On 28 March, international media reported Syrian troops of the Assad regime are preparing for an offensive operation against the town of Douma, the last rebel-held stronghold in eastern Ghouta.
According to reports, both the Syrian government and their Russian allies had been negotiating with militants of the Jaish al-Islam insurgent group about the possibility of surrendering the town peacefully, however recently the talks had come to a halt. “The negotiations stopped. Most of the militants have set out big conditions, and the Russians and the Syrians have refused them,” a commander of a militant faction loyal to Assad told reporters.
The impending assault on Douma has triggered a large retreat of other rebel units to Syria’s northeast, where territory is still held by forces opposing Assad, perhaps the biggest indication that the region of Ghouta will soon fall to Syrian government troops.
Ironically, if Assad is successful in finally taking over Ghouta, it may be the best thing the residents of the ravaged region have experienced in years.
Nearly six years of fighting has meant a long era of suffering for the people of Ghouta. Late last month, as aerial bombings of the region reached a peak, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire. The violence had become so persistent that international aid personnel no longer had windows of time long enough to count bodies. Over a dozen hospitals and clinics in the area have been compromised or destroyed, leaving residents with sparse medical care. This hellish situation is hardly new. According to UN sources, hundreds of thousands of people have been under non-stop siege since 2013, with only limited access to food and medicine. If Assad’s forces are successful in bringing an end to the fighting, it may usher in a semblance of normalcy to the region.
Unfortunately, even if Ghouta is conquered fully, it will not end the suffering of Syria’s civilian population, only transfer it to another location. Backed by Russia and Iran, the government has repeatedly forced rebels to surrender areas and withdraw to other rebel-held areas such as Idlib, where the United Nations describes the conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of displaced opposition supporters as “catastrophic.” These areas will likely become the next killing grounds of Assad and his Russian assistants.
The world now seems to be seeing the downward spiral of the rebel experiment against the Syrian government. This is not to say Assad has an easy slide into home. There are still a variety of factors that can deeply affect the conflict in Syria, from Turkey’s operations against Kurdish groups, and the Iranian-Israeli conflict that has been taking place in the country for some time. However, the substantial weakening of rebel groups over the recent period has surely put the Syrians on a trajectory for victory. This shift in the balance will eventually mean the freeing up of more of Assad’s resources and will in turn likely have an important influence on the other sub-conflicts that are still spread across the war-torn country.