Syrian government forces are tightening their grip around Ghouta. The elimination of opposition fighters in this enclave is important for the regime because it is the closest pocket of resistance to the capital. Rebels are still launching mortar and rocket attacks, and they are a real threat to the security of the Damascus-Homs highway, which is the only road connection between the capital and the northern and northwestern provinces.
Damascus seems determined to eliminate this threat, which would release more government forces for other pockets of resistance. Russia and Iran are the biggest supporters in this endeavor, and all three of them are aware of the collateral damage of the attacks. But they believe that, if the rebel opposition is not eliminated entirely, the overall loss of life will be even greater.
According to pro-government sources, the Syrian army has divided the Eastern Ghouta enclave. However, the Istanbul-based spokesman for the rebel group Faylaq Al-Rahman denied this news. The spokesman of another rebel group, Jaish Al-Islam, claimed that the insurgents had regained control of some positions in a counter-attack. If the Syrian government’s claim is true, this will be an important milestone in the elimination of the armed opposition. Either they will have to surrender or accept being evacuated to Idlib or another place of their choice. If they go to Idlib, their turn for elimination will come when the Syrian army stabilizes the situation in other critical pockets of resistance.
UN Security Council Resolution 2401 provides that the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against Daesh, Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra Front. Several rebel factions in Ghouta, like many others everywhere in Syria, are composed of insignificant combat units who change allegiances according to the success of the bigger factions and the financial and other advantages they make available to these smaller combat units.
The biggest rebel group in Ghouta is Jaish Al-Islam, with a combat force of about 10,000 fighters. It controls the eastern and southern parts of Eastern Ghouta. It was established “in an attempt to counter the influence of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates” and therefore it should not be targeted according to the UN criteria. The second largest rebel group is Faylaq Al-Rahman, which also controls the eastern and southern parts of Eastern Ghouta in an agreement with Jaish Al-Islam.
It is also allied with the Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army. The third, less important rebel group is Al-Nusra Front, renamed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to remove itself from the UN sanction. However, it is inspired by the Al-Qaeda philosophy, is fiercely anti-Western and it may be targeted according to the UN criteria. But the Syrian government targets them all, even if they are not considered terrorists by any other country.
Because of this complicated situation, Western countries restrict their criticism to the civilian aspect of the government’s bombing. The collateral damage is high and the civilian population is suffering because the rebel groups want to use them as human shields. Another reason for the West’s criticism is that they do not want to miss an opportunity to blame Russia and Iran for their support for the Syrian regime.
Ghouta may not be the turning point of the Syrian crisis. It is not the most important bone of contention between the regime and the opposition, and is only one of several signs that the opposition is losing its ability to reorganize and challenge the regime.
With the elimination of the opposition in Ghouta, the regime will gain an upper hand in sorting out the many remaining problems with other rebel groups. The opposition factions may continue their fight, not because they still expect to oust Bashar Assad, but to get more concessions for their incorporation, one way or another, in the future structure of the country.
Another issue that will keep the regime busy for some time is the Kurdish problem. The initiative that the strongest Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its military branch the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have taken in the northern provinces of Syria is like a time bomb.
On the other hand, Turkey’s military operation in two spots in northern Syria is likely to complicate further Turkish-Syrian and Syrian-Kurdish relations. And, last but not least, US covetousness of the Syrian territories rich in oil, gas and water resources remains an unresolved question.
The regime may have seen the light at the end of the tunnel in Eastern Ghouta, but the time when it emerges into the daylight still appears to be a long way off.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar