Regime uses tunnels as pretext for closure, demolition in Eastern Ghouta

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife visit a military tunnel in Jobar - August 16, 2018 (Syrian Presidency/Facebook)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife visit a military tunnel in Jobar - August 16, 2018 (Syrian Presidency/Facebook)


Enab Baladi – Hani Abdullah

Six years have passed since the Syrian regime took control of the entire Eastern Ghouta, and it still finds itself perplexed about how to deal with the tunnels that were dug by the opposition factions during their control of the area. While the regime’s government demolished some of the tunnels, it still procrastinates in demolishing many others, claiming that dealing with them requires a large budget and a long time.

The Syrian regime has imposed a complete siege on Eastern Ghouta since 2013, causing residents to be deprived of livelihood sources and forcing them to invent new ways to break the siege. Digging tunnels was the best solution for the factions and civilians to smuggle goods, including food, medical supplies, fuel, and also ammunition and weapons. At the same time, it was a means of moving around the Ghouta areas without exposure to the regime’s bombardment.

Five main tunnels connect Ghouta with Damascus

The experience of tunnel digging began at the end of 2013, when the Dawn of the Ummah brigade dug a tunnel about 750 meters long, connecting the city of Harasta with the Qaboun groves, and passing under the Damascus-Homs international highway. The faction completed the tunnel digging in mid-2014, making it the first of the Ghouta tunnels that contributed to supplying the besieged area with weapons, food, and goods.

Another tunnel in Ghouta was begun by another faction called Army of the Ummah at the beginning of 2015, which was parallel to the first tunnel, connecting the city of Harasta and the western area of the highway. When the tunnel was nearing completion, Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam) faction located in Douma, tried to control it, but later its management went to the Dawn of the Ummah since the tunnel was located in its control areas in Harasta, thus the faction came to own two tunnels in Ghouta.

Given this reality, the rest of the prominent factions in the Ghouta area began digging their own tunnels; in May 2015, Faylaq al-Rahman dug a tunnel that starts from Arbin and reaches the Electricity Company in Qaboun, passing under the Air Force Intelligence building, with a length of about 2.5 kilometers. The tunnel was designed for vehicles and pedestrians, managed by the al-Rahma institution, and Faylaq al-Rahman faction used the tunnel to introduce food materials from Damascus, while weapons were smuggled from Daraa to Barzeh and then to Ghouta.

Al-Nusra Front also dug its tunnel, which connects Arbin with al-Baa’la district in Qaboun, with a length of 1800 meters, and opened it in September 2015, named it “Tunnel of Light,” and it was dedicated to pedestrians. Faylaq al-Rahman later benefited from this tunnel as well.

Jaish al-Islam also dug a large tunnel for itself; the digging operations began in June 2015, and the tunnel connected Zamalka with Qaboun, with another branch connecting Arbin and Qaboun. The tunnel was 3 kilometers long, allowing trucks and BMP vehicles to pass through it.

The Ahrar al-Sham movement also tried to dig a tunnel for vehicles and continued excavating it until early 2017, but the tense situation in Qaboun caused the digging to be incomplete.

In addition to these main tunnels, there are smaller secondary tunnels, some military at the front lines, such as those in Ein Tarma, Zamalka, and Jobar, and others are designated as shelters for civilians and connect between the cellars, and are spread out in places away from front lines, like tunnels in Saqba, Hamouriyah, and Kafr Batna.

Factions attempted to sabotage the tunnels before being displaced

After the regime took control of the entire Qaboun area in May 2017, it filled in the entrances of the five main tunnels previously dug by the factions, connecting to Qaboun, to prevent any security breaches that could occur through them.

As for the other tunnels inside Ghouta, they remained in service, until the regime took control of the entire area in April 2018. The regime then began the process of detecting them and demolishing some of the secondary tunnels in the central sector while keeping the main tunnels.

A leader in one of the opposition factions that were active in Eastern Ghouta told Enab Baladi, “Before our displacement to northern Syria, we tried to sabotage some of the tunnels so the regime could not benefit from them.”

The commander, who preferred not to disclose his name for security reasons, mentioned that his faction lacked the logistics equipment that would help fill those tunnels.

He continued saying that the continued bombardment by the regime and Russian forces on Eastern Ghouta in the final months preceding the regime’s control, concurrent with the imposed siege, depleted all the resources the faction had.

Moreover, he added, “Given the large scale of the tunnels and our lack of time and adequate equipment to fill them in, we directed sewage networks towards some of the tunnels passing through the town of Ein Tarma.” He indicated that this method was not effective in sabotaging the tunnels, as the water would later dry up and would not affect the tunnels’ structure; however, there was no other option, according to him.

Confusion and procrastination raise suspicion

A few days after the regime’s control, its government held a meeting dedicated to the reconstruction of Eastern Ghouta and decided to establish a vision for managing the situation of each tunnel in the most optimal way.

But more than a year later, specifically in July 2019, the regime’s government backtracked on exploiting the Ghouta tunnels. The Minister of Public Works and Housing, Suhail Abdul Latif, said that a series of works were organized to fill in these tunnels.

The regime’s government continued its confusion about how to deal with the tunnels. In February 2024, the head of Douma City Council, Hisham al-Moma, told the local Athr Press website that filling in all the tunnels in the city would take a long time and a larger budget than the budget of Rif Dimashq governorate. He explained that the tunnel in the Hamirah area of Douma had been partially filled in, and then the filling would be completed fully, with the work being done in phases according to available resources.

