There is little that should be taken for granted in the Syrian War but one thing that is abundantly clear is that the government offensive into Eastern Ghouta has produced what is in military terms a rout of the rebels there. The fighting is far from done but the future of Eastern Ghouta as government held territory is rapidly becoming a near certainty. The regime in Damascus and its supporters will call this liberation, while the opposition groups and their supporters will call it a brutal conquest. The civilians who call the towns and villages of the region home have been faced with the choice of evacuation or to risk life under the Assad regime. What this actually means is a choice between evacuation to Idlib province in the north (particularly the case for rebel fighters and their families) or life under the auspices of a regime at war that has a track record of intimidation, arbitrary detention and torture of its opponents. If one manages not to fall foul of the regime life may improve in comparison to being in a warzone, but the consequences of any dissent have been seen since the 2011 protests. This is before we consider the settling of scores that quickly follows military victories during wartime.
We should be clear that in wartime no one comes away with clean hands and the repeated condemnation of the Assad regime by human rights organisations has been accompanied by criticism of its opponents. By way of example, the actions of Free Syrian Army units in the Turkish occupied Afrin region have made the mainstream press in the West, much to the disappointment of their leaders who have consistently sought the support of the West through the years. This has also extended to criticism of the United States over its loosening of its own rules during airstrikes on ISIS in Raqqa. That the criticism of the Assad regime sounds louder is due to its actions during the 2011 protests and its prosecution of its war since then. The offensive into Eastern Ghouta has come at a severe cost due to an alleged policy of siege and bombardment that makes life in the area unbearable and has targeted medical facilities and civilians using weapons that have been banned due to their indiscriminate nature.
That the negotiations involving the regime and its Russian ally, opposition groups and the UN have resulted in evacuation deals and the promise of Russian police in the areas taken from the rebels by the government is at face value better than no deal at all. It will alleviate suffering and prevents the prospect of a bloody last stand by the rebels in a battle they have already lost. Whether the regime and its Russian allies will stand by this is another matter as the ceasefires agreed during the offensive have been generally ignored. The stark truth is that the government is close to an outright military victory in its offensive as two rebel groups, Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar-a-Sham, have made evacuation agreements, leaving only Jaish al-Islam remaining. As part of the evacuation agreements prisoners have been released by the rebel groups. In reality the evacuations are forced displacements and their final destination is one that few would envy: the major opposition territory of Idlib province where a former Al-Qaeda affiliate dominates. This effectively means moving from one warzone to another and is consistent with the argument that the Assad regime is gradually moving its opponents into one zone that is currently dominated by jihadist opponents. This will justify its own counterterrorist narrative and the area is already under assault. It is also entirely possible that the plans of President Erdogan in Turkey envisage Idlib, which neighbours the Afrin region that Ankara now controls, as a destination for Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.
Analysts expect a major escalation of the offensive into Idlib to occur in the near future but the Assad regime may well concentrate on securing southern Damascus first, where both the opposition and ISIS have some control. This is a very different prospect to the offensive into Eastern Ghouta and may turn out to be another major battle in war that has proved to be unpredictable and brutal. Yet, our focus needs to move to Idlib and the search for alternatives to a battle that may eclipse anything that has come before. The Syrian War is far from over and it is not inconceivable that things may actually get worse.
Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.