Despite the ceasefire declared by Russia, Turkey, and Iran on December 30, war rumbles on in Syria. Some battles are taking place inside rebel territories or against the self-declared Islamic State, but there is also fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s army and opposition groups supposedly covered by the ceasefire. The most important of those conflicts is playing out in the East Ghouta region near Damascus, long one of Syria’s best-fortified rebel strongholds and considerably larger than the former East Aleppo enclave.
The area is now coming under pressure to surrender. That would represent a major victory for Assad, removing the only serious threat to his capital and freeing up large numbers of troops for use elsewhere. It could also impact the peace talks in Astana and Geneva, since no opposition delegation would be of much value without the largest faction willing to participate in negotiations: the East Ghouta-based Islam Army.
Though the East Ghouta may hold out for many months more, especially if Assad is bogged down in his war with the Islamic State in eastern Syria, local rebels seem to have no way of breaking their downward spiral.
SIEGE, HUNGER, AND POWER STRUGGLES
Rebel-held East Ghouta has been under siege since April 2013. The following year, the Syrian government banned civilian traffic into the enclave, allowing only a trickle of food deliveries to be imported and sold at exorbitant prices, in a profit-making scheme run by businessmen who share their profits with powerful regime and rebel commanders. While these deliveries have staved off starvation, the humanitarian situation is severe and Amnesty International views the blockade as a crime against humanity.
According to Linda Tom, a public information officer at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Damascus, the UN is “extremely concerned” about the well-being of civilians in the East Ghouta and yet, the Syrian government will not allow UN food and medicine deliveries to pass into the besieged areas. The last time an international aid convoy was permitted to enter Douma, Tom wrote in an email, was on October 19, 2016.
The siege has created a climate of permanent crisis, destabilizing the enclave and pitting rebels against each other as they fight for access to smuggling tunnels and scarce resources. But despite repeated attempts, Assad’s army has long found itself unable to break the enclave’s defenses, especially after local insurgents set up a coordinated military-political structure in 2014. A mutually punishing stalemate emerged, accompanied by near-constant government shelling and bombing of towns in the East Ghouta, while rebels lobbied less powerful but no less indiscriminate mortars and rockets back into Damascus.
By late 2015, however, things began to change. On September 30, Russia intervened in Syria, turning the war back in Assad’s favor. On December 25, an air strike killed the East Ghouta’s supreme military commander, the Islam Army leader Zahran Alloush. This created a power vacuum, which, in April 2016, led to several weeks of infighting between the Islam Army and its local rivals, Failaq al-Rahman and the Fustat Army. Assad’s regime made sure to exploit the collapse of insurgent coordination. By the end of 2016, it had seized most of the enclave’s south and east, and seemed intent on cornering its opponents in Douma and the Damascus suburbs.
SURRENDER DISGUISED AS RECONCILIATION
As in East Aleppo, the Syrian authorities are trying to pressure rebel commanders into accepting a process of musalaha, or reconciliation. This is the government’s preferred term for what is in effect a negotiated surrender, whereby rebels submit to an amnesty plan and (if they are men of military age) join the armed forces, while those who refuse are allowed to evacuate to rebel-held areas such as Idlib. By late 2016, Russian-monitored negotiations were underway in Douma and Harasta, and possibly other areas of the East Ghouta.
In early 2017, the government suddenly began to signal that an agreement was near and brought television teams to a series of “reconciliation” seminars in Damascus, involving, in particular, three key individuals: the governor of the Damascus Countryside (Rif Dimashq) governorate Alaa Ibrahim, a recently appointed administrator from Jableh who is married to Bashar al-Assad’s cousin; Lieutenant-General Haitham Omran, a senior Syrian officer involved in Russian-backed plans to press civil service employees and former rebel fighters into new army and militia units; and Lieutenant-General Igor Turchenyuk, who is presented as head of the Russian Coordination Center for Reconciliation, but whose day job is that of deputy head of Russia’s Southern Military District (and who, in 2014, was sanctioned by the European Union as the shadow commander of Moscow’s proxy militias in Ukrainian Crimea).
On January 9, Syrian television reported on a meeting of Douma notables, state officials, Sunni clerics, and Russian officers in Damascus. Alaa Ibrahim urged attendees to persuade the East Ghouta insurgents to “benefit from Amnesty Decree No. 15/2016 and send away, under Russian guarantees, those gunmen who did not wish to reconcile,” thereby “liberating civilians in Douma.” More meetings and aid distribution press junkets followed, with Alaa Ibrahim cited as saying rebels could either disarm and rejoin normal life or “exit the country to join the foreign activists.” However, he also hinted at blockages, noting that “each waits for the other to begin.”
