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Assad flaunts Ghouta onslaught by driving into recaptured territory

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has paraded the partial success of his months-long onslaught of a rebel-held suburb ...

Posted: Mar 19, 2018 3:22 PM
Updated: Mar 19, 2018 3:22 PM

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has paraded the partial success of his months-long onslaught of a rebel-held suburb of Damascus by driving himself into the enclave in a Honda Civic.

After the bombardment of Eastern Ghouta broke many of the rebel defenses, Assad filmed his trip to meet government forces in an apparent display of the regime's domination.

Bodyguards nowhere to be seen, Assad takes off from the center of Damascus driving through roundabouts, past taxi cabs and passersby, seemingly unnoticed.

Driving past what appears to be normal traffic on his way to Eastern Ghouta the outskirts of the capital -- besieged for six years and subject to incessant regime bombing -- the Syrian President is cavalier about his re-entry into newly recaptured territory.

"We're going to Ghouta, to see the situation," Assad announces at the start of a series of eight videos published on the Syrian Presidency's official social media accounts on Sunday night.

According to the United Nations, over 1,000 people have died in a government offensive on the rebel enclave -- one of the last opposition strongholds in the country. Tens of thousands have fled to government-held areas.

The operation prompted an international outcry. The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously for a ceasefire -- almost immediately flouted by both the government and rebels. Russian President Vladimir Putin -- Assad's most powerful backer -- ordered a daily humanitarian pause in the fighting, but that too was ignored.

Assad makes no mention of this in his videos. "God willing, anything that can be liberated without fighting is best," says Assad as he drives past green fields peppered with destroyed houses. He has entered Eastern Ghouta, he tells viewers.

"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," says Assad, who is apparently about 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 adds, posing as a Syrian everyman on a day-trip to the ruins of his realm.

His bodyguards reappear when he meets Eastern Ghouta's residents, who greet him with kisses and chants: "With our souls and blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar."

In seven years, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died in a war not yet over.

Meeting with commanders, he gives instructions to avoid civilian casualties, because, he says, "maybe the terrorists are hiding behind civilians."

After an onslaught that has seen scores of people perish on a nearly basis -- with medical facilities also bombed repeatedly -- the international community pronounced the enclave "hell on earth."

"I am deeply saddened by the terrible suffering of the civilian population in Eastern Ghouta: 400,000 people who live in hell on earth," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said last month.

Rebels are also preventing some civilians from leaving the besieged enclave, according to one official who was on the ground in Eastern Ghouta.

Observers say it is now only a matter of time before the regime takes control of the entire enclave. The Syrian President's casual cruise into the battered suburb seemed to announce that for the Syrian regime -- tainted with allegations of war crimes and use of chemical weapons -- the end of rebel rule in Eastern Ghouta is nigh.

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