“After several days of calm, the battle in Eastern Ghouta enclave seems to have picked up again as President Bashar al-Assad’s government launched a new round of air strikes on Douma, the only city still left in insurgent hands. Leaders of the Islam Army, the opposition militia that rules the city, have insisted that they will stay in Douma come what may, but they do not have the military muscle to pull that off if Damascus and Moscow decide otherwise.
Should regime-rebel talks break down and end in a renewed, full-scale offensive, local civilians will be at risk.
UN sources recently estimated that as many as 78,000–150,000 people may remain in Douma alongside the Islamist fighters, though such figure are unreliable and have historically erred on the high side. Whatever the actual number, it is clear that many civilians in Douma have been forcibly prevented from fleeing by Islam Army rebels, who seem to want to exploit their presence as a card in negotiations, and that all are suffering from callous government siege tactics, with loyalist forces refusing to permit the entry of aid workers, medicine, and humanitarian supplies.
It remains to be seen what form Douma’s capitulation will ultimately take, and how much death, destruction, and displacement will accompany it. But when the city folds, as at some point it will, seven years of opposition rule in Eastern Ghouta are going to come to an end.
Other parts of the enclave have already been retaken since the offensive began in February, with rebels from Failaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham, and Tahrir al-Sham either killed, forced to surrender, or sent to northwestern Syria along with many civilians—according to the most recent UN numbers, as many as 49,000 people. Meanwhile, some 123,000 inhabitants of Eastern Ghouta are thought to have come under government control, either living inside retaken neighborhoods like Erbeen and Harasta or having fled to Damascus and a series overcrowded IDP shelters near the city.
The retaking of Eastern Ghouta seems almost an afterthought to Assad’s December 2016 victory in Eastern Aleppo, but this is in fact the bigger battle. It is being fought over a larger area, on the doorstep of the Syrian capital, with many more fighters involved and more civilians at risk. Whether more people died in Ghouta than in Aleppo, I don’t know—but many, many people have died.
* * *
Over the past few years, I have spent an unholy amount of time trying to understand the politics of Eastern Ghouta’s rebel movement. I have also written a lot about the area. Sifting through my archives the other day, I found that I had penned no less than twenty English-language articles, reports, and blog posts on the topic, for Syria Comment, the Carnegie Endowment, The Century Foundation, IRIN News, and others. The first one was published in February 2013, as pro-Assad forces prepared to put the region under siege, and the last one is less than a week old.
That’s a lot of text. Although in hindsight I can spot plenty of errors and misunderstandings, and there is still very much that I still don’t understand, there’s also a lot of material in there that seems like it could be useful to people trying to follow the crisis now unfolding near Damascus. Therefore, I have compiled all twenty pieces here, with a short introductory comment about each.
The latest publication is first on the page, so read from bottom to top if you want all five years in chronological order. If not, just pick and choose as you please.
– Aron Lund
• Trapped Between Rebels and Air Strikes, Civilians in Eastern Ghouta Face Chaos(IRIN, Mar. 2018)
With only Douma left in rebel hands by late March, I tried to investigate what became of Eastern Ghouta’s civilian population in more than a month of fighting. UN numbers are all over the map, but it’s clear that many ended up in shelters erected around the area while others stayed put despite the fighting, and that they will now come under Assad’s rule once again. Still others have joined the opposition as it was driven off to Idleb and Aleppo, where some will now be resettled in Afrin. Yet civilians also remain trapped inside insurgent-held Douma, as the clock ticks toward either a rebel surrender or a renewed military offensive.
• Assad’s Divide and Conquer Strategy Is Working (Foreign Policy, Mar. 2018)
Brute military force was certainly the main ingredient in Assad’s victory in Eastern Ghouta, but his government also reached its objectives using more sophisticated means, including by exploiting insurgent divisions to punch where their defenses were weakest, negotiating separate deals through well-connected siege merchants, and rallying supporters inside the enclave to work behind rebel lines. Among other things, this piece looks at the curious case of Sheikh Bassam Difdaa, a pro-government Sufi preacher who helped crack Failaq al-Rahman’s defenses in Kafr Batna.
