The Second Aleppo

Only a negotiated deal can end the agony of Eastern Ghouta

By Abdel Bari Atwan

UN Envoy Staffan De Mistura was not exaggerating when he described the situation in the besieged district of Eastern Ghouta as a ‘Second Aleppo’. We was referring to the Syrian army’s 2016 assault on eastern Aleppo with Russian air cover which brought an end to years of fighting that led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the destruction of entire neighbourhoods and the killing of thousands of their residents.

Eastern Ghouta is supposed to be one of four ’de-escalation zones’, but the truce agreement there was repeatedly and blatantly violated both sides, culminating in the ferocious Syrian army bombardment of the past few days and the indiscriminate shelling of nearby neighbourhoods of Damascus by armed groups based in the district, causing several civilians deaths, with the aim of undermining security and stability in capital.

The shelling of the capital is a red line for the Syrian regime. It challenges its authority, and brings the war to the door-step of its institutional-nerve centres and its biggest concentration of popular support. That accounts for its ruthless response. A decision has apparently been taken to resolve the issue and cauterize this seeping wound, as the official Syrian media put it, once and for all.

The scale of the destruction and the high number of casualties in Eastern Ghouta has made it a focus of Arab and international media attention, with reports stating that more than 300 people including children have been killed in government airstrikes. The UN has called for a 30-day truce to enable humanitarian relief, and Russia has proposed a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the situation and reach solutions to halt the bloodshed and spare the 400,000 civilians in the besieged area further suffering.

The UN envoy’s description of Eastern Ghouta as a second Aleppo and his call for lessons to be learned from the former case implies that the same approach should be used to find a solution. That means holding negotiations, either directly or via mediators, between the armed groups and the authorities to end the fighting and evacuate the gunmen under UN auspices to other safe zones such as Idlib. It should not be forgotten that the two sides managed to hold eight rounds of direct talks in Astana which succeeded in achieving a cease-fire.

Muhamad Alloush, a senior commander of the Jaish al-Islam group in Eastern Ghouta, confirmed that efforts had been made by some local and international parties to reach a truce agreement, but said these had not succeeded as both sides insisted on sticking to their conditions. But that is how all negotiations begin, with all parties making maximalist demands before eventually – or hopefully — agreeing to mutually acceptable compromises.

Syrians have experienced security and stability and begun to acclimatize to the new situation in Aleppo and in the other de-escalation zones. Tens of thousands of former residents who fled the death and destruction have reportedly returned to the city, and everyday life is increasingly reverting to normality.

The situation in Eastern Ghouta is anguishing by any measure. The images of dead children and the scale of the devastation bring to mind the earlier blood-soaked period of the Syrian war that preceded the de-escalation agreement. Terror has also gripped the Damascus neighbourhoods adjoining Eastern Ghouta as result of the indiscriminate shelling, some of whose casualties have also been children.

The Arab governments that spent billions of dollars supporting and supplying armed opposition groups in Syria have abandoned them in Eastern Ghouta just as they did earlier in Aleppo. They have sufficed with providing media coverage, only publishing images of the victims and inciting for war – an attitude that increasingly enrages many Syrians.

Even the Western countries that, along with several Arab states, backed the creation of the US-led Friends of Syria Group at the start of the crisis, have begun turning their backs on the armed Syrian groups– adopting the Kurds as an alternative — and inching closer to the regime in Damascus. This week we heard German intelligence chief Bruno Kahl affirm the need for dialogue with President Bashar al-Asad’s regime about combating terrorism, a stance widely supported in German political circles. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s advisor and spokesman Ibrahim Kalin revealed that direct contacts had been held between the Turkish and Syrian intelligence agencies. These could pave the way for ministerial-level contacts between the two sides, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, both sides’ ally, has proposed.

The military solution which has been attempted for seven years in Syria has failed, and it has become clear to all, whether on the government or opposition sides, that the shortest and fastest route to achieving security, stability and coexistence on a basis of justice and equality is a political solution achieved through dialogue.

In the final analysis, any solution reached to halt the blood-letting in Eastern Ghouta is likely to be a close copy of the Aleppo deal. The re-emergence of the UN envoy to urge both side to remember the lessons of eastern Aleppo ought to focus the minds of all on the urgency of the task.