A February military offensive aimed at breaking the resolve of Damascus’ last rebel pockets has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe, with 400,000 Syrians trapped in rebel-controlled Eastern Ghouta. Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, is controlled by a number of Salafi Islamist groups including Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham, all three of whom wish to create an Islamic state in Syria under Sharia law. The al-Rahman legion, which is described as Islamist but non-Salafist is also present. Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, has been described as al-Qaeda in Syria, though analysts have pointed out that whilst ideologically similar, HTS and al-Qaeda have made it clear the link is not official.
The offensive began on 18th February and has largely consisted of heavy artillery and aerial bombardment which has led to a heavy civilian death toll. According to medical groups such as Doctors Without Borders, the Syrian army and its Russian air support have been deliberately targeting medical facilities with the intention of removing Eastern Ghouta’s capacity to provide healthcare.
On 7 March, the Syrian army successfully captured a village within the pocket, Mesraba, splitting the rebel-held territory in two. Russia has offered the rebels safe passage in a deal similar to that struck in Eastern Aleppo, where fighters are moved to other rebel-held locations with personal weapons and their families, however this was described by rebel groups as “psychological warfare”.
Analyst Michael Stephens stated that the fall of the rebel-held pocket was inevitable. The rebels have responded to the offensive by increasing in discriminate shelling of densely populated government-held Eastern Damascus, which has killed a number of civilians.
The offensive comes as hope of a peaceful political settlement to the civil war sharply faded with the failure of both peace initiatives, Western-backed Geneva and Russia supported Sochi. At the Sochi conference in January, opposition delegates refused to leave the airport until pro-government logos and slogans were removed. Analysts have also suggested that the West played into Syrian hands by agreeing to a series of “de-escalation zones” which later became the regime’s “war-management strategy”.
The de-escalation zones were aimed at reducing the violence in the conflict and leading to a long-term political solution, instead, they allowed the Syrian government to choose where and when it wanted to fight, minimising risk and maximising the chances of success. Western powers such as Britain and France remain adamant that there is no place for Assad in the long-term peace process.