STOCKHOLM, 23 February 2018
Aron Lund

Freelance journalist and analyst specialising on Syria, and regular IRIN contributor

The UN says nearly 400,000 civilians are trapped in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, the latest battleground in a series of bloody rebel defeats in Syria’s cities. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Russian allies seem poised for a major ground offensive on the besieged insurgent enclave. What do we know? 

What is the Eastern Ghouta enclave and why does it matter?

 

Ghouta is an agricultural region ringing Damascus, part of which has succumbed to urban expansion and slum housing in recent decades. In Eastern Ghouta, anti-Assad insurgents have been besieged by the Syrian army since spring 2013.

 

Recent UN estimates put the enclave’s population at around 393,000, with the UN’s top official in Syria, Ali al-Za'tari, saying 272,500 inhabitants are in need of humanitarian assistance. About a third of Eastern Ghouta’s population is internally displaced, including people who have fled from Damascus.

 

These figures remain uncertain, and previous UN population estimates for besieged areas in Syria have at times proven too high, notably in eastern Aleppo. But although Syrian loyalist or opposition sources may provide lower or higher numbers, the UN records remain the only widely-recognised figures available.

 

The area is important to the Syrian government, since it encompasses the eastern suburbs of the capital. Large, well-defended, and within mortar range of central Damascus, where the Old City and other neighbourhoods have suffered from rebel shelling, Eastern Ghouta has been a severe irritant to the loyalist camp for years.

 

Can civilians leave the enclave?

 

Leaving the enclave has long been impossible for most inhabitants, though there are exceptions. A small number of inhabitants, including public employees, are reportedly allowed to come and go through an agreed and mutually supervised checkpoint at Wafideen, near Douma, though it is a risky passage due to land mines, sniper fire, and the aggressive and unpredictable behaviour of both government and rebel forces.

Map of control of Eastern Ghouta

Syrian authorities recently dropped fliers over Eastern Ghouta telling civilians to leave the area, but they have in the past refused entry for people trying to get out.

 

For example, the UN has tried for eight months to evacuate 500 severely ill or wounded civilians from Eastern Ghouta, including small children. The government refuses to let them out of the enclave, leading to the reported death of 22 of these patients so far.

 

A smaller group of around 35 patients was allowed out in December, albeit as part of a negotiated swap with detainees released by the rebels, rather than out of respect for humanitarian law. Both sides have made a habit of using prisoners of war and civilian hostages as negotiating chips.

 

Critics of al-Assad who are thinking of leaving are also fearful of being apprehended by his police forces, which have a decades-long history of arbitrary arrests, detainee abuse, and unlawful executions. Many of those who are apolitical or willing to take their chances with the regime remain concerned that they or their male relatives could be drafted into the army.

 

The rebels also restrict civilian movement. Amnesty International has noted that the Islam Army, which controls the opposition side of the Wafideen checkpoint, only allows select civilians to leave and has on occasion arrested people for simply asking permission to go.

According to REACH, a UN-backed initiative working on humanitarian reporting, the opposition groups have reportedly banned women, children, and men of fighting age from leaving the enclave, thereby preventing families from exiting together even if some members have been given free passage.

 

How does food get into Eastern Ghouta?

 

Humanitarian conditions inside Eastern Ghouta are extremely poor. Government shelling, infighting, and misrule by armed opposition groups play a part in that, but the most important reason is a blockade on food and humanitarian assistance imposed by the Syrian army.

 

How harshly the blockade is enforced has varied over the years. UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoys are sometimes allowed in to prevent outright starvation, but permissions are rare and irregular. Aid officials say they are not permitted to deliver anywhere near the amount of food needed, and medical supplies are often stolen or sent back at government checkpoints.

 

By withholding humanitarian aid, the government has pushed up food prices and inflated the profit margins of a regime-connected businessman granted monopoly rights to trade via the Wafideen crossing, possibly in return for sharing the profits with the president’s entourage. Some rebel groups have been in on the deal: both regime figures and insurgent commanders have made money by taxing food at the expense of local civilians.