• Aleppo Again? A Plea to Save Lives in in Eastern Ghouta (TCF, Mar. 2018)
As the final, brutal offensive in Eastern Ghouta got under way, it was obvious that loyalist forces were going to win—they were overwhelmingly superior and faced no risk of outside intervention. In other words, the best time to think about what that meant for civilians was before the battle was over. The pro-Assad side had clearly advertised that defeated rebels and activists would either have to submit to government rule (but some would not; some could not) or head to rebel-held northern Syria. But what about the larger civilian population? Varied in their allegiances and circumstances, some civilians would undoubtedly want to follow the opposition to Idleb, while others would just as undoubtedly want to stay in their homes after government forces returned. To my mind, this was a moment for the international community to push for and facilitate individual choice by, among other things, promoting an orderly handover once rebels surrendered and by dispatching monitors to gauge the voluntariness of civilians staying or leaving, in the hope of minimizing the amount of forced displacement and hostage-type situations. Also, regardless of all political dimensions, humanitarian aid needed to be rushed to relief organizations on the ground quickly, before IDP numbers grew unmanageable. In the end, not a lot of that happened, but many of these suggestions remain just as relevant as when I wrote this—now in Douma.
• Understanding Eastern Ghouta in Syria (IRIN, Feb. 2018)
A short but fairly comprehensive pre-battle backgrounder on Eastern Ghouta as it was in spring 2018, in which I attempt to map out who controlled what while also describing the issues at stake as Assad’s government readied itself to retake the enclave.
• The Man-Made Disaster in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta (IRIN, Dec. 2017)
On how the siege on Eastern Ghouta was tightened in September 2017, in preparation for the offensive that would follow early next year. The humanitarian effects of the siege had always been severe, but with smuggling tunnels now blocked, private food sales banned, and UN convoys prevented from entering, what had been a simmering crisis boiled over into full-scale disaster—hurting civilians much more than rebels, who controlled all levers of the economy. It was a war crime right out in the open, a very effective one.
• East Ghouta Turns on Itself, Again (TCF, May 2017)
In April 2017, the Islam Army and Failaq al-Rahman went back to fighting each other, one year to the day after their mini-civil war in 2016. Drivers this time around included the de-escalation deals being rolled out by Russia, the recent loss of the rebel smuggling tunnels, and a whole lot of pent-up anger.
• The Syrian Rebel Who Tried to Build an Islamic Paradise (Politico Magazine, Mar. 2017)
A long feature on Zahran Alloush and his attempts to unite the enclave under his own iron-fisted rule. Though capable and ruthless enough, the Islam Army leader’s grand project was ultimately frustrated by his failure to control the war economy and the resistance of rival factions. This article covers some of the same ground as the “Into the Tunnels” report, but has more storytelling and a tighter focus on Alloush’s role.
• Going South in East Ghouta (Carnegie, Feb. 2017)
By spring 2017, things were looking pretty hopeless for the rebels. The Syrian government had seized a lot of territory after Alloush’s death and it had just pocketed Eastern Aleppo. It looked as if Eastern Ghouta would be next, with Damascus pulling together troops and seizing the smuggling tunnels in Qaboun and Barzeh. But then fighting petered out, possibly because Russian-brokered de-escalation deals clicked into place during exactly this time, which shifted Assad’s attention to the Islamic State. The Russian military then cleverly played Eastern Ghouta’s factions off against each other, in particular by goading the Islam Army to go after Failaq-friendly jihadis. A new round of infighting would begin in April 2017.
• Into the Tunnels: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Rebel Enclave in the Eastern Ghouta (TCF, Dec. 2016)
A detailed history of the Eastern Ghouta enclave and its political economy, this report attempts to chart the rise of the main rebel groups and their shifting rivalries, up to the point when they finally split the enclave in May 2016. It includes sections on the 2014 joint institutions, the 2015 wars over frontline crossings and smuggling tunnels, and some discussion of the ideology of the major factions. A shortened and slightly updated version of this report was later printed as a chapter in The Century Foundation’s Arab Politics After the Uprisings, an edited volume that I assume you’ve already bought and read many times over, since it is just that good.
• Showdown in East Ghouta (Carnegie, May 2016)
My quick take Eastern Ghouta’s just-beginning internal breakdown. Ending in a Qatari-brokered truce later in May, the infighting ended up splitting the enclave into two or three parts, depending on how you count them. The Islam Army took sole control over the northern and eastern parts stretching from Douma to Nashabiyeh; Failaq al-Rahman seized the Damascus suburbs; and Harasta remained in the Failaq-friendly hands of Fajr al-Umma. Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham Islamists were also part of the mix. Nusra had formally joined forces with Fajr to smash the Islam Army, but they were mostly floating around inside Failaq-land. Ghouta’s small Ahrar branch was fragmenting: some members backed the Islam Army, others fought the Islam Army alongside Nusra, still others tried to remain neutral.
