Syria: Another Turning-Point

The army seems poised for a major offensive to retake Eastern Ghouta

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The holding of the eighth round of talks in Geneva between Syrian government and opposition delegations is not the most important development in the Syrian crisis this week. Far more significant is what is happening in the Eastern Ghouta district, where the Syrian army is preparing for a devastating offensive aimed at recapturing the area completely and securing Damascus against future attack.

Reports indicate that decisions were taken in recent days by Syrian, Russian and Iranian military commanders to approve and prepare for such an assault. If it goes ahead, and if it succeeds as did previous similar attacks in Aleppo, Deir az-Zour, Palmyra, and Albu-Kamal, it could prove to be the biggest turning-point to date in the Syrian civil war, putting an end to the shelling of the capital’s eastern neighbourhoods.

Eastern Ghouta has been a chronic security and political headache for the Syrian regime, as a rebel-held enclave posing a direct threat to a capital that has otherwise managed to insulate itself from the battles taking place in Syria’s peripheries and other cities. This led the Syrian authorities to accept, albeit reluctantly, Russian proposals to add this area to the de-escalation zones and sit at the negotiating table in the Astana process with the armed groups deployed there. Yet the Syrian army, having successfully prevailed on other fronts, deems the recapture of Eastern Ghouta to be an urgent priority.

Three main factions currently control this area: Jayshul Islam led by Muhammad Alloush, the head of the opposition delegation to the Astana negotiations who is also known for his close ties with Saudi Arabia; the hardline Faylaq ar-Rahman which has frequently clashed with Jayshul Islam in struggles for power and influence; and the Nusra Front headed by Abu-Muhammad al-Jolani.

Sources close to the regime say the Syrian military and political leadership’s patience ran out after these organizations violated the Astana understandings and the agreements reached within the de-escalation framework. The decision was therefore taken to resort to massive and relentless military force using all available means.

The Syrian leadership seems assured that its Russian and Iranian partners consent to this. That strengthens its hand in the face of growing international pressure on it to end the siege of Eastern Ghouta on humanitarian grounds and the suffering it inflicts on hundreds of thousands of besieged civilians — who the regime accuses the armed factions of holding hostage.

De-escalation seems rapidly to be turning into hyper-escalation in Eastern Ghouta, especially after the recent bombardment of eastern districts of the capital by armed factions based there which caused many civilian deaths and much damage – a severe embarrassment for a government which boasts about having restored security and calm to the capita. It also hopes to start implementing ambitious reconstruction plans, which it will have a hard time launching — or attracting investment, companies, and capital — if shells and missiles can continue to fall on the capital for one reason or another. Hence the authorities’ lukewarm attitude to yet another round of negotiations over a new truce in Ghouta.

The 8th round of Geneva talks is unlikely to fare better than the previous rounds. It is the postponed expanded national dialogue conference that Moscow called for in Sochi that will determine the nature and course of developments in the coming phase in Syria. And it seems that one reason, among others, that the conference was postponed until February was to create a climate in which the Syrian regime could resolve the situation in the Eastern Ghouta decisively in its favour.