 

From 2014 until 2017, rebel-controlled smuggling tunnels brought in goods not permitted through Wafideen—including weapons and ammunition, but also food, medicine and fuel, which is needed to power electrical generators, water pumps and other basic infrastructure. In spring 2017, the Syrian army captured the tunnels. Since then, accumulating economic and infrastructural problems have diminished the area’s ability to cope with deprivation.

 

What is the current humanitarian situation?

 

Despite promises of improved humanitarian access as the main rebel groups signed Russian-brokered de-escalation deals last summer, the Syrian military began tightening the screws in late 2017.

 

In September, the government shut down even the for-profit food trade it had previously allowed through Wafideen. Since then, all but a handful of UN-organised aid convoys have been stopped by the authorities, thus engineering a severe civilian health crisis.

 

Recent World Food Programme reporting indicates that prices in the enclave have grown by 140 percent since the Wafideen closure and are now six times higher than the national average. According to REACH, a bag of flat bread, which is a staple food in Syria, now costs 94 Syrian pounds in Damascus but 1,500 Syrian pounds in Eastern Ghouta.

 

Even before the effects of the current crisis were fully felt, humanitarian officials described Eastern Ghouta’s malnutrition levels as the worst ever recorded during the Syrian war. A November 2017 UN survey found that 11.9 percent of children under five were acutely malnourished, and that 36 percent suffered from stunted growth.

 

To Paulo Pinheiro, head of the UN-mandated Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, the government’s denial of aid access amounts to “deliberate starvation of the civilian population.”

 

Who are the rebels in Eastern Ghouta?

 

The Eastern Ghouta insurgency is dominated by two rival factions, whose mutually hostile relationship was shaped by a long, bitter and polarising process of factional consolidation through infighting.

 

The northern city of Douma and eastern parts of the enclave are run by the Islam Army, a large Salafi-inspired Islamist group. The outskirts of Damascus, in the enclave’s southwest, are dominated by Failaq al-Rahman, a Free Syrian Army-branded group with some ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

Both factions rule their areas in an authoritarian fashion, enforcing conservative religious laws and repressing dissidents who show support for the government or for their local rivals.

 

There are also two smaller Islamist factions, both of which are opportunistically aligned with Failaq al-Rahman due to a shared history of conflict with the Islam Army.

 

On the northwestern end of the enclave, the Harasta neighbourhood is run by a local franchise of Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafi faction whose main area of influence is in northern Syria.

 

The jihadi group Tahrir al-Sham, which emerged out of Syria’s al-Qaeda franchise, also has a presence in the enclave. Though it is the most powerful rebel faction in northern Syria, Tahrir al-Sham’s Ghouta wing seems small in comparison with the Islam Army or Failaq al-Rahman. To survive, it operates in Failaq al-Rahman-dominated areas after being violently attacked by the Islam Army last year.

 

In interviews with IRIN, Failaq al-Rahman officials have denied any alliance with Tahrir al-Sham, and clashes between the two groups have been known to occur. However, signs point to some form of defensive pact between these two groups against the Islam Army.

 

Due to its anti-Western agenda and terrorism designations, Tahrir al-Sham tends to be given outsized importance in the rhetoric of the pro-Assad camp, as when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently claimed that Tahrir al-Sham “runs the show” in Eastern Ghouta.

 

What will happen now?

 

In the past week, the air campaign against Eastern Ghouta has reached unprecedented levels, with hundreds killed in the enclave while rebels fire mortars into Damascus. The pro-government Syrian daily al-Watan says a major ground offensive may begin in the coming week.

 

Reactions in Syria are, as always, deeply polarised.

 

Opposition sympathisers condemn the surging air strikes, with the Douma Local Council demanding international protection against what it terms a “genocidal campaign”.

 

To many government supporters, however, an offensive to clear out rebels from Eastern Ghouta cannot come soon enough.

 

“This is a legitimate liberation process that is long due”, said Syrian member of parliament Fares al-Shehabi, who spoke to IRIN on Thursday afternoon. “No more Qaeda jihadis next to our capital!”

