Assad regime strengthens its hold in Syria as Eastern Ghouta perishes

Syrian regime’s offensive on Eastern Ghouta comes as a response to the failure of Russia-led Sochi dialogue. Controlling Ghouta is important for the regime as it is within 10 kms from the capital

Photo by Diaa Al-Din Samout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo by Diaa Al-Din Samout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Lakshmi Priya

Syrian crisis reached a new low in Eastern Ghouta province as the war entered its eighth year. Eastern Ghouta has been under siege since 2013 and is the last rebel held area near the Syrian capital. It is under control of rebel groups like Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman and formed one of the de-escalation zones announced in fourth round of Astana talks held in May 2017. Russia brokered deals with opposition groups and the Syrian regime and as a result situation between regime loyalists and Jaish al-Islam calmed down but and the problem between regime forces and Faylaq al-Rahman got aggravated by December 2017.

Syrian regime’s offensive on Eastern Ghouta came as a response to the failure of Russia-led Sochi dialogue. Controlling Ghouta is important for the Syrian regime as it is within 10 kms from the Syrian capital and is the only region under rebel control near Damascus though other Syrian regions are under control of rebel forces. As Syrian forces began ground offensive on Feb 25, a severe humanitarian crisis unfolded leading to death of more than 500 people including 120 children in a week. Ghouta crisis brings new pressure on the Syrian regime as evident from the response of international community.

United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire excluding operations against the designated terrorist groups. Syria’s ally Russia voted in favour of the resolution mentioning presence of excluded group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Ghouta region. US President Donald Trump described Syrian offensive in Ghouta as a humanitarian disgrace. Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned the offensive and accused Syrian regime of committing war crime. Britian’s Foreign secretary Boris Johnson called for investigations in use of chemical weapons in Ghouta by the Syrian regime. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on European Union to play a major role in Syria crisis as the offensive in Ghouta continued.

The Washington Post reported that “the Trump administration has considered new military action against the Syrian government in response to reports of ongoing chemical weapons use”. In case Trump administration goes ahead with military action it seems unlikely to deter Syrian regime as Russia which has come up with renewed vigor stands strong with Assad. Fall of Aleppo in December 2016 not only tilted the war in favor of Syrian regime but also marked an end to Russian isolation in the region. Russia has strategic interest in Syria and has its naval facility in Tartus and an Air base at Khmeimim.

In addition, despite pressure from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Union foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, regional Syrian ally, Iran has till now refrained from condemning the offensive. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE called for truce in Syria. Later Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi mentioned that Iran and Syria are working closely to de-escalate situation in Ghouta. Russia and Iran both took a stand that offensive will continue so as to eliminate the excluded groups as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Syrian regime dismissed the reports of humanitarian crisis in Ghouta as “a ridiculous lie”.

Turkey, which has been one of the parties to the troika that led to Astana peace talks, called Russia and Iran to stop regime attacks in Ghouta. Though it was part of the troika, it supported removal of Assad unlike its other two partners Russia and Iran. It has more crucial stake in Syria as compared to Iran and Russia. It shares its border with northern Syria and is directly impacted by the upheavals and has been struggling to handle secessionist Kurdish demands. Along with Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey has been actively engaged in rehabilitating Syrian refugees.

Assad regime has been using siege as a tool to regain control over Syrian territory since the beginning war in Syria in 2011. From Daraa to Aleppo to Ghouta, regime has been sieging territories, cutting off basic supplies, hitting rebels and tagging civilian death as war casualties. The offensive has been working in favour of regime as within a week Syrian forces captured forty percent of the rebel held region of Eastern Ghouta.

As Russia and Iran stand with Syria, US and other countries support the anti-regime forces. Apart from enjoying international support, they are aided by regional players for instance anti regime forces get support of Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf countries while Iran stands with the regime. During the Syrian crisis, US and Russia came at loggerheads more than once. A week before the regime’s offensive in Ghouta began, Valdai Discussion Club held Annual Conference on Middle East where Russian Foreign minister Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov mentioned that there is high level of mistrust between Washington and Moscow.

Assad regime’s offensive on Eastern Ghouta will strengthen regime’s position in the war. Apart from providing control over rebel held region it will dampen the morale of rebel fighters and also drain civilians from sympathy for the rebels as they struggle for their livelihoods. On the other hand consolidating areas near Damascus will boost the regime’s self-esteem.

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