Abu Fahed, a Syrian rebel and resident of the district of Eastern Ghouta, was on his way home from work a few weeks ago when he lost five members of his family. He had been building hillforts in Jobar, part of the effort to keep Eastern Ghouta, a hotly contested area on the outskirts of Damascus, in rebel hands. He stopped in at his sister’s home on his way back to the town of Kafr Batna, where he lives.
That’s when Abu Fahed heard aircraft attacks in the area. He quickly made his way home and found it in ruins. “I lost my wife and four children, my two boys and two girls,” Abu Fahed, who uses a nom de guerre, told The Intercept. “My elder son had left home minutes before the attack, and only he survived.”
Once known for its lush gardens and sprawling fruit orchards, Eastern Ghouta is unrecognizable
The worst in Eastern Ghouta may be yet to come. A government-imposed siege on the territory is now pushing residents of the last remaining rebel stronghold near Damascus toward the edge of famine. The Syrian government resumed its attacks on the district in recent weeks, bombing the district and inflicting horrific casualties on an area that has already suffered massively during the war. It was not supposed to be this way: Eastern Ghouta is part of an international plan to impose temporary, local cease-fires to mitigate the effects of the ongoing civil war.
Eastern Ghouta is one of four “de-escalation zones” in Syria. Iran, Russia, and Turkey agreed to the temporary cease-fires during peace talks earlier this year in Kazakhstan. By now, the cease-fires are supposed to have come into effect.
A sustained reduction in violence in Eastern Ghouta and the other cease-fire zones never materialized.
When President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin met in Vietnam last month, they released a joint statement that “confirmed the importance of the de-escalation areas” — guaranteed by Iran, Russia, and Turkey — as a stopgap measure to reduce violence, enforce cease-fires, and facilitate unhindered humanitarian access on the road to a political solution.
Though the cease-fires have technically been in effect for months, the Syrian government has engaged in gross violations of the agreements — as in the attack on Abu Fahed’s home. A sustained reduction in violence in Eastern Ghouta and the other zones never materialized.
Eastern Ghouta was a hub for civil resistance in the early days of the Syrian revolution. Later, the district evolved into a scene of armed confrontation between a loose collection of opposition forces and the government. President Bashar al-Assad’s government has used the presence of rebel groups in the area to justify a campaign of collective punishment against the district. Over the years, the campaign included starvation by siege, aerial bombing, and chemical weapons attacks — including a 2013 chemical attack that killed hundreds of civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. Some experts see the resumption of government attacks on Eastern Ghouta, in violation of recent agreements, as part of a longer strategy by the government of using negotiations as a cover for military advances.
“The attacks are a continuation of the regime’s efforts to impose its authority over the country and to remove all opposition presence in areas that it deems vital to its security interests and for future recovery efforts,” said Steven Heydemann, professor of Middle East studies at Smith College and author of “Authoritarianism in Syria: Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946-1970.” “It tells us a lot about the regime intentions for the future and is as clear a signal as you can ask for that, regardless of what is agreed upon on paper, the regime will make its own unilateral decisions about how to pursue its interests without regard to international agreements.”
“The Syrian government is committing war crimes on an epic scale in Eastern Ghouta.”
With the government facing little international opposition for its apparent cease-fire violations — the countries that negotiated the “de-escalation zones” have barely noted it — prospects don’t look good for Assad’s government leveraging opportunities to ratchet down violence, said Heydemann.
“There has been absolutely no response to these attacks from the international community that the regime would view as a signal to change its behavior, which in some ways is the most troubling thing,” he told The Intercept. “There is an extraordinary disconnect between the political discussions and what is actually happening on the ground where the regime feels it can act with complete impunity.”
Although the international community has been willing to turn a blind eye to the siege and recent bombings, human rights organizations are raising the alarm over what is turning into a growing humanitarian crisis.
“The Syrian government is committing war crimes on an epic scale in Eastern Ghouta,” Amnesty International’s Philip Luther said recently in a statement. “Using its familiar, brutal strategy of siege and bombardment of civilians — already employed to devastating effect in Aleppo, Daraya and other rebel strongholds — the population is being forced to surrender or starve.”
Last month, the United Nations called for the evacuations of 500 people from Eastern Ghouta who had been waiting for weeks for permission from the Syrian government to be transported to hospitals less than an hour away. At least 147 civilians were killed by Syrian and Russian bombing in the district between November 14 and 27, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a watchdog group. The bombing has only continued since then.
That the government would violate even geographically limited cease-fires might seem difficult to explain. Some analysts chalk up the brazenness of the attacks as an attempt by the government to assert its independence from political agreements made by its partners, Iran and Russia.
