Now that Aleppo has fallen to President Bashar Assad’s forces, people in Eastern Ghouta, a heavily populated, rebel-held Syrian suburb of regime-stronghold Damascus, are wondering if they will be next.
A hot spot for some of the earliest and most intense anti-government protests in 2011, Eastern Ghouta became a rebel stronghold in 2013. That year, the city suffered a sarin gas attack by government forces that killed hundreds, infamously marking the time when U.S. President Barack Obama ignored his previously drawn “red line” on chemical weapons use. The area has been under siege ever since.
Home to an estimated 450,000 people and one of the strongest remaining rebel coalitions, Eastern Ghouta has endured frequent bombardment and shelling from regime forces and ally Russia, which entered the war in 2015.
Though recent fighting has been less intense than at other times since the siege began in 2013, last week saw cluster bombs dropped on Eastern Ghouta and Civil Defense ambulances targeted, the group said. There have also been clashes on the ground, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“People are very afraid of obligatory evacuation, like what happened in other parts of the Damascus suburbs and now Aleppo,” said Tariq, an English teacher in Douma, the urban capital of Eastern Ghouta, who asked that his real name not be used for security reasons.
And experts seem to agree. Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute wrote this week that “after Aleppo it seems most likely that pro-regime forces will switch their focus to the country’s capital [Damascus], especially to Eastern Ghouta.”
Tariq said he currently makes about $50 a month, which he uses to support 16 members of his extended family. Thankfully the shortages of a few years ago, when the siege was more severe, are not as severe right now, and “you can normally find a family’s daily needs,” he said.
Nowadays, a kilogram of sugar costs about 550 Syrian pounds ($2.50), and a kilogram of rice costs about 600 Syrian pounds, Tariq said. In the absence of fuel, people use wood for heating and cooking, and since all the local bakeries closed down or were destroyed, people bake their own bread at home, he noted.
The only supplies coming into Eastern Ghouta must be smuggled in from regime-held territory, a system that is beneficial to both the people inside and the war profiteers outside, said Laila Kiki of advocacy group The Syria Campaign.
“Businessmen affiliated with the regime are controlling the routes. It’s a war economy,” she said. But the routes are by no means permanent, she warned. “It’s a political or military decision that can be taken at any moment.”
The regime employed a ruthless and unrelenting strategy in Aleppo that featured its double-pronged attack of enforced attrition, by denying humanitarian aid and supplies into the besieged area, and intensified and indiscriminate bombings of civilian and rebel-held infrastructure. These tactics, which regularly flouted international law, ultimately broke eastern Aleppo’s rebels and led to the mass evacuation last week.
Many civilians in Eastern Ghouta worry they could soon face a similar fate.
“The Syrian regime has been repeating the same scenario: They push people and bombard them and force them to surrender,” Kiki said.
Whether the siege comes to an end through an evacuation deal that allows regime opposition to flee into other rebel-held territory, or in a truce deal whereby activists and fighters have their criminal charge sheets officially wiped clean, surrender will not “happen without a lot of civilian bloodshed,” Kiki said.
And this truce option, according to Osama Nassar, an activist from Douma, doesn’t even guarantee freedom.
“The regime didn’t arrest people directly, but it did after a couple of weeks,” he said, referring to recent truce in Al-Tall. “But the regime is able to convince people to take these truce deals after breaking them with siege and bombardment. They want to convey the message that Bashar al-Assad is less worse than other choices. Not better, but less worse.”
Taking Eastern Ghouta would be a significant win for the regime, given its proximity to the capital, its strategic location (blocking the Homs-Damascus highway) and its symbolic value, said Sam Heller, Syria expert and fellow at The Century Foundation.
“It is the largest and most problematic opposition enclave around the capital, and it has historically been a real menace to the capital itself,” Heller said.
Heller believes Eastern Ghouta is likely a “priority” for the government, adding that while the rebels there are reasonably strong, “once the siege is firmly in place, time is emphatically on the regime’s side.”
Once the agricultural source that fed the country’s capital, Eastern Ghouta is largely urban now, and dominated by Jaish al-Islam, a powerful coalition of rebels that receives backing from Saudi Arabia. The“military-religious organization” was once led by Salafi Zahran Alloush before his assassination on Christmas Day 2015. The Salafist rebel group is believed to be behind the kidnapping in 2013 of human rights activist Razan Zeitouneh and his colleagues, and has been accused of heinous human rights abuses in the past. They are one of the strongest remaining rebel opposition forces in the country.
“There are no foreign fighters there,” Kiki said. “All the people there are all locals.”
While the local rebel council is making contingency plans for a tighter and prolonged siege, Kiki said, it is precisely the strength of the opposition government and civil society groups in the Eastern Ghouta that makes it such an attractive target for the regime.
“In the Ghouta, the local council runs things; there are coordination offices for relief, education, and shelter. They were trying to set an example of local administrative efforts. And this is something the regime has also been very good at shutting down. They want this image that it is ISIS or us.”