• After Zahran: Rising Tension in the East Ghouta (Carnegie, Apr. 2016)
This was written alongside “An Islamist Experiment,” when Eastern Ghouta was on the verge of major internal conflict. After Zahran Alloush’s death, factions outside Douma had merged into two loosely allied blocks that sought to cut his successor down to size. The Islam Army had lashed out in response with preemptive arrests and assassinations, which didn’t improve the mood much. Right after publication, the Ghouta insurgency blew itself apart with a big, nasty bang.
• An Islamist Experiment: Political Order in the East Ghouta (Carnegie, Apr. 2016)
With infighting on the way, this article looks at the cross-factional institutions set up by Eastern Ghouta’s rebels to contain internal conflicts. Starting in 2014, Alloush had pushed for the creation of a joint military command and a sharia-based governance apparatus. At the peak of his power in early 2015, these institutions had seemed like they could potentially transform into a new political order of a sort. But the joint institutions frayed and hollowed quickly, with factional anarchy resurfacing to a greater extent than is clear in this article. I got a somewhat better understanding of the system later, with more detail presented the “Into the Tunnels” report.
• The Death of Zahran Alloush (Syria Comment, Dec. 2015)
On December 25, 2015, Zahran Alloush died in an air strike. Within weeks of his funeral, rival rebels in Failaq al-Rahman, Ajnad al-Sham, Fajr al-Umma, and the Nusra Front were ganging up on a shell-shocked and sullenly aggressive Islam Army in order to claim his mantle, with violence finally erupting on a large scale in late April 2016.
• Is Zahran Alloush in Amman? (Syria Comment, June 2015)
Yes, he was. Having somehow snuck out of besieged Eastern Ghouta, the Islam Army leader was taking a trip around the region, to Turkey and Jordan, where he met with Syrian rebel and religious allies as well as foreign fundraisers, agents, and diplomats, at a sensitive moment in the opposition’s history. But when I wrote this, it wasn’t yet very clear what was going on.
• Damascus Preachers and the Armed Rebellion (Carnegie, Mar. 2014)
This one takes a brief peak at the capital’s Ashaarite-traditionalist and Sufi networks, which had long dominated Syria’s state-approved Sunni Islamic establishment and would play a huge but under-studied role in the opposition after 2011. Today, their influence remains keenly felt through the Turkey-based Syrian Islamic Council. It is a companion piece to the article about Ajnad al-Sham, which grew out of exactly this clerical milieu and had visible ties to Damascene Sufism and less visible ones to exiled Ikhwani networks.
• The Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union (Carnegie, Mar. 2014)
I look at the creation of Ajnad al-Sham, a group backed by local Sufi clerics and Muslim Brotherhood members. Later bolstering its ranks by absorbing aggrieved former Umma Army members, Ajnad al-Sham operated as one of Eastern Ghouta’s top three factions for nearly two years. In spring 2016, it merged into the other second-tier faction, Failaq al-Rahman, and launched a devastating attack on the Islam Army.
• The Greater Damascus Operations Room, part 1 (Carnegie, Nov. 2013)
• The Greater Damascus Operations Room, part 2 (Carnegie, Nov. 2013)
This two-parter is for the real nerds. With limited success, I tried to read the tea leaves of a major, foreign-funded rebel unity project in the wider Ghouta region. In particular, I was looking for clues about how it related to Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss’s hapless Free Syrian Army HQ in Turkey, to Ghouta’s Nusra and Islamic State jihadis, and to the unending internecine feuds in Douma, where Zahran Alloush was still struggling to establish himself as capo di tutti capi. I didn’t reach much clarity on any of these issues at the time, but some additional details had seeped out by the time I wrote the “Into the Tunnels” report.
• A Dispute in Douma (Carnegie, Oct. 2013)
In this one, I did my sorry best to make sense of rebel rivalries in Eastern Ghouta, whose internal functioning under a half-year old siege had yet to be hashed out. Though at the time this was only vaguely visible in local coalition politics, Zahran Alloush’s just-created Islam Army was drifting into conflict with a set of pugnacious, Free Syrian Army-flagged commanders and contraband kingpins united by their shared rejection of his dominance and the Islamist rule that came with it. A year later, they made a desperate, last-ditch attempt to kneecap the Islam Army and push it out of the smuggling economy by entering into an alliance known as the Umma Army. Zahran promptly dropped a piano on them. For more about that grim story, check the “Into the Tunnels” report or my piece for Politico.
• The Islamist Mess in Damascus (Syria Comment, Feb. 2013)
This old Syria Comment blog post was written just before Assad’s forces managed to place Eastern Ghouta under siege. It looks at how rebel coalition-building around Damascus had clicked with the major national-level insurgent alliances of the time, and we get an early glimpse of the headstrong ways of a certain Zahran Alloush.”
[This article was originally published by Syria Comment.]