The jihadist revolution is dying in the eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus. Syrian government forces, supported by aerial bombardment and heavy artillery barrages, have split the opposition-held territory of eastern Ghouta into two bastions and are eating away at both. The farmlands on which civilians and fighters in the besieged zones depended for food have fallen to the Syrian army and its related militias. Threatened with starvation and braving the government onslaught, some residents have defied army bombardment and rebel ire with public protests calling on the insurgents to leave. They claim that is the only way to end the hunger, privation, casualties, shelling and chaotic jihadist governance they have endured for years.
A Costly Choice
The major jihadist groups remaining in eastern Ghouta are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the Levant Liberation Committee, an insurgent coalition that includes the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra), Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) and Faylaq al-Rahman (Legion of Mercy). An aid worker who has dealt with them says many rebels want to depart under security guarantees similar to those that permitted the evacuation of Homs and eastern Aleppo. “Jaish al-Islam wants to go to Daraa,” the worker says. “Faylaq wants to go to north Aleppo (province).” Other jihadists, however, are choosing to stay and fight at whatever cost to the area’s civilians. Russian-sponsored discussions on “reconciliation,” the government’s term for rebel surrender, continue against the background of the loyalists’ offensive and the insurgents’ mortar shelling of central Damascus.
The outcome in eastern Ghouta is not in doubt, but the cost depends on whether and when the rebels depart. The rebels have fought among themselves, and they hold many of each other’s fighters prisoner. One intelligence source told me that Jaish al-Islam handed its captives from the former Jabhat al-Nusra to the government, something that will embitter relations even further between the factions. Wounded civilians languish without medicine, and the International Committee of the Red Cross says that more than 1,200 patients cannot be evacuated until the insurgents and the government come to terms.
The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people still live in eastern Ghouta, although its previous estimates of populations under siege have proved to be excessive. “In east Aleppo, they said 40,000, but there were only 11,000 in fact,” one humanitarian official said. “In Daraya (a suburb of Damascus), we said 8,000. At the end, there were only 2,000.” However many people remain in eastern Ghouta, they are paying a huge price. As many as 1,000 have died in the last month of fighting. Clean water and electricity are nowhere to be found. Families sleep underground in makeshift shelters. There is no gas for cooking, and firewood is in short supply. One of the few ways out is a humanitarian corridor from eastern Ghouta’s largest town, Douma, across 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) of rubble and fields under the gaze of snipers. Many have died trying to leave. Among the few who succeeded were two children whose parents were killed before the family reached the first government checkpoint.
More than 10,000 civilians fled Hammouriyeh on March 15 during a lull in the fighting in eastern Ghouta — a rare and chaotic flight that presages others in the days to come. While the international aid agencies that have been attempting for months to arrange evacuations were not involved, the government received the displaced families in makeshift reception centers.
After the Fighting in Eastern Ghouta Ends
When government troops occupy eastern Ghouta, the capital will be secure. The end of random shelling will be a relief to Damascenes, but the “victory” in eastern Ghouta will not end the war. The government intends to turn its attention to other rebel-held territories with the repeatedly declared aim of restoring its rule over the entire country. “Our fear is that after eastern Ghouta we may see tremendous battles now in and around Idlib and, in the south, Daraa,” said Jan Egeland, Norwegian Refugee Council director and U.N. adviser. Egeland, one of the most conscientious and determined of the many nongovernmental organization chiefs involved in Syria, is pressing the Russians and Syrians to spare medical facilities in their attacks. This has not happened yet from any side, including from U.S. forces during their expulsion of the Islamic State from towns in eastern Syria.
The battle for Idlib province in northern Syria may prove more costly than any yet in this war that marked its seventh anniversary March 15. Tens of thousands of insurgents from scores of factions are holed up in Idlib, many of them having retreated there with their families under agreements with the government to evacuate eastern Aleppo, Homs and other contested regions. Idlib has become, in Egeland’s words, “a gigantic refugee camp.” A further complication is the presence in Idlib of the Turkish army, which may not look away if the Russians and Syrians attack the insurgent forces it has long supported.
There are similar concerns with Daraa, a rebel-held province in the south on the border with Jordan. Any offensive in southern Syria will come up against the Israelis, who have made clear that neither Hezbollah nor Iran may come anywhere near their borders. The Russians have shown little enthusiasm for a campaign in the south, leaving the Syrian army there more or less on its own. Meanwhile, the area between Daraa province and the Sweida region, home to most of the country’s Druze minority, has become a lawless zone of kidnapping, car theft and smuggling.
The insurgents rely on outside powers, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, for their weapons, training and financing. So far, the backers have not encouraged them to lay down their arms or to leave the battlefield. Nikolaos van Dam, a former Dutch special envoy to Syria and the author of two authoritative books on the country, asked pertinent questions in a lecture he gave March 7 to the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna: “Isn’t it time to admit that the war against the Syrian regime is in a stage of being lost? And if the outcome is already quite clear, what is the use of continuing it, and shedding even more blood?”