Eastern Ghouta… How did one of the greatest fortresses of the revolution collapse?
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
No difference can be drawn between the features of the displaced people from the old neighborhoods of Homs, Aleppo and Darraya, while masses were leaving Eastern Ghouta. Thousands of civilians, who were consumed by the siege and shelling, survived free death and were uprooted and transferred to Idlib. A destination they know nothing about except for the official propaganda of the Syrian regime, which gave the impression that this place will be “the resurrection land.”
The rapid events were quite enough for the closure of Eastern Ghouta’s file in the Russians’ favor, which is similar to what happened in other regions, but the only difference was the retreat of the influential countries in the Syrian file and the opposition’s friends from attempting to save what can be saved. What are the hidden aspects of what happened on the ground? What is the truth behind the military factions’ act of letting the civilians down? How Russia managed to penetrate deep into Eastern Ghouta and put pressure on the opposition factions to accept their terms?
The regime’s achievements are the results of withdrawals from the East
Ghouta had witnessed a cautious lull, which has lasted between 10 and 15 February, about a month and a half after the attack which has been waged by the opposition on the vehicle management military barrack in the city of Harasta in the western part of the besieged area. At that moment, official media outlets started to promote the existence of a military build-up on the outskirts of Ghouta in preparation for a “decisive” military action in the region.
Later, the cautious calm has turned into one of the regime’s and Russia most ferocious battles. It has been characterized by a ground and air campaigns that killed about 1500 civilians and ended with the fall of most of Ghouta territory in the hands of the regime.
On February 20, the ground warfare began in al-Marj area in Eastern Ghouta, in attempts to break into the areas of Ain Zrekie and Hosh al–Dawahra.
According to field commander in Faylaq al-Rahman, Mohammed Idris, al-Assad forces launched attacks from the eastern axis of Eastern Ghouta, because the western axis in Ain Tarma, Jobar and Harasta has been fortified, for supply routes of the opposition are not exposed, unlike the eastern side that is predominantly characterized by agricultural lands.
The early hours of the battle indicated “massive” casualties among the invasive ground forces, as the result of the two ambushes carried out by Jaysh al-Islam, which has been establishing control over al-Marj area. These two ambushes killed at least 125 members of al-Assad forces.
However, the front quickly collapsed on the 11th day of the military campaign in the region, and Jaysh al-Islam signaled its withdrawal from the “transportation regiment” in Shifoniyah and the town of Hosh al–Dawahra, after the collapse of the “death line,” a 3.5 meters wide water channel, which was set by Jaysh al-Islam surrounding the towns of Ain Zrekie and Hosh Nasri.
Idris explained to Enab Baladi that al-Assad forces were able to break the water line set in al-Marj, after it has been heavily targeted by barrel bombs and land-to-ground missiles, which resulted in burying the channel. Thus, military vehicles managed to get into the open area in the agricultural land, and were able to break into the Bachura Brigade in Otaya, bordering the road of Otaya-al-Muhammadiyah.
However, military and strategic analyst, Colonel Khaled al-Mutlaq, stated that the necessary resistance was absent in the area, and that is why the forces managed to control eight villages in al-Marj in record time and moved westward to Mesraba farms with a 700 meters front.
The fall of the town of Mesraba without any resistance is the best evidence of a prior agreement, according to the al-Mutlaq.
Plan to divide the area
Al-Assad’s forces implemented the policy of “scorched earth” during its campaign in the middle of Ghouta, and advanced from two different axes simultaneously; first from the east to Madira, and second from the western side of Douma on the front line of Karam al–Rassas farms to Haret al-Dayriyah area in Harasta.
The forces were able to isolate the city of Harasta from Douma after controlling the road between the two cities. This was in parallel with the arrival of its forces that advanced eastward to the “Technical Institute” of the “vehicles management” military barrack, which extends from Madira to the city of Harasta through the area of al-Suwa farms, which belongs administratively to Arabin. As a result, al-Assad and Russian forces managed to divide Eastern Ghouta into three sectors held by Jaysh al-Islam factions in Douma and Ar-Rayhan, Faylaq al-Rahman, which controlled the middle sector of Ghouta as well as Ahrar al-Sham faction, which established control over Harasta.
The start with the middle sector
Following the division of the area, al-Assad forces went to attack al-Ashari farms near the city of Hammouriyeh, and after a guerrilla war they managed to reach its eastern neighborhoods, according to a military source who preferred to remain anonymous.
