The area has been particularly brutalized over the course of Syria’s conflict because of where it is and what it represents.
The attacks on eastern Ghouta have been ruthless, and the human toll is rising. Médecins Sans Frontières in Syria reported that it received 770 dead and 4,050 wounded from eastern Ghouta region between 18 and 27 February. According to doctors in Ghouta, more than 20 civilian hospitals and medical points were bombed, and nearly 400,000 civilians are seeking refuge in underground cellars and facing significant shortages of food.
This is not the first time that eastern Ghouta has suffered at the hands of the Assad regime and its allies. On 21 August 2013, one of the most infamous days in modern Syrian history, the regime used chemical weapons against the area, causing the death of nearly 1,400 civilians within hours, according to local activists’ calculations.
Ghouta has been under continual siege for the past five years. However, the siege entered into an advanced and critical phase after the regime took control of the neighbourhoods of Qaboun and Barzeh in May 2017. These neighbourhoods contained tunnels for smuggling food and resources into Ghouta. As a result of the closure of these routes, resources had to start coming into the city via the regime-controlled Al-Wafideen crossing north of Douma. Guards at this crossing consistently prevent UN assistance from entering the city.
The situation is made worse by smuggling networks and war profiteers, who have increased the prices of scarce food products to levels unaffordable for most civilians. Thus, the pressure exerted by the siege has become more intense during the latest campaign, which has destroyed daily necessities and threatened communication and movement between different neighbourhoods.
Ghouta has faced these repeated attacks because of its strategic and symbolic importance. It means different things to different sides in the conflict, but to all of them, control of it is imperative.
What Ghouta means to the opposition
Eastern Ghouta was among the first regions that participated in peaceful demonstrations against the regime in March 2011 – a move that was immediately met by bullets and the killing of protesters. This led to a widening expansion of participants in the uprising, with Ghouta becoming a centre of some of the firmest support for the revolution against the regime.
Despite the large number of victims, exposure to several massacres and a continuous siege, local communities in Ghouta’s cities and villages largely maintained this opposition over the course of the conflict. As such, there were no instances of local reconciliation or long-term ceasefires in the area before 2016.
Eastern Ghouta’s factions – the most important of them being Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman – are among the most superior and experienced military forces of the Syrian opposition. These factions consist of local brigades for each city and village, with each one controling its own area within Ghouta. Jaysh al-Islam is centred in the Douma sector and its neighbourhoods; Faylaq al-Rahman controls the northwest part of eastern Ghouta and the Jopar neighbourhood near the centre of Damascus; and Ahrar al-Sham is in Harasta (after the Fajr al-Umma Brigade, the local faction ruling Harasta, joined the movement).
Previous infighting led to the loss of Ghouta’s southern section and a large rift between the factions. Nevertheless, they have maintained military coordination while confronting the regime and Iranian militias around them.
Ghouta had always been the centre of the opposition’s military might in the capital. But as of mid-2017, it became the last active military front against the regime in the Damascus region. Though there remains a pocket of opposition in south Damascus, it has entered into a long-term ceasefire. Aside from another pocket occupied by ISIS in Yarmouk Camp, no other noteworthy clashes have been witnessed.
Thus, the struggle for Ghouta became the opposition’s most politically important battle in confronting the elite of the regime’s army and local loyal militias, as well as a large number of multinational Shia militias supported by Iran and the Revolutionary Guard.
What Ghouta means to the regime and its allies
One cannot separate the battle for Ghouta from the Iranian agenda in Syria, and Damascus in particular, where Iranian influence has become clear. Iran has established a strategy for remaining in Syria through several methods, including displacement and resettlement aimed at changing the demographics of the country in its favour and the formation of local partisan militias. As well as penetrating the regime’s security and institutional apparatus, this ensures for Tehran the permanent presence of local agents in Syria, whatever the nature of future solutions or settlements may be.
In 2013, Iran established its first base of influence in Damascus. Following their capture from the Free Syrian Army, the Sayyida Zeinab neighbourhood and its surroundings became a gathering and launch point for Shia militias. Over time, Iran was able to spread its control over neighbourhoods and villages surrounding Sayyida Zeinab, stretching from western Ghouta to western Al-Qalamoun, where Hezbollah leads the charge.
Additionally, Iran established several military bases in Damascus and displaced residents in areas the opposition had controlled, replacing them with new residents. Thus, it seems that Iran’s strategic goal is to completely control the area surrounding Damascus, break up and displace centres of opposition support, and remove the military threat from its bases.
For Russia, stabilizing the Assad regime and eliminating the opposition’s factions or incorporating its members into the military establishment is a strategic objective. Moscow said as much in its recent comments on Ghouta, which focused the blame for the war on allegedly illegal factions refusing to throw down their weapons. The battle has also served to distract from disagreements between Russia and Iran in Idlib and Afrin.
The failure of the Sochi Conference and Russian diplomacy to achieve a settlement of the situation in Syria appears to be driving the Ghouta campaign as well, with the aim of forcing the opposition to lower its negotiating ceiling further under the threat of increased humanitarian costs or the loss of Ghouta itself. But this scenario is actually likely to lead to the end of the political process – the Assad regime won’t need to negotiate once the threat to his rule and his capital is ended.
No end in sight
Since 28 February, the regime and its allies have begun to advance in eastern Ghouta, bypassing the moat in Hawash al-Dawahra, the first line of defence for Jaysh al-Islam in Douma. Several farms and open-areas subsequently fell.
The regime and their allies are attempting to create a dividing line between the eastern and northern part of Ghouta on the one side, and the southwest part on the other, to besiege each of them individually. This means they want to separate Douma (Jaysh al-Islam) and Harasta (Ahrar al-Sham) from (Faylaq al-Rahman).
As such, it seems that they are carrying out wide bombing operations as a means of pressure to compensate for their military failures, in order to bring civilians and other factions to a state of internal collapse or surrender. Russia, in partnership with Iran, employed the same strategy in Aleppo.
Ghouta represents the largest military challenge to the alliance between the Assad regime, Iran and Russia in Damascus, as it threatens their ability to declare control and sovereignty over the capital. For the opposition, it remains an important redoubt. With these incentives, and with the international community seemingly powerless to take any action, the slaughter in Ghouta is set to continue.
Ahmad Abazid is a Syrian writer and researcher interested in Syrian affairs, Islamic groups and Wahhabism. He writes for several e-newspapers and research centres.