By Dana Khraiche and Donna Abu-Nasr
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad closed in on the last rebel bastion in a Damascus suburb where hundreds have died in a convulsion of bloodletting, cementing his victory in the seven-year civil war.
Tens of thousands of civilians and fighters left battered Eastern Ghouta, where some streets have been bombed to the ground, after all but one of its main rebel groups reached agreements with Russia to withdraw, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Their destination — the northwestern city of Idlib — is also home to other mainly Islamist rebels who reached similar deals with the government after enduring months or years of siege.
The Syrian government, backed by Russia, began an aerial offensive against Eastern Ghouta in February, targeting an area that had been the source of almost daily — and sometimes deadly — shelling on Damascus. At least 1,600 civilians have died in the carnage, and 5,000 more have been wounded, according to the U.K.-based observatory, which gathers information from a network of activists on the ground. Some in the area of about 400,000 people have sought sanctuary in underground hideouts, and food has been scarce since government forces wrested control of tunnels used to smuggle supplies.
Securing the suburb would add to the gains the government has accumulated since Russia’s military intervened in 2015 in support of Assad. Government forces now control all of Syria’s major urban centers, and about 60 percent of territory. Should rebels lose their grip on Douma, their last stronghold in Eastern Ghouta, the opposition would be left with most of Idlib, Daraa and some parts of the northern suburbs of Homs.
The victory would be the most significant for Assad since the Syrian army fully recaptured Deir Ezzor, 280 miles (450 kilometers) northeast of Damascus, from Islamic State in November, driving it from its last major Syrian foothold after three years.
The fall of Eastern Ghouta is inevitable and will return some level of normalcy to Damascus, allowing business activity to pick up and reconstruction to begin, said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at Eurasia Group. Then, “the regime will leverage the win to reinforce its narrative that government forces have momentum and most definitely neglect that large parts of the country are under de facto Turkish or American control,” he said.
In northwest Syria, Turkish troops are seizing territory from U.S.-backed Kurdish forces who were instrumental in expelling Islamic State from the country, seeing them as extensions of Kurdish separatist militants it’s been fighting for more than three decades. Turkey has said it will return land taken from Kurds to the control of locals out of respect for Syria’s territorial integrity.
Kamel predicted that military operations will eventually stretch to Daraa in the south, where opposition fighters control about half the province, to create a swath of undivided territory controlled by the government stretching to Aleppo in the north.
“Assad is most definitely attempting to reestablish the old foundations of the Syrian state in the territories he holds,” Kamel said.
This is not the first time that Ghouta, which has been under siege for five years, has captured world attention. It was there, back in August 2013, that an estimated 1,400 people died in a notorious chemical attack that changed the calculus of the war by making Russia a major player.
The U.S. blamed the attack on government forces but fell short of entering the war as it had vowed to do in the event of chemical warfare. Syria denied the allegations, blaming Islamic radicals, and agreed to surrender its chemical weapons under a Russian-brokered deal that critics say it did not fully honor.