February 25, 2018

Ceasefire in Syria's East Ghutah was never going to happen

Caption: Russian occupation aircraft bombing cities and towns in the East Ghutah

The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2401 demanding a 30-day "cessation of hostilities...to allow safe, unimpeded and sustained access each week for the humanitarian convoys of the United Nations and their implementing partners to all requested areas and populations — particularly the 5.6 million people in 1,244 communities in acute need and the 2.9 million in hard-to-reach and besieged locations, subject to standard United Nations security assessments." It also demanded that the United Nations and its partners be allowed "to carry out safe, unconditional medical evacuations, based on medical need and urgency."

You can read the text of the United Nations summary here (the actual text is not available yet). As you read this, I want to remind you of the Arabic idiom bas hibr 'ala waraq (mere ink on paper).

Immediately following the vote, however, at least three of the affected parties announced their self-declared exceptions to the resolution. The three affected parties are, as usual, the Russians, Iranians, and Syrians - in other words, the perpetrators of the slaughter that has killed well over 500 people in the space of a few days through relentless air, rocket, and artillery strikes on the besieged enclave east of Damascus.

As we have seen in virtually every attempt - all of which have failed - at a ceasefire, truce, cessation of hostilities, de-escalation, etc. - these three allies have declared that the agreement does not cover groups they label as terrorists.

To these parties, that label applies to anyone not fighting for the regime. Specifically, this time, Moscow, Tehran and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad stated that “parts of the suburbs of Damascus, which are held by the terrorists, are not covered by the ceasefire and clean-up [operations] will continue there.”

Those who the Russian, Iranians, and Syrians believe to be terrorists

Let's drill down on the phrase "clean-up" operations.

With the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - there are only small pockets remaining in Syria - the common enemy for the Syrians, Iranians, Hizballahis, various Iranian-led Shi'a militias, and even the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) no longer exists. More importantly, it frees up thousands of Syrian troops formerly used in the push to retake central Syria and the besieged city of Dayr al-Zawr to be redeployed for the next major assault.

That assault, the elimination of the rebel-held eastern Ghutah, has begun.

When I was assigned as the air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I lived about five miles west of the East Ghutah in the Western Villas section of the al-Mizzih district of the city (at the blue dot on the above map). Around the city is a greenbelt of trees and small towns - very pleasant, clean, safe, nice - called the Ghutah. There is a western Ghutah as well - both were preferred places to either live or have a weekend place outside the city.

Since the Iranian intervention in 2012 which allowed Bashar al-Asad to survive the first major challenge, and the Russian intervention in 2015 which kept him in power again as Syrian forces were being pushed south toward Damascus, the East Ghutah has held on, but has been under brutal siege.

The Syrian regime tactic has been, and remains, to impose a siege, hammer the infrastructure by air and artillery - including deliberate targeting of hospitals, markets/commercial bakeries, and schools - until the residents agree to a truce. In the past, the rebels would be allowed to leave, usually bused to Idlib.

I don't think that is going to happen - the situation has changed since the virtual/imminent/territorial (pick a word) defeat of ISIS. The Syrians have recommitted the bulk of their forces to start mopping up any pockets of resistance - the East Ghutah will be the first.

The Syrians have assigned the task to the Tiger Forces, an elite armored/mechanized force under the command of Brigadier General Suhayl al-Hasan - a very capable field commander who was the key leader in the fight against ISIS. He is brutal and efficient - his public statements echo that. He has become a folk here to the regime supporters.

The Tiger Forces listed their objectives, which basically are to regain complete control of the M5 highway - the main line of communication north to the rest of the Syrian forces, stop rebel mortar and rocket attacks on Damascus, secure the East Ghutah, and then move on to the Yarmuk rebel and ISIS pockets (southwest of East Ghutah).

With the resources no longer needed to fight ISIS, General al-Hasan now has overwhelming firepower, massive amounts of airpower from the Russian Air Force operating out of Humaymin air base near Latakia, as well as all the artillery organic to the regime-protection elements firing from the mountains just northwest of the city.

In General al-Hasan's own words:

"We won’t allow anyone to interfere with the battle’s issues. Any attempt to impose a ceasefire and open passageways to exit the militants from the western side of eastern Ghutah is not allowed at all. The battle is ongoing and will stay that way until the end of the last militant standing in eastern Ghutah. For every round from your weapons and for every drop of blood from a martyr or wounded in Damascus, our response will be firing so many rounds that you will know the righteousness of God and know that no one has ever tried to injure al-Sham to make her cry and succeeded. Long live you, and Syria al-Asad."

Here is a propaganda video from the Tiger Force media office lionizing (no pun intended) General al-Hasan.

Here is a report of Syrian military operations from the day after the ceasefire went into effect - you be the judge.

Given the commitment of units such as the Tiger Forces, the overwhelming force at its disposal, the unwavering support of the Russians and Iranians, and the willingness to ignore and exploit the United Nations resolution, it is only a matter of time before the Syrian regime regains control of the area.

The downside is the huge numbers of civilian casualties (hundreds per day now - it will get worse) and the destruction of almost all the infrastructure in the area.

How long with this go on? The area is about 100 square kilometers - they could hold out for maybe weeks, but it is going to be ugly. Take a look at the destruction in the cities of Mosul, al-Raqqah. Aleppo, etc - this will be worse.

Here are my thoughts on the ongoing, and unfortunately future, carnage in the East Ghutah, on CNN International a few days ago.