Opposition sympathizers scoffed at these reports. Some referred to them as a type of “psychological warfare,” alleging that regime-friendly Douma residents long since banished from the enclave were being passed off as participants in a peace process to cover up for Assad’s pursuit of victory by military means. “For the past three years, the regime never stopped trying to break into the East Ghouta,” a local activist told me in an online interview from inside the enclave in February. “But the East Ghouta is different from all the areas [from where combatants] went to Idlib. We will persevere in our land and we will not leave it except as conquerors going to Damascus.”
Despite such rhetorical intransigence, it is an open secret that pro-Assad notables with roots in East Ghouta have made repeated negotiating trips to Islam Army-held Douma since autumn 2016. Some sort of negotiations are indeed going on, but, in Syria it remains as difficult as ever to separate fact from fiction.
In early February, Assad and his Russian allies raised the stakes by declaring that the Wafidin Camp checkpoint near Douma, which is the enclave’s key entry point for food, would function as a Russian-supervised safe exit point for civilians between February 2 and February 13. This echoed similar announcements in Aleppo in summer 2016, which preceded the final campaign to crush the insurgency there. Then, too, the rebels rejected them. (Some 36,000 civilians were eventually evacuated from the eastern half of Aleppo, but not until after the opposition had been comprehensively defeated, at great cost to the city and its civilians.)
Syria’s exile opposition reacted with outrage, demanding that the international community stop what it portrayed as a scheme to cleanse the East Ghouta of Sunni Muslims, while local rebel leaders dismissed the reports as propaganda. For their part, pro-government sources insisted that the opposition had tried to shut down the Wafidin corridor by closing checkpoints and shelling the area, which rebel leaders denied. “The people are aware and have understood the regime’s plan, which aims to remove them from their lands and conscript whomever among them can carry arms to assault their Ghouta,” said the high-ranking Islam Army leader Said Darwish, in an interview conducted online. “Their response was to pay no heed to these alleged corridors, and to instead support the mujahidin of the Ghouta in general and the Islam Army in particular.” Regardless of the reasons, there was no evidence that the supposed safe exit had ever been in use when the deadline expired on February 13.
All the while, the Syrian army continued to ramp up military pressure, skirmishing with Failaq al-Rahman rebels in the Damascus suburb of Erbeen and massing against Islam Army and Ahrar al-Sham fighters in the Hazrama area further east. Artillery and air strikes targeted Douma, Erbeen, Zamalka, and other areas in the East Ghouta. The army also scuffled with rebels in Qaboun, a suburb near the enclave whose smuggling tunnels are used to bring in both food and weapons, and threatened to take it. The insurgents seem to have increased their own attacks, too, with shells dropping in eastern Damascus and hitting the Russian Embassy in early February.
Opposition leaders in the East Ghouta put on a brave face. “Praise be to God, the heroes of the Islam Army are preparing in a big way in Qaboun,” said Darwish, who said that the Islam Army has created a joint operations room with other factions in Qaboun and now stands ready to repel any attacks. “God willing, if the regime makes such a stupid move, it will come to greatly regret it,” he said.
Yet, despite the high-flying rhetoric, the odds are against the insurgents. Rebel towns continue to fall all around Damascus. After the regime’s late-January retaking of Wadi Barada, west of the city, units of the 105th Brigade of the Republican Guard reportedly shifted to Jobar on the western edge of the East Ghouta enclave.
For the time being, the Syrian government may be distracted by its campaign to retake Palmyra, which was lost to the Islamic State in December. UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura also said on February 10 that he has implored ceasefire co-sponsors Russia and Turkey to stop the escalating hostilities in the East Ghouta, lest they ruin the Geneva peace talks slated for February 23.
But though de Mistura may earn the East Ghouta a temporary injunction, there is no chance that Assad will relent in the longer run. However weakened and contained, the East Ghouta remains a dagger pointed at the heart of Assad’s regime and it ties down many thousands of soldiers. The government therefore remains bitterly determined to rid itself of the insurgent enclave, one way or the other. At this point, its defenders seem faced with a choice of abandoning their homes to limit destruction, or digging down to postpone an inevitable defeat.