BEIRUT – Syrian government forces are allegedly in full control of the last rebel pocket in Eastern Ghouta, the Russian military announced on Thursday, ending a nearly two-month-long campaign that has killed at least 1,600 people and has largely cleared the area in the Damascus suburbs of rebel forces for the first time since 2012.
Thursday’s development marks the single greatest victory for Damascus since rebels were driven from east Aleppo in 2016 and points to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s growing hold over the country. An aide to Iran’s supreme leader even described it as “one of the most important victories” in the entire conflict.
Russian military police began deploying in and around the town of Douma shortly before the announcement. Preparations for further rebel evacuations continued in the following hours. Syria’s state-run SANA news agency says more than 165,000 people, including rebels and their families, have left Eastern Ghouta through established corridors since March. The World Health Organization puts the number of those who have left at nearly 130,000, including 89,632 people who fled to eight shelters in rural Damascus.
Syria Deeply breaks down how Eastern Ghouta fell to government forces and looks at some of the challenges facing the Syrian government in the aftermath of the recapture.
Phase One: Tightening Siege
Pro-government forces have besieged the rebel-held eastern suburbs of the capital for five years, leaving residents with very limited or nonexistent access to food, healthcare and basic services. The already dire situation worsened in late February 2017 when government forces shut down a network of tunnels that rebels and war profiteers used to smuggle supplies and people. This left East Ghouta with only one point of contact with the outside world: the government-monitored Wafideen crossing near Douma.
The government allowed only a limited supply of food and nutritional supplies to enter the area, leading to soaring prices and high rates of famine and malnutrition among the area’s 400,000 residents. UNICEF said in November that 11.9 percent of children under the age of 5 were suffering from severe malnutrition – “the highest rate ever recorded in Syria” since the conflict started.
According to academics and analysts, East Ghouta’s siege is an example of the government’s “surrender or starve” tactic, which restricts access to food and essential supplies in order to force concessions from rebels and civilians. This strategy has been implemented in other formerly rebel-held areas, including east Aleppo and Homs.
Phase Two: Heightened Bombardment
The East Ghouta suburbs were designated as a so-called de-escalation zone by Russia, Turkey and Iran during trilateral talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana in May 2017. However, the Syrian government continued to pound the rebel bastion with airstrikes and artillery attacks.
These attacks escalated in December 2017 but the scale and intensity of government shelling dramatically increased in February 2018, despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a 30-day nationwide cease-fire.
During that time, government attacks regularly targeted schools, hospitals and medical facilities. Doctors and activists accused the government of intentionally targeting healthcare facilities to force people to surrender. Some have said that government attacks on medical infrastructure amount to a forced displacement strategy.
Targeting medical infrastructure is not a new tactic in Syria. Assad’s forces have regularly employed this method in other battle fronts with the opposition such as in Aleppo, where dozens of hospitals were put out of service in the run-up to its recapture.
Phase Three: Divide and Conquer
The campaign to reclaim East Ghouta took a definitive turn on March 10, when a government-led ground offensive succeeded in slicing the suburbs into three encircled rebel pockets. To the north, pro-government forces surrounded the town of Douma which was under the control of the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group. To the south, they besieged a strip of territory held by the Faylaq a-Rahman rebel group. Pro-government forces also encircled the town of Harasta, in western East Ghouta, which was dominated by Ahrar al-Sham rebels.
The divide-and-conquer strategy isolated the region’s main population centers, weakened rebel defenses and prevented rebels in the area from carrying out coordinated attacks. It also allowed the government to establish corridors that cut through the enclave, facilitating the process of deploying fighters and weapons across multiple fronts.
With East Ghouta divided into three weakened holdouts, the government could now deal with each pocket separately as it pressed on with the operation. Outgunned and encircled, rebels and civilians were left with two bitter choices: risk their lives in heightened attacks or surrender and be evacuated.
Phase Four: Evacuations
Evacuation deals in East Ghouta were modeled after agreements brokered between government and opposition forces in former rebel bastions.
Ahrar al-Sham rebels were the first group to negotiate an evacuation agreement with the Syrian government. On March 21, a deal was announced that saw at least 1,580 people, including 413 rebel fighters evacuated from Harasta to opposition-held Idlib province, and the surrender of those who opted to stay.
On March 24, the government and the Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group came to a deal that saw more than 6,000 people displaced from the towns of Zamalka, Arbin, Ain Tarma and Jobar.
The final and definitive evacuation agreement was also the most complicated. Syrian state media said on April 1 that an agreement with the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group had been reached. But rebels did not confirm the claim, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported internal rebel differences between hardliners who wanted to stay and fight and those who wanted to evacuate.
Syrian state media reported some evacuations over the following days, but on Thursday, April 5, the government announced that negotiations with Jaish al-Islam had been suspended. The next day, after a 10-day lull in fighting, airstrikes resumed and Syrian troops and allied soldiers advanced towards the town of Douma.
The Final Blow
On April 7, activists and some western leaders accused the Syrian government of carrying out a chemical weapons attack on Douma, killing more than 70 people. An additional 500 others were treated for symptoms reportedly compatible with exposure to toxic gas.
The U.S., France and the U.K. threatened to strike Syria in response to the suspected use of chemical weapons. However, the Syrian government denied responsibility, claiming that reports of a gas attack were “fabricated” by Jaish al-Islam.
Hours after the first reports of the suspected gas attack, Syrian state media reported that Jaysh al-Islam had agreed to an evacuation deal with the government to grant rebels safe exit to northern Syria in exchange for the release of hundreds of hostages and prisoners held by the group. The deal includes a reconciliation offer for rebels who chose to remain. It also guarantees that only Russian military police, and not Syrian troops, would be deployed in Douma, alongside a separate force of former rebels, according to AP.
Hours after the deal was announced, dozens of fighters from Jaish al-Islam and their families left for the northern city of Jarablus, as a group of former rebel-held hostages arrived at a government-held crossing. Evacuations continued until Thursday.
Robin Yassin-Kassab, a Syria expert and co-author of the book “Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War,” says the alleged chemical attack was likely the main reason why Jaysh al-Islam, which is estimated to have some 10,000 fighters in the town, surrendered.
“[Jaysh aI-Islam] were already in surrender negotiations. they could see defeat coming. The other liberated towns in the Ghouta had fallen. But they were holding out for a better forced displacement deal,” he told Syria Deeply.
“But with the collapse of morale always associated with a chemical attack, they folded straight away,” he added.
The Road Ahead
The government’s capture of Eastern Ghouta is significant but military control should not be conflated with the “nonmilitary dimension of what ‘control’ encompasses, such as economics and governance,” Lina Khatib, Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, argued in a recent op-ed.
The government said on March 25 that it has started to draft a plan for the reconstruction and recovery of Eastern Ghouta, but it remains unclear how much money and time that will take.
The pace of reconstruction in other recaptured areas, however, suggests a long process potentially drawn out over many years. For example, 16 months after Eastern Aleppo fell to government forces, there has been little rebuilding. Approximately 50 percent of buildings assessed by Aleppo’s Reconstruction Committee, are reportedly at risk of crumbling.
Although there has yet to be a formal evaluation of the extent of destruction in Eastern Ghouta, pictures and videos suggest a landscape of wreckage. Some of the worst damage appears to have affected civilian infrastructure, including schools, homes and hospitals, suggesting that the process of stabilization and governance will be just as challenging as the military offensive on the former rebel stronghold.