News Analysis |
Syrian Army troops are preparing for a “huge operation” in what was previously the rebel-held suburban country side of Eastern Ghouta. Rebels were reportedly given a deadline late on Monday to surrender, as government forces amassed around them. The civil war in Syria began in 2011 during the Arab Spring. Anti-regime protests erupted across almost all Arab countries.
In Syria, unfortunately, these protests turned violent. Pro-government forces and anti-regime rebels blame each other for the outbreak of violence. Intervention by external powers, namely the US, in the form of support to the rebels further fanned the flames of conflict. After 7 years, the war has claimed the lives of at least 600,000 Syrians. Half the country’s population has been displaced. And the fighting still continues.
The successful siege of Eastern Ghouta is a symbolic victory for the Syrian government. The US has largely been on the back foot in its rhetoric against Assad and support of the rebels ever since Aleppo was captured by government forces.
International media has turned its focus recently to siege in Eastern Ghouta. Ghouta is a suburban area 15 km to the east of Damascus in the south-west of Syria. It had an estimated population of about 400,000. Eastern Ghouta is close to the Syrian capital on its east. Rebels had been firing missiles from this territory into Damascus until last year. Ghouta has been under siege from government forces since 2013.
More recently, Eastern Ghouta has faced the brunt of military force by government forces supported by Russia. Late on Monday, Moscow reportedly gave a 48-hour deadline to surrender and give up weapons to Jaish al Islam which holds Douma, home to 140,000 people, in Eastern Ghouta. There have been multiple evacuations that Russia along with the Syrian government has facilitated to allow civilians and rebels who give up their weapons to leave the area.
The biggest evacuation allowed over 6700 people to leave Ghouta. On March the 22nd, hundreds of rebel fighters evacuated the town of Harasta in Eastern Ghouta and began moving towards Idlib. Then, a couple of days later, twenty five buses carried residents to rebel held territory in the North. 8000 more are set to evacuate Eastern Ghouta as part of an agreement brokered by Russia.
There have been several ‘humanitarian corridors’ managed by Russia, the Syrian government and its allies to help with the evacuations. ‘De-escalation zones’ were also established with the help of Russia, Turkey and Iran where Russian and Syrian warplanes would not bomb certain areas in Eastern Ghouta. Although, not surprisingly, western critics say the corridors have failed in providing relief to civilians. Most, if not all, of the rebels who flee, end up going to the rebel held town of Idlib.
Besides Turkey, various regional countries have interests in the Syrian civil war which collectively add up to a zero sum game. Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, had maintained for a long time that there was no role for Bashar ul Assad in the future of Syria.
Idlib is the last stronghold held by the rebels i.e. the Free Syrian Army and militants of Al-Nusra. As of 2010, it had a population of at least 165,000. As compared with Eastern Ghouta, the region of Idlib is said to be more united and better consolidated by rebels. The population is mostly Sunni dominated. Many analysts have said that the next round of fighting will take place in Idlib province. Rebels can be expected to mete out tougher resistance to pro-government forces while based in Idlib. The province of Idlib lies in the north-west of Syria and, thus, it is strategically important for Turkey which lies to the north of Syria.
Ankara launched operation ‘Olive Branch’ in Afrin district in northern Syria. The People’s Protection Unit or the YPG, a Kurdish militia, were said to have established a base in Afrin. The YPG is linked to the PKK or the Kurdish Workers Party, a group designated as terrorist not only by Turkey but by the US and the European Union as well. The PKK is responsible for indiscriminate terrorist attacks on civilians and security forces alike in Turkey.
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In 2016, at least 275 people died in Turkey as a result of terrorist attacks either by ISIS or the PKK. The Kurdish Workers Party was formed in the late 1970s and calls for a ‘separate state for Kurds’ within Turkey. For this purpose, it has resorted to terrorist attacks on civilians. That is why it is important for Ankara to prevent the formation of a Kurdish corridor along its border in Syria. The elimination of Kurdish presence in Sinjar in Iraq is also of concern to Turkey for the same reasons.
Besides Turkey, various regional countries have interests in the Syrian civil war which collectively add up to a zero sum game. Saudi Arabia, backed by the US, had maintained for a long time that there was no role for Bashar ul Assad in the future of Syria. In northern Syria, the US and Turkey may be heading into a tense face-off. The US has been arming the rebels that seek to overthrow the Assad regime.
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On the other hand, Russia and Iran have supported Bashar ul Asaad. Without their support, the regime may not have survived. The successful siege of Eastern Ghouta is a symbolic victory for the Syrian government. The US has largely been on the back foot in its rhetoric against Assad and support of the rebels ever since Aleppo was captured by government forces. With the momentum Bashar ul Asaad’s forces have, they are expected to retake Idlib as well, though not without some fierce fighting.