The source told Enab Baladi that the resistance of Faylaq al-Rahman was unable to set an engagement line with the forces, which have been advancing from the east because of the intensity of the bombing and the weak access to supplies. Therefore the resistance was limited to light and fast-moving groups in order to limit the rapid progress.
According to al-Mutlaq, a security breach has affected Faylaq al-Rahman after the withdrawal of Jaysh al-Islam, and the rapid access of al-Assad forces deep into its held areas.
At the same time as al-Assad’s forces moved towards Hammouriyeh, the negotiations of non-governmental committees with al-Assad forces failed following Faylaq al-Rahman’s leadership rejection of its items. As a result, the military campaign has been intensified, for at least 100 civilians were killed in Hammouriyeh on March 13, according to medical sources in the area.
With Russian coordination and support, al-Assad forces announced the opening of a crossing for the exit of civilians in the eastern side of Hammouriyeh, resulting into the displacement of thousands of civilians from the region and the progress of al-Assad forces in conjunction with the displacement and the withdrawal of opposition fighters.
In parallel with battles in Hammouriyeh, the regime media outlets waged an open propaganda war that targeted the popular incubators and the factions’ fighters, which demoralized them, according to Colonel Khaled al-Mutlaq. He pointed out that the political opposition is responsible for a large part of what happened. He attributed this to the fact that the opposition has not been responsible for fulfilling its part which consists of launching a media counter-campaign.
Hammouriyeh scenario has been reenacted in a number of towns in the middle sector. Al-Assad forces supported the so-called “reconciliation committees” affiliated to Sheikh Bassam Dafda, which besieged the fighters of Faylaq al-Rahman in Ain Tarma valley. They managed to reach the southern stronghold and impose the siege on Ain Tarma, Zamalka, Arbin and the Jobar neighborhood in Damascus.
The terms of Ghouta agreements… Douma is waiting
The three provinces (the middle sector, Harasta and Douma) in Eastern Ghouta had witnessed a series of negotiations in March, which were concluded by two agreements allowing the transfer of the fighters to the Syrian north as well as those who wish to leave. Meanwhile, Douma was still waiting for its fate after the Russians gave a deadline to Jaysh al-Islam.
Middle sector agreement
Enab Baladi learnt about the terms of the agreement between Russia and Faylaq al-Rahman faction, which took place on 23 March on Jober Front near Ain Tarma gas station, from a source close to the negotiating committee that met up with Russian delegates.
A committee formed by civilian and military activities had an agreement with the Russian side represented by Colonel Alexander Zorin.
The agreement provided for imposing an obligation on all parties of the armed conflict in Ghouta to cease all hostilities with the guarantee of Russia.
The Russian side guarantees that the wounded and sick people will be immediately transferred to Damascus hospitals by the Red Crescent organization according to their wish, to ensure their safety and not to be pursued by the Syrian regime government, and to be given the right to choose between returning to Ghouta or going north after their recovery.
Russia also ensures that all necessary measures will be taken to “immediately” improve the humanitarian situation and facilitate the entry of humanitarian convoys into the area, in addition to the safe and secure departure of military individuals along with their families and their light weapons and accompanying them exclusively by the Russian military police.
Departing members are entitled to accompany their light luggage, personal documents and equipment (laptop, mobile and camera) in addition to their savings without being subjected to personal inspection.
Russia has promised not to prosecute any civilian citizens wishing to remain in Ghouta by the Syrian regime institutions.
This is in addition to the deployment of Russian military police points in the towns currently held by Faylaq al-Rahman, and included into the agreement, namely Arbin, Zamalka, Ain Tarma and Jober.
The terms of the agreement, which was sponsored by Russia with the Islamic movement of Ahrar al-Sham, provided for the departure of the military officers with their weapons, and the civilians who want to migrate to the north under Russian guarantees.
It also gave the regime’s and Russians’ guarantees to the people who wish to stay in the city, “not to harm anyone in the city and preserve the city’s components without displacement or demographic change.”
Dozens of Harasta residents, who lived in Damascus, returned to the city with military mediation following the implementation of the agreement, as identical sources confirmed to Enab Baladi, but the return did not include all the displaced persons.
Under the agreement, a joint committee of the citizens of Harasta at home and abroad was formed in order to follow up the affairs of those who remained in the city and detainees, and to run the affairs of the city.
