After weeks of brutal battle that has left more than 1,700 civilians dead, displaced over 45,000 and trapped thousands more, the siege on the restive area of eastern Ghouta looks to be ending, with the Syrian government gaining the upper hand.
Reuters reported on Thursday that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are getting closer to ending the rebel hold on an area near the capital of Damascus.
The only rebel-held areas remaining in the area are Douma (held by Jaish al-Islam), and another part of eastern Ghouta that includes four towns: Zamalka, Jobar, Ein Terma, and Arbin, some of which have been hit by airstrikes in recent days.
“Syria has never been a national interest of the U.S., other than in dealing with ISIS, and it’s extremely alarming that Russia has been playing that leading role…at the expense of the civilians”
Under a deal with the government, rebels have agreed to leave Harasta, a northeastern suburb of Damacus, for the province of Idlib, which has also been pummeled by airstrikes.
With the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) on the backfoot and the once-U.S.-backed rebels all but crushed, what’s the strategy, going forward, for the United States in Syria? Is there any justification for a permanent U.S. presence there?
“I don’t see a clear strategy for the United States in Syria,” said Hayat Alvi, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, whose views, expressed here, do not reflect those of the college, U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.
“From the beginning, it was laser-focused on ISIS, and the lead actor right now is clearly Russia — I’m not even sure we’re in the script of the play,” she said.
Russia and Iran have helped tip the scale in Assad’s favor, leading to a further strengthening of the alliance between the three countries, politically and militarily.
“A number of troops training and assisting in Iraq have been transported to Afghanistan … ISIS is seen as pretty much ‘defeated’ in Syria and Iraq,” she said.
“However, there’s a caveat: ISIS rose from the ashes in Iraq, so there’s nothing to say or portend that they won’t be rising from the ashes again in the future. And that’s probably when the Western power, U.S. included, will probably react,” said Alvi, noting that there’s been “no substantive interest in concretely dealing with the Assad regime.”
It’s possible that the United States could continue to operate out of neighboring Jordan in its counter-terrorism efforts and calling on Turkey for help if needed. But that might be the extent of the U.S. involvement in Syria.
“Syria has never been a national interest of the U.S., other than in dealing with ISIS, and it’s extremely alarming that Russia has been playing that leading role … this is at the expense of the civilians and continues to exacerbate the humanitarian crises in Syria,” said Alvi.
The Russians have been launching aggressive airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians in rebel-held areas for months. There are even reports of Russian strikes on refugee camps near Idlib.
Certainly, rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, consider Russia’s backing of the Assad regime and its targeting of civilians “unlawful” and have called on the United Nations to intervene.
So secure is the government in the progress that it has made that, over the weekend, en route to Ghouta, Assad expressed his thoughts on a video.
“Any area we can liberate without fighting is a preference. We must not forget that there are civilians in these areas, we have to protect them also,” said Assad.
— Syrian Digital Media (@SyriaDM) March 19, 2018
“These statements ring hollow, because all these civilians have been killed by government forces and their allies,” said Federico Borello, executive director at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC).
“Simply the choice of carpet bombing, this indiscriminate bombing, in densely populated civilian areas, whether it’s your intention or not, anyone can reasonably assume that hundreds or thousands of civilians will be killed,” Borello told ThinkProgress, adding that the way this campaign — and others — have been fought “show, at the least, a complete disregard for civilian lives.”
The United Nations has an obligation to investigate not only the allegations that chemical weapons have been used, but also how conventional weapons have been deployed against civilians.
“When you plan a military operation, you have an obligation under international humanitarian law, to take into account all feasible precautions to protect civilians,” he said.
If Ghouta is so safe that Assad can drive around, Borello reasoned that humanitarian aid groups and international monitoring teams should be given access to the region “now, not in three months.”
Whether the international community manages to hold Syria and its allies accountable — or opts to turn a blind eye in favor of stability and rebuilding — remains to be seen.
“The whole international system is structured in a way that makes accountability very difficult and the appetite for accountability changes,” he said.
Then there’s the question of the millions Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq: Will they be rushed back into still smoldering rubble of their towns in favor of political expediency in their host countries?
Borello hopes that the legal international framework for the rights of the refugees will govern any refugee return program.
“This is a valid concern and possibility, and one that can only be countered by documenting, investigating, advocating, and raising the cost of operating outside the legal framework for those who will be tempted to do that,” he said.