Syria’s Semi-Cease-Fire

The assault on Eastern Ghouta won’t stop until Damascus is secure from shelling

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Battles intensified in Eastern Ghouta on Sunday just hours after the UN Security Council passed a resolution demanding a halt to hostilities and a 30-day truce to allow humanitarian supplies to reach the district’s more than 400,000 besieged inhabitants.

The aerial bombardment may have eased somewhat, as reported by the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, but the Syrian army is determined to continue fighting until it gains control over all the areas from which mortar-shells have been fired at neighbourhoods of Damascus, causing numerous civilian deaths and injuries.

The course of events over the coming days and weeks will be determined by a variety of factors, including the actual text of the UN Resolution – voting on which was postponed several times to avoid a Russia veto – and unexpected changes in the pattern of alliances between the anti-regime armed groups in Eastern Ghouta.

First, the Resolution does not refer to any specific or agreed date for the cease-fire to begin. It uses the vague term ‘without delay’. This is open to multiple interpretations, and the Syrian leadership and its allies definitely do not deem it appropriate to halt their offensive now. So the battles will continue.

Secondly, the Resolution made a clear distinction between ‘moderate’ and ‘terrorist’ armed groups, and excluded the latter – who include the Nusra Front, Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida – from the cease-fire, thereby authorising continued attacks against them until they are destroyed or removed from the district.

Third, two armed groups – the Saudi-backed Jaish al-Islam and the Qatari- and Turkish-sponsored Failaq ar-Rahman – publicly disavowed links with the factions designated as terrorist, and issued statements announcing their commitment to the cease-fire and pledging to allow and protect humanitarian supplies. This is an important development, as it commits the two factions to international mechanisms and brings them closer to playing a role in a future political process.

Fourth, internecine fighting has intensified between Hay’at Tahrir ash-Sham (the rebranded Nusra Front) and the Front for the Liberation Syria – a coalition including factions such as the Noureddin Zengi Brigades and Ahrar ash-Sham – in the Idlib countryside as they struggle for influence over the last big rebel stronghold in the country. The latter has taken over 26 towns and villages in the area in recent days, making Nusra’s once-dominant position increasingly precarious.

It is clear that by supporting and committing to the cease-fire, Jaish al-Islam and Failaq ar-Rahman are in favour of the Syrian army overrunning the enclaves of Eastern Ghouta controlled by the terrorist-designated groups, and have given it a green light to overcome them or expel them from the district. In other words, these factions have shared interests with the Syrian army, and their sponsors – be they Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia – either directly or indirectly endorse this approach.

The Russians and their Syrian and Iranian allies have decided to rehabilitate the de-escalation agreement in Eastern Ghouta while acting to put a final end to mortar shelling of Damascus from the district by Nusra and IS fighters, which has intensified in recent weeks. Iranian Chief of State Mohamed Bagheri affirmed on Sunday that the cease-fire did not apply to areas controlled by terrorist groups so the war would continue until they were overcome.

Syrian government and military spokespersons have made a point of noting that Jaish-al-Islam, headed by Saudi protégé Muhammad Alloush, has not fired a single mortar shell at Damascus and is strongly committed to the Astana process’ agreements providing for cease-fires in the de-escalation zones. This ‘certificate of good conduct’ from the regime is highly significant, and can be expected to have future political implications.

What can be concluded from the above is that airstrikes will no longer extend to the parts of Eastern Ghouta controlled by Jaish al-Islam and Failaq ar-Rahman – the greater part of the district – and that humanitarian relief and aid will be delivered to them unhindered in the coming few days. We may also see a reduction in incitement by the TV channels and other media outlets controlled by these groups’ Arab regime sponsors.

The scenario that is rapidly unfolding behind the scenes for Eastern Ghouta resembles the one that was followed to end the war in Eastern Aleppo: the opening of a corridor to allow fighters from the terrorist-designated armed groups to evacuate to safe (for now) areas of their choice, most probably Idlib and its environs.

Safeguarding Damascus is the regime’s top priority, and it may be close to achieving that goal. No government on earth would tolerate its capital being shelled from suburbs controlled by armed insurgents — as Russian, Syrian and Iranian officials keep reiterating.

The green buses which transported the gunmen from Aleppo, and previously Homs, to Idlib are now preparing to show up in Eastern Ghouta, and the UN’s envoy Staffan De Mistura can be expected to resurface in order to supervise the arrangements.

The UN Security Council Resolution’s main achievement has been to reduce the number of innocent civilian casualties who continue to pay the cost for this bloody war without having any say in it. Security will be restored to Eastern Ghouta as it has been to Aleppo, which is rapidly recovering after years of devastation and blood-letting. Idlib’s turn may come next, inevitably. It will only be a matter of timing, priorities and appropriate circumstances.