BEIRUT – Situated within mortar-range of the Syrian capital, the Eastern Ghouta region has been the main launch point for rebel attacks targeting Damascus – thus a grave threat to the government’s seat of power – since it fell to opposition forces in 2012.
“Eastern Ghouta is the phobia of President Bashar al-Assad,” says Wissam al-Khatib, a 27-year-old activist from the suburb of Arbin.
Over the past six years, the region’s rebel groups have withstood numerous attempts by the government to retake the area. Despite relentless bombardment, more than five years of siege and a number of chemical attacks, including a sarin gas attack that killed between 355 and 558 people in 2013, some 400,000 civilians remained in the area.
As the war enters its eighth year, the opposition’s control on the area is now waning. Over the past month, pro-government forces have captured 70 percent of the area and divided the region into three encircled pockets. The operation has already killed more than 1,200 people and tens of thousands of others have fled the fighting in the single largest exodus of civilians from Eastern Ghouta since 2013.
Retaking Eastern Ghouta would be the latest in a string of government victories over the past two years. It would entrench Assad’s hold over most of Syria’s urban centers – including the Syrian coast and a large strip of territory stretching from Damascus north through Homs and Hama to Aleppo. It would also spell the single greatest loss for opposition forces since the government recaptured Eastern Aleppo at the end of 2016.
“If Ghouta falls that means the regime has grabbed the snake by the head,” says al-Khatib. “It means Assad will retake the entire country.”
While it won’t spell the end of the war, experts and anti-government activists say that Eastern Ghouta is one of the most definitive fronts in a conflict that has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced over half of Syria’s pre-war population.
“[The late Syrian president] Hafez al-Assad firmly believed that whoever controlled the Damascus region, controlled all of Syria,” says Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “With the fall of East Ghouta, Assad will once again be the master of the entire country.”
The Last Stand
Eastern Ghouta, however, is not the last opposition-held enclave in Syria. Rebel groups still command a patchwork of territory in Syria’s north and south, including significant strongholds such as Idlib province and parts of Syria’s southernmost province of Daraa.
According to Balanche, however, the government’s fierce campaign in the Damascus suburbs has sent a stark message to rebels in other parts of Syria: There is no hope for the Syrian opposition.
The recapture of the rebel bastion will deal a “psychological” blow to Syria’s embattled and divided opposition forces, who have lost all significant international backing, he said.
This will particularly impact rebels in less defendable holdouts such as the Rastan district in Homs and the Dumayr district, northeast of Damascus, pushing them to seek out negotiations with the government to avoid the fate of the Damascus countryside, Balanche said.
For Abu Ahmad, a 26-year-old activist from Kafr Batna, Eastern Ghouta is unlike any other rebel bastion.
“Eastern Ghouta has always been at the heart of revolutionary struggles in Syria,” he says.
In the 1930s it was the main battleground for patriotic struggles when Syrian nationalists chose it as a base to launch attacks against French occupation forces. With the start of anti-government protests in 2011, Eastern Ghouta quickly became an arena of anti-regime demonstrations and, eventually, one of the first areas to fall outside government control.
Unlike opposition enclaves in Idlib and Daraa, Eastern Ghouta has maintained its distance from the international power struggle over Syria, Abu Ahmad said.
“Today, Idlib is a Turkish zone of control. The south is protected by the U.S.,” he says. “Eastern Ghouta, however, is one of the last arenas of a real civil war,” he added.
Though rebels in Eastern Ghouta have allegedly received support and orders from foreign powers, specifically Saudi Arabia and Qatar, throughout the course of the conflict, this has not translated into a large-scale foreign presence on the ground. This is not the case in Idlib, for example, where Turkish troops and allied rebels control a strip of territory near the Turkish border.
In Daraa, various foreign powers – including Washington, Jordan and Israel – have vested interests in protecting local rebel groups. The southern province is the only region in Syria to be protected by a U.S.-backed cease-fire deal. Unlike other de-escalation zones in Syria, which were designated as part of an agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey, the southern deal is the result of an agreement solely between Moscow and Washington.
Both Idlib and Daraa are under some form of de-escalation agreement; however, government forces have recently attacked both provinces. This heightened the international community’s concerns that fierce battles will soon break out in the opposition bastions after operations in the Eastern Ghouta region subside.
On Monday, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over reports of government airstrikes in Daraa, and called for an “urgent meeting” in Jordan to ensure compliance with the de-escalation zone agreement. Speaking to Reuters, an unidentified official warned that, if true, this alleged cease-fire violation “broadens the conflict.”
While the majority of rebel-held parts of Syria become arenas of an international struggle between a vast array of foreign forces, the fall of Eastern Ghouta for some activists would spell the end of the original battle between the government and the opposition.
“I may say this because I am from East Ghouta. But for me, if the region falls to Assad, then that would mark the end of the Syrian revolution,” says al-Khatib.
“We will have lost to the armies of the world.”