days to help launch the campaign.

An injured man at a medical point in the besieged town of Douma, eastern Ghouta © Reuters

Fierce bombardment ahead of such an assault is a typical government strategy. It was also used in the months leading up to its offensive to recapture the rebel-held half of Aleppo, Syria’s second city. The fall of Aleppo in late 2016, a campaign which led to immense civilian suffering, was one of the biggest turning points of Syria’s war.

In response to the rapidly mounting death toll in eastern Ghouta, the UN’s children agency Unicef issued an unusual “blank statement” — a press release with blank text. In a footnote, the organisation said it had run out of words to express its condemnation, adding: “Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?”

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