Wael Alwan, a researcher at the Jusoor Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that “there is no financial capability for the regime to harness these tunnels to serve civilians, such as turning them into sewage networks or to run electrical extensions through them. Yet, the Assad regime is also incapable of demolishing all of Ghouta’s tunnels or finding solutions to deal with them, although they are not as large as the Syrian media has shown.”

Is the regime using them for military purposes?

The regime’s procrastination and confusion in demolishing the tunnels have raised questions about the possibility of a plan to use them for malicious purposes. The local North Press website reported that Iran uses the tunnels in the central sector of the Ghouta area as operation rooms and warehouses for weapons and ammunition, even preventing regime elements from approaching them.

Researcher Wael Alwan, who is from the Ghouta region, believes there is a possibility that the regime, under Iranian direction, uses some of these tunnels as secret warehouses. However, he confirms that it cannot be asserted given that al-Assad imposes security barriers around those tunnels and prevents access to them.

Alwan added that the regime cannot use all tunnels as military warehouses, especially in areas where civilians have returned, while there are completely closed security sectors in the Ghouta, such as in Jobar, where it could use the tunnels for military purposes.

In the same context, a former commander in one of the Ghouta factions stated that the Fourth Division and Military Security still deploy security barriers inside the Ghouta region, especially near the tunnel entrances, while completely prohibiting people from entering other areas, such as Jobar. Thus, it is very likely that the regime allows the Iranian militias supporting it to exploit those tunnels for military purposes.

Previously, the factions established the tunnels with precision, placing metal supports along their ceilings and installing surveillance cameras and a lighting network to illuminate the dark pathways, encouraging the regime to benefit from them rather than demolishing them.

The regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and his wife, made a visit to one of the tunnels dug by opposition factions in Jobar in mid-August 2018, i.e., four months after the regime forces took control of all of the Ghouta region.

However, pictures published by the Syrian Presidency’s Facebook account at that time showed that some pro-regime artists had carved shapes on the walls of one of the military tunnels in Jobar, indicating that the regime did not intend to demolish those tunnels but was considering benefiting from them.

Plans for plundering civilians

The regime attempted to exploit the existence of tunnels in Eastern Ghouta and its surroundings to plunder the property of Syrians, as confirmed by an investigation conducted by the Sawt al-Asima (Damascus Voice) website in March 2022, which talked about the government’s demolition of dozens of homes in a vital area of Qaboun, overlooking the international highway, and surrounded by military barracks, under the pretext of removing tunnels and undetonated munitions left by rebel factions.

Sawt al-Asima mentioned that almost half of Qaboun neighborhood was demolished after the end of the battles in 2017, including towering buildings such as Al-Abboud building and Awqaf building, which are considered as distinctive urban landmarks known to the residents of the neighborhood.

The regime tried to legitimize the demolition operations it carried out in Qaboun and Harasta under the pretext of tunnels, by issuing Decree No. “237” on September 14, 2021, which stipulated the creation of zoning areas at the northern entrance to Damascus (Qaboun and Harasta).

Consulting engineer Mazhar Sharbaji told Enab Baladi that the regime claims that tunnels pose a danger to civilians as a pretext to demolish their homes, although not all tunnels necessarily affect the buildings above them. He mentioned that there are standards that engineers rely on to determine the extent to which buildings have been affected by the presence of tunnels, and whether cracks have appeared in them.

Sharbaji spoke about several factors that can be relied upon to ascertain whether tunnels pose a danger to buildings or not, the most prominent of which is the type of soil. If the soil is rocky or cohesive clay, it cannot affect the buildings above it, and here a soil analysis can be conducted to ascertain its durability and cohesion.

The second factor is the depth of the tunnel, as some tunnels may be very deep underground, and therefore cannot cause any damage to the buildings. The third factor is the shape of the tunnel, as an arched tunnel distributes the load on both ends of the tunnel, making it more durable than a tunnel in a shape, which could collapse and affect the buildings above it if it was not reinforced with sturdy steel bridges during its construction by the factions.

Sharbaji added that if the tunnels are found to potentially pose a danger, there is no need to demolish the buildings above them, as the regime has done in some areas. Instead, those tunnels can be treated and their danger minimized by backfilling with stone materials mixed with concrete blends, and it is not necessarily required to demolish the entire tunnel. He pointed out that this procedure should be supervised by the Syndicate of Engineers and not by military and security authorities.

The regime forces gained control of cities and towns in Eastern Ghouta after intense bombing that ended with the signing of a displacement agreement sponsored by Russia in March 2018, with both Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham movements, which controlled the middle sector and the city of Harasta in the Ghouta region.

The regime also reached a similar agreement with the Jaysh al-Islam faction in April 2018, which entailed the exit of fighters and civilians to northern Syria.


النسخة العربية من المقال

Related Articles

  1. Secret Smuggling Tunnels at the Heart of Eastern Ghouta's Economy
  2. Projects Confined To Paper: Life  Paralyzed In Ghouta
  3. Egyptian Mediation to Stop the Attack on Eastern Ghouta
  4. Russia Closes Eastern Ghouta File Leaving Duma City Out

Propaganda distorts the truth and prolongs the war..

Syria needs free media.. We need your support to stay independent..

Support Enab Baladi..

$1 a month makes a difference..

Click here to support