Local sources say regime attempts to advance in Damascus outskirts as region sees intense fighting between rival rebels.
While all eyes are on Aleppo, the Syrian government and its allies are believed to be preparing another deal in what may become among the most significant rebel territories to date to accept a truce.
Eastern Ghouta was once a powerful rebel bastion on the doorstep of Damascus. The area has been partially besieged since 2013, but conditions have deteriorated further in recent weeks under the weight of near-daily Syrian and Russian bombardments, as well as creeping ground offensives.
“People are facing bombing by every kind of weapon of war … spreading fear in the hearts of civilians in the marketplaces, streets and even mosques,” said Abu Khaled, police chief with the local council in Douma, the largest town in Eastern Ghouta.
He said that bombardments have recently targeted schools, alleging the use of “internationally sanctioned weapons … and particularly cluster bombs,” – claims that have also been made by local civil defence units and human rights groups. Over the past week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented several deadly bombardments by pro-government forces. Some residents fear a looming ground offensive, as in Aleppo.
Analysts say that Damascus is planning to either remove or disarm rebel fighters in Eastern Ghouta, similar to a series of evacuation and truce deals in Daraya, Moadamiyat al-Sham, al-Waer and Khan Eshieh. The government is reportedly fielding talks in Douma and other neighbourhoods, but due to the sheer size of the area and its composition, the outcome remains uncertain.
According to the US-based monitoring group Siege Watch’s last quarterly report, approximately 435,000 civilians live inside an ever-shrinking 100 square-kilometres of sprawling urban neighbourhoods, suburbs and farmland, while there are also an estimated 10,000 fighters inside Eastern Ghouta.
“People forget this, but both territorially and in terms of population, it’s bigger than east Aleppo. [The rebels’] military arsenal is much bigger and more powerful than in eastern Aleppo as well,” said analyst Aron Lund, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East programme. He noted that rebel groups have repeatedly hit the heart of Damascus with shells and mortars and downed Syrian aircraft with anti-aircraft weapons in the past.
The area is besieged, and every now and then, you hear the thunderous voices of warplanes or bombs. You are a close neighbour of death every day - every day. I saw it with my own eyes.
Although Damascus will likely try to deal with Eastern Ghouta’s neighbourhoods one-by-one, Abu Khaled said that local officials and rebel groups would place conditions on any deal.
“We had our revolution together, and we were besieged together, so Douma will not go alone. Any peaceful solution should be for the whole of Eastern Ghouta,” he said, calling for international mediation in the ongoing truce talks. “The regime can’t be lawyer, judge and executioner all at the same time.”
Should Eastern Ghouta fall, the Syrian rebellion will lose one of its most important symbols. In many respects, the story of Eastern Ghouta is the story of the uprising – from liberation and perceived betrayal to the slow death of the siege.
“Eastern Ghouta showed the liberatory potential of the revolution,” said leftist writer and thinker Yassin Haj al-Saleh, who moved to Douma in 2013. “People came from Damascus to help, and there were many local activists also building networks and being active.”
Saleh, who served 16 years as a political prisoner in government jails, arrived via an underground smuggling tunnel in April 2013. He was later joined by his wife, activist Samira al-Khalil, as well as renowned human rights defender and cofounder of the Violations Documentation Centre, Razan Zaitouneh.
In December of that year, Khalil, Zaitouneh and two other activists were abducted by armed men and have not been heard from since.
Saleh recounts memories of conversations in morgues, clinics and formative council meetings.
“The area is besieged, and every now and then, you hear the thunderous voices of warplanes or bombs. You are a close neighbour of death every day – every day. I saw it with my own eyes,” Saleh said, recounting the moment that two farm workers in al-Mleha were shelled and buried within 30 minutes so that their families need not see their mutilated remains.
It was a kind of routine, and it began to change Eastern Ghouta.
“People felt that they were not understood and that they were not respected, that their sufferings were not taken into consideration by the world at large,” Saleh said. “And they were right about this feeling of being deserted, neglected, disrespected, dismissed.”
On August 21, 2013, government forces bombarded Eastern Ghouta with sarin gas, killing more than 1,500 men, women and children. Despite talk of a red line, the international community settled with a chemical weapons disarmament deal brokered between the United States and Russia. The world looked on, and anti-Assad Syrians felt betrayed.
“[This feeling] pushed people even towards more religion and more nihilism. And this process … benefited a lot of those Salafist groups in Douma,” Saleh said, noting this “became the ideological basis for armed struggle against the regime”.
By late 2013, much of Eastern Ghouta was under the control of Jaish al-Islam, a homegrown Salafist faction that, at its height, was engaged in everything from arms production to lucrative tunnel smuggling.
But power led to excesses, Saleh noted, and Jaish al-Islam has been significantly weakened since the death of its leader Zahran Alloush last December and subsequent factional infighting. Damascus seized its opportunity and has been slowly closing in on Eastern Ghouta ever since.
“The story of the Ghouta is that you had a situation unlike all the rest of Syria, really,” Lund said. “You had this strong faction that was so big and so strong that everyone had to recognise that they were the alpha faction.”
The situation led to the emergence of united forms of local government, along with law and order. But that may soon be gone.
“[Damascus will continue pushing] until it gets the deal it wants – and it will want the rebels out or disarmed,” Lund added. “Looking at the situation now, it doesn’t look like there’s any other way out.”