The circumstances under which Damascus’ Eastern Ghouta endures resemble the situation that Aleppo suffered towards the end of 2016, especially in the methodology of the military escalation, which started with intensified air raids and reached the phase of discussions about humanitarian crossings from areas controlled by Assad’s forces to move the civilians out. However, there is a marked discrepancy between the positioning of the two areas, which lies in the weight that Ghouta holds as the opposition’s last strongholds in the surrounding of the capital, Damascus, and the main obstacle that is handicapping the Russian hegemony in Syria and the Syrian regime’s most prominent fortress.
In six days, over than 450 civilians were killed; the air raids targeted all the cities in Ghouta amidst a rapid deterioration in the living condition of the area’s families, whose daily life minimized to the space of underground shelters, some of which failed to survive the concussion rockets, which have the ability to penetrate many floors of a residential building, according to the testimonies given by civilians to Enab Baladi.
Around the political table, discussions about Ghouta branched including the Russian statements, backed with pretext of “al-Nusta Front’s” presence in the area and attempts on the part of Egypt, as a “guarantor,” to arrive at a ceasefire, in sync with the international community’s condemnation, echoing the opposition political figures, who renounced the situation, on top of whom comes the body representing the Syrian opposition’s authority, the “High Negotiations Committee.”
Since its first military intervention in 2015, Russia resorted to aerial escalation to prove itself on the ground and in front of the other active international forces, affecting the Syrian file. The escalation resulted from events and developments imposed by the military reality on the one hand, and the steps under taken by other countries, particularly America and Turkey, on the other hand, especially in the period extending from the end of 2016, during the Aleppo city’s crisis, reaching the current situation in the eastern part of Damascus.
Seeking a Political Victory
In the first a few days of 2018, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation declared that its major mission was to destroy “al-Nusra Front,” under “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” today, with some of its fighters located in areas included in the “de-escalation” agreement. Russia has put its mission to implementation, according its vision in Eastern Ghouta, regardless of the small number of the Front’s fighters in the eastern countryside of Damascus, for the number does not exceed 200 members, spread in the areas of the central sector.
Nevertheless, the past a few days happenings, starting early in February, proved that Russia’s objectives in Eastern Ghouta are not of a military nature only, for the escalation had another face to it, manifested by political indicators, through which the Russian side seeks to achieve a “political victory,” following the failure of the “National Dialogue Conference” in “Sochi,” and America’s return that ensued, to establish itself in the areas, which it lately took over.
According to Ayman al-Asemi, a former member of the “Astana” delegation, the Russian aims in Ghouta are mostly politico-military, but the political ones are the most prominent because Russia is seeking to achieve a political victory through “cleaning” the areas surrounding Damascus. This has been ascertained by the agreement in southern Damascus, providing for dislodging members of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) to Northern Syria, which corresponded to the military operations targeting Ghouta.
According to this, the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, started to fortify the capital’s belt, especially the eastern part, the most threatening. The irony of the situation lies in Iran’s absence from the set-up plan, unlike the plan applied in other areas such as Darayya, in Damascus’ western countryside reaching the farms of Beit Jinn, for Russia is promoting for the participation of “Tiger Forces” in Ghouta.
Al-Asemi, however, believes that the escalation is not Russian only, but also Iranian. He told Enab Baladi that the battle in Ghouta is one of the followed method to impose the political solution, and the persisting escalation can only be understood as a means to enhance the Russian and the Iranian position, at a distance from the fate of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, which will be determined in the days to follow the imposition of the Russian vision on Syria.
Meeting Iran’s Desires in the South
From another perspective, Iran’s role in the surrounding of the capital and its attempts, the repeated ones, to expand its hegemony over central Syria, especially in the first years of the revolution cannot be ignored, a view that is supported by the points in which Tehran’s militias are spreading, corresponding to crucial locations of Damascus.
In the past four months, there were talks about the regional countries’ intention to minimize the Iranian role in Syria, particularly, on the part of America and Israel, at the southern borders; the intentions took a practical form, for the latest agreement between America and Turkey in Idlib has played a role in the cession of the “Iranian Dream” of taking over the two villages of Kafriya and al-Fu’ah.