Douma is waiting for its fate
Douma file has not been resolved despite a series of negotiations with Jaysh al-Islam faction, which refuses to exit under an agreement as in Harasta and the middle sector.
The latest developments in the file are to give the faction a week-long deadline by the Russian side, which insists on taking out the fighters and the residents wishing to leave.
A source close to the “Unified Command” and who asked not to be named told Enab Baladi a few days ago that the “leadership” in Douma began negotiations that provide for a cease-fire, non-displacement of the city residents, in addition to trying to find a political solution in the region.
According to the Douma Negotiations Committee, the exchange of the bodies of the victims of Adra’s workers detainees, who were killed following the shelling which targeted their places of residence, was discussed, in addition to the issue of allowing access to aid and other points.
The committee acknowledged that negotiations are “very tough and are not expected to have quick results,” and called for “patience, cohesion, vigilance and staying away from the circulation of false information and wrong analyses.”
It was said that the agreement, which has not yet been resolved, requires the exchange of prisoners between al- Assad forces and the army, the settlement of the militants’ situation in the lists of National Defense and the settlement of individual weapons files to be included in the regulations of the state, while those who wish to leave will go to an undefined area.
The regime secures its stronghold … The opposition is losing its fortress
Ghouta had a major political significance, as it is the last “stronghold of revolution” in the vicinity of the capital Damascus, and the regime’s control of it is an achievement that has political and military advantages.
For six and a half years, the enclave east of Damascus has been a “concern” for the Syrian regime and its regional supporters. The threat posed by military activity to al-Assad’s most prominent stronghold turned the file into a “complex problem” which should be solved in conjunction with political rivalry over Syria that recently took place between Russia and America.
The fire belt is no longer fiery
Between 2014 and 2016 and with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, the Syrian regime succeeded in breaking up the fire belt imposed by the opposition around Damascus. It was able to divide eastern and western Ghouta and to completely neutralize the southern towns, which made it easier for it to impose “truces” by force, and then settlements that ensure the transfer of factions to the North.
With the factions’ departure to the north, the regime is moving towards declaring Damascus a “safe city,” especially since it has taken control of its three vital components, which are: the main roads, the latest of which are the Damascus-Homs international highway, the main power station, the main source of water, as well as the food supply of al-Marj area and the surrounding farmland east of Damascus.
The commander of the Free Army, Captain Saeed Nakrash, asserted that the regime completely safeguarded the borders of the capital Damascus through controlling Ghouta, and its political stronghold has become safe. In addition, the danger that has previously accompanied it has been eliminated, which can be considered a “great gain”.
Narkash told Enab Baladi that Russia had previously promoted the idea of fighting extremist organizations, while turning now to talk about illegal weapons in the hands of factions outside the control of the Syrian regime.
The Syrian regime is currently in control of a network of main roads from and to Damascus. The most prominent of these are the Damas Road which links the capital to Lebanon from the west, the Damascus-Daraa road from the south, the Damascus-Homs road and Damascus International Airport road from the east.
Damascus International Airport has also become completely secure through previous military operations following which al-Assad forces made significant progress. It is the main air passage of the regime in Syria, in addition to airports and military air bases that strengthen its control, the most prominent of these are: Mezzeh Military Airport, Seine Airport and al-Dumayr Military Airport.
The opposition lost a pressure card
With the attack east of Damascus, questions were raised about the loss of the opposition with the fall of Ghouta. “The opposition lost one of the important cards but did not lose the last card,” according to Captain Narkash
Colonel Hatem al-Rawi told Enab Baladi that the opposition factions had lost an important pressure card with the loss of their sites east of Damascus. He said that the loss was not due to the loss of these factions, but to the loss of the site, which is the most important one among the areas beyond the control of the Syrian regime.
Al-Rawi added that Ghouta formed the rope that was wrapped around the regime’s neck. It is the gateway to the north and the coastal areas, which are considered the most important part of Syria. They are also the link to the Syrian Badia.
The colonel did not link Ghouta’s gains to the regime alone. From his point of view, al-Assad is out of the equation because he lost the decision and the force that protects the decision in case it exists. This is confirmed by the Russian role that was imposed in Ghouta both on the ground and in the exit agreements.
