There’s fighting over a besieged enclave, foreign aid is blocked, UN resolutions seem to mean nothing, ceasefires fail, and humanitarian corridors remain closed — does it sound familiar?
The battle in the eastern Ghouta enclave near Damascus today is eerily reminiscent of the fighting in eastern Aleppo just over a year ago. Back then, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces retook a fortified rebel enclave after a drawn-out offensive that dealt terrifying damage to civilians. The battle ended in the expulsion of several thousand insurgents toward rebel-held Idlib, along with some 30,000 civilians that had remained under their control.
To the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies, Aleppo is remembered as a heroic victory over hostile Islamist groups, a victory which brought unity and peace to a city long plagued by violence.
To the Syrian opposition and its international backers, including the United States and many European countries, Aleppo is remembered for death, destruction, and betrayal, and for the controversial final expulsion of rebels and civilians, which many opposition members regard as a type of sectarian cleansing.
Is the fate of eastern Aleppo now about to be repeated in eastern Ghouta? So it seems—and there are lessons to draw from what happened there, so that, at the very least, Ghouta’s civilians won’t face the same dangers in the event of a final defeat and evacuation.
The Conflict in Eastern Ghouta
The groundwork for the Ghouta battle was laid months ago, when Assad’s government banned civilian food imports and most aid missions to the enclave, engineering a severe crisis. After many days of preparatory bombing, a multi-pronged ground offensive began on February 25.
A UN ceasefire was declared on February 24 through the Security Council’s unanimous adoption of Resolution 2401, which also demanded unhindered access for relief convoys. But the resolution has had no appreciable impact on the ground.
“Fighting has reportedly continued, with reports of shelling on east Ghouta this morning,” I was told on Tuesday by Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokesperson of the UN’s aid coordination organ, OCHA. “Shelling towards Damascus was also reported last night,” she said. Little has changed since then.
Refusing to apply the truce to eastern Ghouta, Russia has launched a separate proposal for daily five-hour humanitarian truces. That proposal also has made no difference on the ground, and is widely dismissed as a way of shifting the discussion away from the terms of the UN resolution.
“It is impossible to bring a humanitarian convoy in five hours,” International Committee of the Red Cross Middle East Director Robert Mardini said in a statement. “We have a long experience of bringing aid across frontlines in Syria, and we know that it may take up to one day to simply pass checkpoints, despite the previous agreement of all parties. Then you need to offload the goods,” he said.
There’s also no agreement from the Syrian government, the party that controls access. In an address to the Security Council, UN aid chief Mark Lowcock noted that Damascus has yet to permit any aid convoys to enter the enclave.
Meanwhile, the situation deteriorates and lives are lost. Lowcock said the toll from air strikes and shelling on the enclave is now thought to be over 580 dead, while pro-government newspapers report that rebel mortar fire has killed dozens of civilians in Damascus.
The lopsided casualty numbers lay bare an extreme imbalance of power. The rebels are surrounded in an enclave deprived of food and medicine, and they are outgunned in every way, as both the Syrian and the Russian air forces bomb targets inside the enclave.
The handful of rival Islamist militias that control eastern Ghouta seem to be fighting hard. But they stand little chance of winning the battle, though they can prolong it. And that, too, brings Aleppo to mind.
What Happened in Aleppo
The siege of rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo began in spring 2016. It featured extremely brutal fighting mixed with negotiations between the United States and Russia. When the Syrian government’s final offensive began in late autumn 2016, it had long been clear that the rebels could not win, though estimates for how long they would hold on varied widely—some thought many months.
The Syrian, Russian, and Iranian governments came under intense criticism from Western and Arab nations, international human rights groups, and UN organs. Their large-scale bombing of nonmilitary targets and the refusal to allow medicine and food to people under siege seemed designed to break resistance by traumatizing the civilian population. But the pro-Assad camp brushed off all complaints, preferring to discuss the rebel shelling of western Aleppo, and when pressed in the Security Council, Russia vetoed two draft resolutions.
Aleppo’s ceasefires were designed not to cover the terrorist-listed Nusra Front fighters embedded among other rebels in Aleppo, which Assad and his allies used to justify continued operations. It had the side effect of focusing diplomatic attention on the presence of the Nusra Front, and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura even offered himself up as a human shield, promising to escort the jihadis out of the city if that could facilitate a ceasefire.
As fighting grew worse, discussions shifted to a broader evacuation of rebels and pro-rebel civilians from the area. The Syrian army opened frontline crossings and urged civilians to flee into government-held territory, but few passed through them. The opposition viewed the crossings as a media ploy to deflect blame for deaths among civilians, while loyalists claimed rebels were keeping eastern Aleppo’s inhabitants in place as humanitarian shields.
In November and December 2016, opposition defenses collapsed. Civilians scattered in all directions to escape the fighting, with UN statistics later suggesting that about 121,000 found shelter behind government lines while a smaller group of around 30,000 fled into neighborhoods that remained under opposition control. In the chaos, many had no choice over where they found refuge.
On December 13, rebel negotiators signed a capitulation agreement with the Russian military. As the UN scrambled to dispatch monitors to the area, the last 36,000 inhabitants of rebel territory boarded buses to Idlib. It was a hastily organized, ramshackle evacuation that entailed major risks for civilians and came close to being derailed by hardline militias.
Many of the civilians that had been displaced to western Aleppo were later able to return, but whether they were evacuated with the rebels or stayed in government territory, inhabitants of eastern Aleppo appear to have been given no choice over whether to stay in their homes or leave. A UN-mandated human rights monitoring team later described the December evacuation as “forced displacement.”
