On April 6 a rebel mortar attack killed two people near the Damascus Opera House. The incident was part of the rebel blowback to the Syrian army’s increased efforts to reinforce control of central Damascus, as the government looks to take control of opposition strongholds around the city.
Since last week Assad forces have made a dedicated push into Ghouta, long held by the Syrian opposition. Ghouta was the focus of international attention after an August 21 chemical attack there triggered a global outcry.
We asked Faysal Itani, an Atlantic Council fellow studying Syria’s southern battlefronts, to decode why the government is pushing into one of the most fiercely guarded rebel strongholds.
Syria Deeply: What is happening right now on the ground, in Ghouta and the southeastern suburbs of Damascus?
Faysal Itani: What I’ve heard in the last couple of days is that the rebels are claiming that the government is trying to take an area called Mieha, in the Ghouta suburbs in the southeast. But they’ve thus far failed to take it. That’s part of the bombing campaign in the east. This area is adjacent to a government-held territory called Jarmana, and not far from the Damascus Airport motorway.
SD: What’s been the recent trajectory of the battle here?
Itani: For the past six months there’s been a concerted effort to retake parts of the eastern suburbs. The siege warfare tactics that have succeeded in some of the satellite towns where the government has managed to encircle and starve specific areas are not completely replicable across Ghouta. They can’t encircle areas [like Mieha] and cut them off, so instead they have to launch offensives and retake territory. And that’s what’s been happening in the southeast.
Usually what the government does is target areas that are adjacent to major transport routes. The Damascus Airport motorway is important, but not a critical government supply line. It’s not an attempt to control the road. Instead, this is more an attempt to dislodge the rebels from strategic areas within Ghouta. It hasn’t been triggered by a particular uptick in rebel activity: it’s slow-building progress on the government’s part, and indicative of their heavy focus on controlling Damascus and the areas around the capital.
SD: How is the slowing of Qalamoun affecting the battle for Damascus?
Itani: It frees up resources. And as you know the main constraint for government operations across the country is manpower and resources, and certainly Ghouta is among the priorities. Pacifying Qalamoun did give them some more leeway to concentrate on rebel areas around the capital.
SD: Which rebel groups are present right now in the southeast suburbs?
Itani: There’s a lot of Free Syrian Army, a lot of Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamic groups. Almost everyone has a presence in Ghouta and its suburbs. This isn’t a homogenous territory like the east or in the south near Deraa. It’s a mishmash.
SD: Is the government starting to take control of the suburbs?
Itani: They don’t have control. There’s still a vast portion of Ghouta in rebel hands. A couple months ago, rebels also launched an offensive in which they managed to take a significant amount of territory in the east [suburbs]. It will be very hard for the government to take it back. This is why there’s been this emphasis on starvation and siege tactics, because putting armor in areas like this is difficult and costly. The siege strategy has worked for them but it’s not infinitely replicable – it’s a model that requires certain geography and circumstances.
SD: Why wouldn’t that model work in Ghouta?
Itani: Look at two of the isolated towns where these things have worked – Darya and Douma. They can be isolated and cut off. These are more satellite towns than suburbs, whereas Ghouta is an altogether different beat. It’s a deep territory that’s essentially an extension of the city. It’s largely agricultural. It’s more difficult to [encircle and siege there], and may be entirely impossible.
SD: How long will the battle for Ghouta go on?
Itani: Ghouta will take a while, and I don’t see the government as having the resources to take it. I think they see this as a long game, but I don’t think they see it as an immediately achievable objective. In Aleppo, the government has been taking strategic neighborhoods and establishing small footholds in rebel territory, and their strategy in Ghouta is part and parcel. I don’t see the Ghouta front changing dramatically anytime soon.
SD: A few months ago, Qalamoun was the biggest battle in the south. What’s happening there today?
Itani: All I hear is that there’s some al-Nusra operations southwest of Yabroud, and that other rebel groups have fled southwest of Yabroud. The government claims it’s fighting militant groups in that area and al-Nusra is also claiming that it’s still carrying out operations. It’s a big territory and the terrain is not particularly easy along the Lebanon [border], so [though the government is largely in control, it is never] going to be able to completely pacify it.