PAX experts answer five questions about what is happening in Ghouta now that regime forces are in control.
1. Syrian government forces have now taken over control in all of Ghouta. What does that mean for the people living there?
Eastern Ghouta is a suburban area to the east of Damascus. The area actively participated in the popular uprising in 2011 and armed opposition groups controlled the area by 2012. Government forces had held the area under siege since 2013. Years of siege and bombing, intensified over the past months, led to the surrender of armed opposition groups over the past weeks.
Many people have been forced to leave Easter Ghouta, as they fear persecution by the regime, because they have openly opposed the regime or because they fear conscription into the army. Yet much of the population has remained in Eastern Ghouta, many of them internally displaced since their homes and neighbourhoods were destroyed. For them, return to regime control means an end to the experience of democratic self-governance of the past years and a return to a situation of fear and repression. “You can see fear in the eyes of the people who stayed,” says one resident who also chose to stay (Syria Direct, 3 April 2018). “People must now painstakingly think over every word they utter. We were living freely, and now we are returning to [Assad’s] regime to chant his name and glorify him.”
There was another disappointment – after the surrender, there was no news about the so-called Douma 4, four human rights activists who were kidnapped by Jaish al-Islam, an Islamist militia controlling some parts of Easter Ghouta, in December 2013 and not heard from since. Many had hoped that the groups surrender would lead to information about the Douma 4. Unfortunately, even after Jaish al-Islam exchanged hostages with the Assad-regime, there is still no news about the Douma 4.
2. There was an attack with chemical weapons just before the last opposition groups surrendered. Why did this attack happen now?
This was not the first time Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons. Throughout the Ghouta offensive, as well as many other places in Syria, the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against civilians to force communities to surrender. The strategy used in Douma followed a pattern used against many other communities in Syria: government forces first heavily bomb civilian areas, specifically targeting markets, schools, medical facilities, and civil defence services. People then take shelter in basements. In order to force them out, chemical weapons such as chlorine gas are used. These gasses are heavier than air, so they sink into the basements, killing or injuring people, and forcing the rest to come out. The attack in Douma appears to have worked. Immediately after the chemical attack, the surrender deal was announced and busses were ready to take people to Jarablus in the north of the country.
3. Some people were evacuated – where did they go?
They were not evacuated. After five years of siege, starvation and heavy bombardment, many people have no other choice. Moreover, there are no guarantees they can ever return. This is called forced population transfer, which is a violation of International Humanitarian Law. Given the systematic nature of these forced population transfers in Syria as part of the Assad regime’s “surrender or die” strategy (at least 120,000 people have been transferred), these war crimes may even amount to crimes against humanity. Therefore, PAX calls for holding those responsible accountable.
To date, the UN has counted 133,000 people who have left Eastern Ghouta. Most of them have been sheltered in IDP camps around Damascus, living under primitive circumstances only able to leave after a sponsor pays a deposit. At least 40,000 people have been deported to the province of Idlib in the north of the country. Idlib is not safe, as different armed groups continue to fight, against the government and against one another, and Russia and Syrian government forces regularly carry out air strikes in the area.
4. Now that Ghouta has fallen, does this mean that the Assad regime has won?
The Assad regime, with help from Iran and Russia, has managed to quell most of the opposition, democratic or otherwise, and regain military control over large parts of the country. According to the World Bank, up to 470,000 people have been killed during the conflict, and UN agencies have registered 5 million people seeking asylum outside Syria, while 6 million people have been displaced in Syria itself. This means that more than half of the pre-war population of Syria has either been killed or displaced. Tens of thousands of people are in detention or have disappeared. 13 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance. The country is in ruins. This is what the Assad regime calls a victory.
5. The Russians and Iranians were involved in the fighting in Ghouta. What other foreign countries are taking part in the fighting in Syria, and why?
The conflict in Syria has become increasingly complicated because of the international involvement.
A number of countries are directly involved in the fighting. Iran intervened early on, supporting the regime with weapons, funds and Shi’a militias. The claim was to protect Shi’a holy places, but the real agenda was to secure a land connection between Teheran and Beirut. The US-led global coalition against ISIS has been carrying out bombing missions in Syria since 2014. Russia supports the regime and became directly militarily involved in 2015, tilting the power balance in favour of the Assad regime. Israel is concerned about Iran´s involvement and has carried out several military strikes in Syria. Turkey became directly involved in 2016, when it took control over the Northern Aleppo countryside in an effort to sever the areas under Kurdish control. Since the beginning of this year Turkey has expanded its military operations and took control of Afrin, the Kurdish enclave in the north-west of Aleppo province.
In addition to these actors who are fighting in Syria, many countries have also provided support to local armed actors. This includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US.
At the time of this writing, the US, UK and France are looking at military action as reprisal for the chemical attack in Douma. Such intervention will likely not provide any protection for Syrians, but risk a further escalation of the conflict on an international level.