This Argument Can’t Be Won
Realistically, this is also the way the fighting in eastern Ghouta will eventually end, though there are differences: in Ghouta, we may for example see different deals for the different areas and groups involved, rather than a single deal for the entire besieged area, as in Aleppo.
The Security Council’s Resolution 2401 mandates a ceasefire in all of Syria, including eastern Ghouta, but it has been ignored by the Russian, Syrian, and Iranian governments. True to the playbook of 2016, they are instead pressing for Russia’s five-hour truces and accuse rebels of holding civilians captive inside the enclave. Rebels deny that, but it is backed up by some humanitarian reporting.
Like in Aleppo, the pro-Assad side justifies continued military operations by pointing to the presence in eastern Ghouta of fighters from Tahrir al-Sham, the former Nusra Front. Clearly seeking to embellish the influence of the group, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even claims Tahrir al-Sham “runs the show” in eastern Ghouta, while Western diplomats question both that claim and Lavrov’s interpretation of Resolution 2401. But the entire debate is a diversion.
Like Aleppo before it, the conflict in eastern Ghouta is not about jihadism, and Assad isn’t fighting the armed rebels near Damascus because he fears that Ghouta will be a staging ground for the next September 11. He’s fighting the armed rebels near Damascus because they are armed rebels near Damascus. No amount of debate over the composition of Ghouta’s insurgency is going to change that.
American, French, and British diplomats may protest loudly, and they may bang pots and pans in the Security Council, but those are all words while what goes on outside Damascus is a war with existential stakes for both sides. And together with his allies, Assad now has the material means to win it. Their allies on the opposition side do not.
Opposition backers ought to own up to the fact that they are not going to intervene on the rebel side. They need not acquiesce to Syrian or Russian media deceptions and political trolling, but they should stop pretending that they can save their allies by invoking the spirit of Resolution 2401.
An Aleppo Ending
The endgame is clear: another round of evacuations. “The experience gained in Aleppo, when an agreement was reached with militants on their organized exodus, can be used in Eastern Ghouta,” Lavrov said earlier this month.
But though nuances are easily lost in the noise and fury of Syria’s war and of the media war that wraps around it, Aleppo is not an example that even the government side should be seeking to emulate.
The December 2016 evacuation of eastern Aleppo was unlike the deals concluded in most of Syria’s formerly besieged and rebel-held towns, like Qudsayya, Sanamein, Waer, Wadi Barada, or al-Tell. There, the deals that marked Assad’s victory gave insurgents an option of handing over weapons in return for being amnestied, or leaving for Idlib along with family members, draft-age men, and others who wished to join them, while the majority of civilians would stay put. Of course, some of those who opted to leave did so less out of a desire to continue fighting than for fear of retaliation from vengeful and undisciplined loyalist militias. But there was some amount of choice for most people, and most ordinary civilians were able to remain in their homes.
Not so in Aleppo, where the arbitrary population displacement sparked by military fighting determined who ended up on which side of the frontline, and a political deal decided who would be sent to Idlib. This was what the UN panel referred to as forced displacement, which is a war crime.
Neither of these scenarios is much to cheer for from a humanitarian or legal point of view. But there’s little doubt that a negotiated handover along the lines of “normal” Syrian capitulation deals would be a better outcome for most people in eastern Ghouta than an Aleppo-style conclusion through overwhelming force, where tens of thousands of civilians are herded onto buses or marched into government shelters through the smoke and fire of their collapsing cities.
Lessons from Aleppo
One can draw many different conclusions from what happened in Aleppo. The two sides fighting certainly have their own, mutually contradictory interpretations.
But there are apolitical humanitarian imperatives at play, too. Regardless of which side one takes in Syria, it should be obvious that the Ghouta battle is going to end badly for the opposition sooner or later. This has implications for how to best protect the civilian populations under opposition control, currently estimated at 393,000 people by the UN.
Though not everyone might agree, the following four lessons from what happened in Aleppo seem self-evident:
- If pro-opposition nations care about Syria’s civilians, they should not prolong the battle in eastern Ghouta merely to save face. They should also not mislead their rebel allies in Syria about the likely outcome, or about the limits of their own commitment to opposition survival.
- Diplomatic efforts need to focus on achievable humanitarian goals. Getting Assad to accept a permanent opposition presence in eastern Ghouta is not one of them. However, if the possibility of a negotiated conclusion arises, it may be feasible to broker understandings that bring the upcoming capitulation agreements more in line with international law. Perhaps mechanisms can then be found to supply aid to still-besieged zones, ensure some freedom of movement for civilians, make parties commit to the right to return to homes and possessions, and monitor the voluntariness of any evacuations.
- The UN and other international bodies fear being seen as partisan or complicit in breaches of international law. Even so, they could potentially play a positive role in preparing, resourcing, or monitoring arrangements that cushion the blow to civilians when rebels eventually lose hold over the enclave. Pro-opposition governments may also facilitate talks with the rebels, and could help make deals safer for the losing side by offering asylum or medical evacuations on their own soil.
- Wherever one stands politically, it is imperative to prepare for likely outcomes—not just desired ones. Instead of the Security Council ordering an eleventh-hour effort, as happened in Aleppo, the UN should be encouraged to have monitors on standby for when forces on the ground conclude a deal, in order to reduce risks incurred by surrendering communities and rebels in the process of evacuating or disarming.
That the rebels outside Damascus appear doomed to lose is an insight that shouldn’t be ignored or suppressed, but rather made a starting point for the humanitarian and diplomatic response. Though events will surely run their course one way or another, it may still be possible to dismantle the enclave in eastern Ghouta with less destruction and human suffering than that which afflicted eastern Aleppo. And in Syria’s vile and criminal war, protecting civilians remains a worthy goal—perhaps the only one.
This work was supported by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.