Here we go again. Just over a year ago, it was the citizens of eastern Aleppo who found themselves besieged by the Syrian army and its Iranian proxies on the ground, while Russian warplanes pummelled them from the skies. Today, it is the residents of eastern Ghouta, in the suburbs just outside Damascus, who are suffering the same fate. Activists reported more than 500 deaths in the space of three days last month.
This uptick in intensity follows the announcement of Operation Damascus Steel, launched by the Syrian government to consolidate its control over areas closer to the capital. Eastern Ghouta has long been a source of concern to the regime, given that almost 100 square kilometres have been in rebel control since 2012. Anxious that this would provide a springboard for a rebel assault on the capital, Bashar al-Assad’s forces have kept the area encircled since 2013 – making this the longest siege of the entire seven-year war.
Approximately 13,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ghouta, including 1,463 children, according to a report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Ghouta was also the site of Syria’s most infamous chemical weapons attack, in August 2013. American intelligence estimated that 1,429 people were killed, including at least 426 children. The attack came almost exactly a year after Barack Obama issued his “red line” warning on chemical weapons to the Syrian regime.
Assad has used a policy of “surrender or starve” against those in besieged areas. In many respects, this reveals the weakness of his position. Where his forces are unable to overrun their opponents, they deploy collective punishment, brutalising the civilian population. The idea is that people’s suffering will become so great that they turn on rebel forces operating in their areas.
The process is slow and painful. British aid worker Tauqir Sharif publicised a distressing audio message from Ghouta last month, recorded by a woman inside the besieged area. After five days without food, she spoke in a voice deflated with despair, her words punctuated by tears. “We are hungry, tired, cold and scared,” she said. “Our children are starving.”
Life for those in besieged areas grinds to a halt during these onslaughts. Families spend their days in shelters hoping to evade the bombs, or trying to find food. During the siege of Aleppo, one resident told me how he was forced to eat leaves. Just as they did in Aleppo, warplanes are deliberately hitting civil infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.
A United Nations resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire across Syria, agreed on 24 February, has proved meaningless. The inhabitants of Ghouta remain the victims of relentless bombing because the ceasefire does not cover operations against al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS). In itself, that is a reasonable position, although context is important: even without these loopholes, it is unlikely that the UN could have taken action against Assad for non-compliance, given Vladimir Putin’s support. Russia has consistently used its Security Council veto to protect its ally Assad.
The Syrian regime has continued its bombardment of eastern Ghouta by characterising the entirety of the opposition as belonging to al-Qaeda or IS. On 26 February, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported a suspected chemical attack in the village of al-Shifuniyah. A child was reported to have died, while at least 13 other civilians suffered breathing difficulties after chlorine gas was used. The focus on Ghouta is a product of events. With Aleppo firmly back in government hands and IS beaten into retreat across the country’s eastern provinces, Assad is daring to imagine what a final march towards “victory” – however pyrrhic its reality – might look like. He plans to intensify his efforts to consolidate control along the corridor of so-called useful Syria: the spine of major cities in the west, from Daraa and Damascus in the south through to Homs, Hama, and Aleppo in the north.
Retaking Ghouta provides a psychological and practical boost to the regime. Assad will have managed to secure Damascus, which remains exposed to mortar and shelling attacks from rebels in Ghouta. He will also have restored connections along the main motorway that connects Damascus to Homs. And he will be able to reassign the huge number of troops needed to enforce the siege to other parts of the country.
This means we can expect to revisit the horrific scenes of Aleppo and Ghouta elsewhere as the war grinds on. Assad’s troops will either head north towards the rebel enclave of Rastan in the Homs countryside, or south to Daraa, where both Hezbollah and Iran are keen to regain control along the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967. An emboldened Assad regime, with its Iranian and Russian allies, has shattered the chemical weapons taboo and targeted civilians in the hope that their suffering might undermine support for the rebels.
So far, this has delivered results. Scores of civilians have simply given up and resigned themselves to life under Assad. For them, the cost of the last seven years of rebellion has been too great. This is a tried and tested model for the Assad dynasty, which has invariably responded to even the slightest hint of dissent with draconian repression. Assad’s renewed control over lost territories serves as a stark reminder of the barbaric new realities of our international system, in which global order and its norms appear to have been indelibly eroded.
Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer and director of King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left