Al-Assad’s economic gains when he enters Ghouta cannot be ignored. The movement will return to the Harasta highway, which is the heart of North Damascus and its main route to Homs and the northern provinces. This means that it will facilitate the movement of entry and exit from central Damascus, especially for traders and farmers who are going to the al-Hal market after their road has been transformed in the past years into secondary roads near the city of al-Tall (Baghdad Bridge Extension).
In addition, Ghouta is considered a food supplier for the city of Damascus due to the large agricultural areas. In 2008, agricultural land increased by 5665 thousand hectares, according to statistical data issued by the Ministry of Agriculture.
Russia imposes the new map of influence
Despite the completion of the Russian campaign on Ghouta and the regime’s control of most of its territory, the Russians, who formed the basis of the campaign, do not seem to have made significant gains after taking control of it, as is the case with the regime.
In the early days of 2018, Russian forces announced that their main task was to defeat al-Nusra Front, some of whose fighters were in “easing-tension” areas, and consequently they sought to justify their campaign against Ghouta, despite the fact that the real number of al-Nusra fighters in Ghouta was no more than 200 fighters deployed in the middle sector areas.
However, the following days of the campaign proved that Russia’s goals were not limited to military actions, especially after the exit of al-Nusra fighters, but the escalation had political indicators through which the Russian side sought to achieve a “political victory” after the failure of the National Dialogue Conference in Sochi. The escalation was followed by an American return to consolidate its presence in the areas it controlled.
A former member of the delegation of Astana, Ayman al-Assami, said in a previous interview with Enab Baladi that Russia wanted to achieve a political victory by “cleaning” the areas around Damascus. This was confirmed by the agreement in southern Damascus to remove Tahrir al-Sham fighters to the Syrian North, which coincided with the military operations in Ghouta.
Internationally, Russia’s position was not firm in the face of the American and European criticism that followed its campaign in the Security Council sessions on the Eastern Ghouta. Despite the fact that the Western officials were satisfied with the statements and did not make any real effort to stop the progress of the regime and its Russian ally on the ground, this is not a victory at the political level, in view of the international crisis that Russia is experiencing today following the poisoning of the Russian spy case in Britain.
On the other hand, the Russian influence map seems to be clearer today in Syria after securing the perimeter of the capital because of the attempts to link Aleppo, Damascus and the coast by means of connected land roads secured by agreements with opposition factions in an effort to balance the forces with the Americans who control the East Euphrates.
Four figures fed Ghouta fighting
The words of the spokesman for Faylaq al-Rahman, Wael Olwan, when he addressed the head of the Political Bureau of Jaysh al-Islam, Mohammed Alloush, in a sound recording leaked in March, are tangible evidence of the deep conflict between the two factions, which were the main parts of Ghouta fighting in April 2016 and April 2017 successively.
The accusations and the language used in the sound recording (Enab Baladi apologizes for not publishing it) were not new among the leaders of the two factions. They have occurred repeatedly and issued by the two sides’ Sharia officials, supporters and members, since the start of the first signs of controversy in early 2016, specifically following the decision of Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union to join the ranks of the Faylaq al-Rahman.
The language of treachery and accusations was reflected in the killing of leaders. It has led to two battles; the first ended with an agreement that was sponsored by Qatar, and the second occurred at the same time a year later, following the decision of Jaysh al-Islam to uproot al-Nusra Front, the allay of Faylaq al-Rahman, not as a reconciliation, but rather as a hostility to Jaysh al-Islam.
|“Jaysh al-Islam receives military and financial support from Saudi Arabia, while Qatar supports Faylaq al-Rahman.”
“However, the two states and the two factions do not officially declare this.”
The accusations were majorly made by Olwan (his real name is Abdel Rahman Labniyeh) and Aloush in the political section. They were also led by the Sharia official of Jaysh al-Islam, Samir Ka’kah (Abu Abdel Rahman) and the general Sharia official of Faylaq al-Rahman, Khaled Tufour (Abu Suleiman). All of them are from the city of Douma.
The assassination attempt of Tufour, the former judge of Eastern Ghouta, in March 2016, reinforced the signs of hostility between the two sides, after Faylaq al-Rahman accused Jaysh al-Islam of being responsible for the incident.
In addition to the reciprocal accusations and criticisms that focused on seeking exclusion and individuality in the military and economical administration of Ghouta, the differences between the two sides did not stop, though they were both part of a formation known as the Unified Command led by Zahran Alloush in August 2014, which al-Nusra Front had repeatedly refused to join.