Wael al-Khaldi, a Syrian journalist and an opposition figure, perceived that the military escalation in Ghouta is the Russians’ attempt to satisfy Iran in the south, for it is serving its interest with a non-problematic cordiality, pointing out that the Russian side is trying to compensate Iran for what it has done in the south, the way it compensated Turkey in the north on the condition that it keeps its interests in Syria.
Al-Khaldi told Enab Baladi that “Sochi” conference has nothing to do with the happenings in Ghouta, for Russia has organized it in a legal manner via Staffan de Mistura UN Special Envoy for Syria, despite the fact that the whole event proved being a failure at the end.
He added that Russia can impose what ever it wishes within Sochi, without the need to resort to shelling, which intensified days before launching the conference to create the largest possible incubator, considering that “currently, the situation relates to the Iranian-Russian bond and the continuity of the Iranian project in Damascus and its countryside.”
The Factions Hold Russia and Iran as Accountable
In a statement, on February 23, the factions demanded that the States activate the Responsibility for Protection principle, endorsed by the United nations (UN) in 2015, to stop “the systematic genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, executed in Ghouta.”
The message placed the complete legal responsibility on Russia and Iran, considered as “two aggressors in Syria that implemented war crimes,” demanding the officials in the two countries be persecuted and put into trial in the International Criminal Court; they also held the Iraqi and Lebanese governments as accountable, “being responsible for the activities of militias that are killing Syrians.”
The Responsibility Lies in Choosing the “Guarantor”
Eastern Ghouta joined the “de-escalation” agreement in May 2017, under the talks of “Astana4,” according to a Russian proposal that placed it in the same category as Idlib, northern Homs and southern Syria.
The agreement was not basically signed during “Astana,” but rather in Egypt which positioned itself as the agreement’s guarantor and supervised the implementation of its provisions, the thing which al-Asemi considers as the “major error” on the part of the military factions, represented by “Jaysh al-Islam” and “al-Rahman Legion,” which accepted a pro-regime party as a guarantor.
The Syrian opposition figure explained that the factions bear the responsibility for positioning Egypt as a guarantor for the “de-escalation” agreement, which was not signed in “Astana” in an integral manner, rather in a partial one, which fundamentally differed from the agreement that was planned for Idlib, to which the Turks were assigned as the guarantors of the implementation of its provisions.
In the third day of the attack on Ghouta, informed political sources told Enab Baladi that Egypt was making efforts to mediate in an attempt at reaching a ceasefire in Ghouta, this corresponded to what the Lebanese newspaper, “al-Akhbar,” has published about the arrival of Egyptian officers to the capital Damascus to prepare for a reconciliation about the attack.
The Newspaper quoted sources, which it did not name, that currently talks are conducted about Russian-Egyptian-Syrian negotiations. In other words, the Egyptians are communicating with “Jaysh al-Islam” to pressure it to dislodge “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS) to Idlib, which “Jaysh al-Islam” denied a few hours later.
According to the Newspaper, the Syrian regime’s principal demands centralize over “dislodging “al-Rahman Legion” and “al-Nusra Front” from the area and to admit the army to the areas of Damascus’ belt in Arbin, Kafr Batna, Zamalka and others to protect the capital from shelling.”
Al-Asemi considered that the Security Council’s vote on the truce to ceasefire will include “Tahrir al-Sham’s” departure from the area, believing that the pacification would feed into the interest of the civilians and the opposition, being the “weakest link,” placed at a distance from any type of international support by the major regional forces.
The member States of the Security Council voted in favor for a Kuwaiti-Swedish resolution to declare a truce of 30 days at least.
Resolution 2401, the vote for which was delayed by the Russian objection more than once, includes a demand that all the parties to the conflict immediately ceasefire in the different parts of the area for at least 30 days.
It also provides for allowing a safe and unconditional medical evacuation and without hindering the employees working in the humanitarian and medical fields.
It also necessitated that all parties alleviate the siege on the inhabited areas, including Eastern Ghouta.
After a two days delay, the resolution was endorsed to reach a compatible formula with Russia, which modified its wording from the “Security Council decides” to the “Security Council demands.”
The United States was skeptical about the Syrian regime’s commitment to the resolution, while France and the United Kingdom demanded the documentation of violations and immediate implementation of the resolution.