“The Syrian regime would like to show its teeth, not only to the opposition but also its partners,” said Mustafa Gurbuz, a policy analyst at Arab Center Washington and adjunct professor at American University. “The Assad regime does not want to be a puppet of Russia or Iran and perceives its [attacks] on the de-escalation zones as a key for winning the long war.”
The de-escalation agreements were intended to help protect civilians from attack, while hopefully laying the groundwork for reaching a negotiated settlement to the conflict. But the agreement did not cover all areas of the country and also only had a six-month duration. As a result, many questioned the cease-fires’ utility in bringing a sustainable end to the war.
There are four de-escalation zones. There’s Eastern Ghouta, which is controlled by Jaish al-Islam, a Saudi Arabia-backed rebel faction that has been accused of a series of rights abuses; Idlib province in Syria’s north, dominated by an Al Qaeda-linked alliance; the areas of Rastan and Talbiseh outside Homs, in western Syria, where Al Qaeda-linked fighters also have a presence; and the rebel-controlled south that includes parts of Daraa and Quneitra provinces along the Syria-Jordan border.
That some of the more extreme jihadi groups control areas under the cease-fire agreement has been its undoing: The deal does not apply to Al Qaeda-linked groups or the Islamic State, effectively meaning that Assad’s military can still launch aerial attacks in these areas despite the presence of civilians.
The agreements are much more about outside countries seeking to ensure their short-term interests in Syria rather than bringing an end to the conflict or a sustainable future for Syrians, said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat and co-founder of People Demand Change, which consults with groups implementing humanitarian relief and civil society projects in Syria.
“The main characteristic of the coordination between these three countries” — Iran, Russia, and Turkey — “is that they are efficient, but they don’t trust each other,” Barabandi said. “Each one has a different agenda.”
Turkey, which backs some opposition groups, supports the agreement. The Turks see it as a way to sideline the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces — a mostly Kurdish militia heavily involved in the fight against the Islamic State — and to reduce fighting in Syria so that the 3 million refugees in Turkey can return home, Barabandi explained. Iran wants to increase its regional dominance, which means keeping Assad in power, he added, while Russia is less interested in Assad but wants influence over the Mediterranean region.
“The regime, of course, has not stopped its raids. The shelling didn’t stop.”
The recent escalation in Eastern Ghouta took place against the backdrop of various rounds of peace talks in Astana, Kazakstan; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and Sochi, Russia. Human rights advocates warned that the protection of civilians ought to be a focus of those talks.
“If Russia is serious about protecting civilians in Syria, it needs to do more to spare civilians from airstrikes and ensure that its ally in Damascus allows aid into besieged areas,” Human Rights Watch’s Nadim Houry said in a statement ahead of the Sochi talks. “Many of the de-escalation agreements have failed to deliver the promised [protection] for the residents there.”
Members of the Syrian opposition saw an irony in Russia — which has indiscriminately bombed civilian centers since intervening on behalf of the Syrian government two years ago — acting as a guarantor of peace. Opposition figures walked out of the Astana meetings when the de-escalation agreement was first proposed in May.
There are few options for enforcing the agreement. “The only mechanism is to continue to exert pressure, such that the Russians don’t feel they are the only player in the region,” said Osama Abu Zeid, a Syrian activist who served as the rebel spokesperson for the first three rounds of talks in Astana. “But what we’re seeing is that the United States has totally retreated and this is giving Russia great satisfaction, which, as a result, is giving Iran a lot of satisfaction, particularly in the area of Damascus and the surrounding area and in the south.”
The Syrian government initially agreed to a Russian plan for a two-day cease-fire in Eastern Ghouta in late November, just ahead of the latest round of Geneva peace talks, but reversed itself later in the day.
“Clashes with terrorists continue there,” a Russian government spokesperson said, explaining the decision. “There have been no clashes with the armed opposition, it is terrorists from ISIL” — an acronym for the Islamic State — “who are active there.” Yet the Islamic State, while it controls some regions of Damascus, does not have a presence in Eastern Ghouta.
The promises to halt the violence, whether they go into effect or not, have made no difference to the lives of people on the ground. Many of those in areas like Eastern Ghouta say the agreements being negotiated by political leaders in Astana have done nothing to affect their painful daily reality.
“When the de-escalation zones started, it was just in the media,” media activist and Eastern Ghouta resident Nour Adam told The Intercept. “On the ground, no part of the de-escalation plan happened. The regime continued to storm the towns of Eastern Ghouta, in Ein Tarma and Jobar and Harasta. The regime, of course, has not stopped its raids. The shelling didn’t stop.”