However, that Command was a dead letter, according to the residents of Ghouta, especially after the death of Alloush. The events have evolved to the extent that the two factions ignored the joint formation, and reached the division of Ghouta to sectors during the fighting in 2017. In addition, the fatwas which were issued by both Samir Ka’kah and Khaled Tufour have reinforced the conflict.
The two sides have repeatedly renounced the reciprocal accusations over the last two years, and there have been repeated calls for “submission to justice and Sharia” and the need to hand the implicated people of both sides.
The fighting was linked to the differences of approach between the two factions and their dependence on two different currents. Jaysh al-Islam adopted the Salafist approach, and Faylaq al-Rahman was known for its “moderate central Islam,” while some accused it of coordinating with al-Nusra Front. This was denied by Olwan in a previous interview with Enab Baladi, who said: “al-Nusra Front follows the transcendental approach, as it considers itself as the surviving group and other approaches as misguided and innovators (who come up with Bid’ah).”
Forced displacement as a result of the “reconciliation”
Through the so-called “humanitarian crossings,” Russia reopened the file of forced displacement in Eastern Ghouta, which followed the path of “reconciliation” agreements that Russia supported in several Syrian areas, through which it insured the Syrian regime’s full control over cities and towns that had been under the Syrian opposition’s control for years.
There has been a planned bombing which was more like “genocide.” It was followed by Russian allegations of trying to rescue besieged civilians by giving them a chance of life they had lost under bombings. Consequently, their forced displacement came as a way to escape death.
From bombings to “destitute” centers
During the intensive military campaign which the Syrian regime has launched in Ghouta on February 18, Russia has opened “humanitarian crossings” for the exit of the besieged civilians, after 10 days of bombings that killed 3314 people and injured 3607 others.
There have been “reconciliation” agreements with the opposition factions’ combatants, which provided that they would go with their families to Idlib, the largest stronghold of displaced people.
Russian Defense Ministry statistics indicate that more than 135,000 civilians have left the towns and cities of Eastern Ghouta since the start of the Russian truce from 28 February to 29 March. They were housed in five shelter centers pertaining to the Syrian regime under Russian supervision.
These centers are: Aldwair in Adra, Adra schools in Rif Dimashq, al-Fayhaa Sports Complex in the capital Damascus, al-Horjelah Center near al-Kiswah in the western countryside of Damascus, as well as a fifth center near Baghdad Bridge on the Damascus-Homs international road.
Hundreds of women, children and elders have been allowed to leave towards the capital, provided that “there would be a sponsor who would get them out of these centers, as a kind of hosting, with the provision of a clear housing address and copies of the sponsor’s identification files.
Civilians fleeing Ghouta live in poor conditions in the shelter centers because of their large numbers that exceed the centers’ capacities, while dozens of local and international organizations (the Red Crescent and the Red Cross) are transporting them and providing relief aids in the temporary camps and centers in which they live.
There are no precise figures on the number of displaced persons who are separately distributed to the sheltering centers.
From its part, the United Nations condemned the shelter centers that the Syrian regime allocated to the fleeing people from its military campaign in Eastern Ghouta. In an interview with Agence France Presse on March 21, the UN Resident Representative in Syria, Ali Zaatari, said that “the situation is tragic” in the shelter centers in Adra.
After visiting a number of shelter centers in Rif Dimashq, Zaatari insisted that they were “not prepared to receive civilians.” He added that if he was a citizen, he would have refused to stay there for five minutes, and that “civilians have fled the fighting and insecurity in Ghouta to a place where they cannot find where to take a shower.”
Militants and those who rejected the agreement headed towards Idlib
The militants have left the neighborhoods of Ghouta in several batches, except for Douma, towards camps in Idlib province and its countryside as part of the evacuation agreement that Russia had signed with them.
According to statistics of the response coordinators in the north of Syria, there have been more than 35,000 militants and civilians who have arrived from Damascus and its countryside to Idlib this month, until 30 March, and all of them are from the middle sector and Harasta.
The first two batches of displaced people to the north were from Harasta in Ghouta, on 23 and 24 March, and included 5198 people. They were distributed to Mizanaz camp in northern Idlib and Saed camp. Six batches have arrived from Arbin at shelter centers and camps in the countryside of Idlib, starting from March 25 to 30. The batches included approximately 28,000 militants and their families, all of whom arrived at Idlib through Qalaat al-Madiq.