 

How are civilians affected by the escalation?

 

Though the fighting in Eastern Ghouta is at heart a military conflict over territory—not, as one might presume from overheated press commentary, a Srebrenica-style mass execution—civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence.

 

UN sources have documented 346 deaths and 878 injuries since early February, not counting combatants. The real figure is thought to be higher, and aerial bombardment is now escalating sharply.

 

According to Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, there were reports of over 200 killed and more than 500 wounded in the enclave on Tuesday and Wednesday alone.

 

According to an opposition tally seen by IRIN, a further 71 civilians lost their lives in Eastern Ghouta on Thursday, and a medical source speaking to IRIN listed 24 attacks on hospitals, clinics and Red Crescent centres since 18 February, including in Douma, Saqba, Jisreen, Harasta, Kafr Batna, and Beit Sawa.

The attacks on health facilities are particularly destructive, international aid organisations say.

 

“Wounded victims are dying only because they cannot be treated in time”, noted Marianne Gasser, the ICRC's head of delegation in Syria, in a 21 February statement where she demanded access for ICRC teams.

 

Although the rebels have much less firepower than the pro-regime side, their mortar and rocket fire into Damascus seems equally indiscriminate. OCHA’s Linda Tom tells IRIN that the UN received reports of 13 killed and more than 50 wounded in rebel shelling on Tuesday. Syrian state media reported another three dead and 22 wounded by mortars yesterday.

 

How will this end?

 

The government’s immediate aims are unclear. To retake the entire enclave may be the ultimate ambition, but al-Assad’s forces are likely to pursue interim goals such as seizing specific areas, decimating a particular faction, or mixing military assaults with temporary ceasefires and evacuation agreements.

 

As always when a government offensive looms, official rhetoric homes in on Tahrir al-Sham.

 

Russia led talks last autumn to force the jihadis to evacuate Eastern Ghouta to Idlib, following a model seen in several other besieged areas whereby armed fighters can chose between surrendering or accepting safe passage on buses to rebel-held territory in the north, accompanied by those civilians and family members who wish to join them. In return, Failaq al-Rahman reportedly asked for a new trade crossing near Mleiha or Harasta in order to reduce their reliance on Islam Army-controlled Wafideen. But these talks failed, and the current offensive seems to aim much higher.

 

According to the al-Assad-friendly Beirut daily al-Akhbar, the government now wants both Tahrir al-Sham and Failaq al-Rahman sent to Idlib. Russian and Egyptian negotiators have reportedly sought to stitch together an agreement along these lines, with Russia warning it will back a ground offensive unless a deal is reached. But despite “marathon” negotiations, there seems to have been no breakthrough.

 

“The experience gained in Aleppo, when an agreement was reached with militants on their organized exodus, can be used in Eastern Ghouta”, Lavrov said earlier this week.

 

That would seem to be sugar-coating events in Aleppo, which rather stands out as a model to be avoided. Aleppo’s rebels and their international backers rejected all talk of a negotiated handover for months, despite being overwhelmingly outgunned. Only after opposition defences had crumbled and civilians were fleeing in all directions did they agree to a deal, which resulted in a hasty, scrambled, and chaotic evacuation of both rebel fighters and about 30,000 of the remaining civilians, most of whom were apparently never given a choice over whether to stay or leave. It was later described by the UN’s Commission of Inquiry as “forced displacement”, a war crime.

 

The Eastern Ghouta enclave’s fate appears to be sealed. A safe exit arrangement for armed rebels and others who refuse or are unable to live under al-Assad may therefore be the least harmful solution for civilians. However there is a thin line between that outcome and violence that spins out of control into mass expulsion.

 

Even if opposition defeat in Eastern Ghouta ultimately seems certain, there are still many military and political paths to that end—some fast, some slow, and some more damaging to innocent people than others.

This work was supported in part by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

(TOP PHOTO: Smoke billows following Syrian government bombardments on Kafr Batna, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on 22 February 2018. CREDIT: Amer Almohibany/AFP)

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