Foreign agendas have changed the shape of the war in Syria – but it’s not over yet

The US has tried to turn away from the Middle East, leaving Russia as the dominant foreign power.

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In this trip to Damascus the closest I could get to rebel-held Eastern Ghouta was an observation post and firing position controlled by the Syrian Arab Army. It was a bullet-scarred building, which must have been half-built when it was incorporated into the front line early in the war, probably sometime in 2012 when the armed groups in Eastern Ghouta were pushing out the perimeter. Then, they were convinced that Syria was changing forever and victory would soon be theirs.

Through spy holes hacked out of the concrete walls, I could see smashed buildings a couple of hundred metres away. Further in, smoke rose from places hit by shells and air strikes. The world has been appalled by the slaughter of civilians in
Eastern Ghouta.

Syrian soldiers hung around smoking, lounging on broken chairs and concrete steps on the regime’s side. Slightly aloof from them were Russian troops, dressed in much better uniforms and kit, all with helmets and flak jackets.

In a room someone had tacked a photo of Syria’s President Assad next to Russia’s President Putin. The Russians are much more visible around Damascus than the Iranians, Assad’s other main ally. I have the feeling they were more discreet and more self-effacing a couple of years ago. But times have changed.

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When he was US president, Barack Obama warned Russia that intervention would land it in a quagmire. But Vladimir Putin was ruthless. He swung the balance of the war towards the regime.

The general I see at the ministry of defence has more Russian memorabilia on display in his office every time I visit. The US military likes to leave souvenirs around the countries it favours, but under Obama and now under Trump they have tried hard to turn away from the Middle East. You can make the argument that Russia, purveyor of air support, diplomatic muscle and Cyrillic baseball caps, has become the region’s dominant foreign power.

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I have not been inside Eastern Ghouta since the first few years of the war. Back then the front lines were porous. Local people would hold rallies in the evenings, with speeches and ritualised sword dances. The buildings were dark, without electricity, and the stage they had built was lit by lamps powered by a generator. The audience’s favourite part seemed to be chanting anti-Assad slogans. Everyone I spoke to said he would be overthrown and killed. I wonder what happened to all those confident people.

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At that time, a pattern had already emerged in the bombing. Among the biggest targets were hospitals. The regime denied it, but all the ones I saw had been bombed. Instead, the people of Eastern Ghouta were developing a series of underground clinics. They are the places we have seen on our TV screens, with harassed doctors dealing with rooms full of casualties. At the beginning they were not well equipped. I saw two dentists trying to treat a man whose feet had been blown off. He writhed and called for his mother as they daubed iodine on his tattered stumps, and sucked on oxygen through a mask, the only kind of pain relief they had.

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Eastern Ghouta is big: in terms of square miles it’s about the size of Manchester. It is a collection of blitzed towns separated by farmland, which used to be the larder of Damascus, producing vegetables, fruit and meat for the capital. Farmers have kept working throughout the war, one of the reasons the enclave seemed so secure even though it is close to the capital. The biggest armed group, by far, is Jaish al-Islam. It is backed by the Saudis, has been part of the Geneva peace talks, and favours an Islamist system for Syria. Now it is negotiating a way out with the Russians and Syrians. The other armed groups in Eastern Ghouta include a small contingent of jihadists from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has its roots in al-Qaeda and used to be called the al-Nusra Front. HTS holds the section of Eastern Ghouta closest to the centre of Damascus. It is a suburb called Jobar near a busy roundabout in Abasseen Square. People have lived in the streets around the square throughout the war, though sometimes mortars and bullets have made life dangerous. They get very angry about the mortars fired out of the enclave, killing dozens this year. You cannot compare the level of casualties or the material damage done to the regime side with what has been done to Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian army and its allies. But Syrians who have lost family, or friends, or limbs, or homes do not regard the Islamist fighters in Eastern Ghouta as anything other than terrorists.

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No one lives on the rebel side in Jobar, except fighters. Both sides have built tunnels, to try to outflank each other and sometimes to be used for attacks. I’ve been down in them. They’re narrow, claustrophobic and hot. You emerge covered in clay and clammy sweat. Think too hard of underground fights in those long, dark dungeons and you’ll have material for months of nightmares.

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The poor Syrians, of course, have been caught in a 24-hour nightmare for seven years. The Assad regime is now secure, thanks to Russian intervention, as well as help from Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and various Shia militias. But the war is not ending. Instead it has changed shape. Big foreign powers are in Syria, with their own agendas that don’t include a quick peace. The biggest potential danger comes from the confrontation between Iran and its enemies, which include Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US. All four countries are players in the Syrian war. What’s brewing is no game. 

Jeremy Bowen is BBC Middle East editor

This article appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special