BEIRUT – Syrian government forces solidified their grip on the country’s capital this week, as thousands of rebels and their families were bused out of three rebel-held districts in Damascus, bringing an end to the months-long government advance in the area. These last rebel pockets on the eastern cusp of the capital were excluded from the May 6 cease-fire deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran.
For three years, the neighborhoods of Qaboun, Barzeh and Tishreen had truces with government forces, and Syrian officials even touted them as examples of successful local reconciliation deals. Despite the truces, in early February they became the unexpected target of a government campaign to pressure rebels in the adjacent Eastern Ghouta – the last major opposition enclave in the Damascus suburbs, and now one of the four proposed “de-escalation zones” in the cease-fire deal.
Qaboun, Barzeh and Tishreen each reached official or semi-official truces with government forces in 2014, and life returned to relative normalcy. Clashes were rare, and despite government forces scrutinizing supplies and people entering and exiting the area, the end of blockades and daily violence meant children could return to schools, and employees and university students could commute to the capital. The government returned electricity and water services, and rebel forces gave the government access to a strategic road that passes through Barzeh and connects with other government-held areas, including the Tishreen Military Hospital.
However, the government’s victory in Aleppo in December 2016 renewed its determination to regain control of remaining rebel-held areas and shifted its strategy from siege to surrender. Since then, it has taken control of the water-rich Wadi Barada northwest of the capital, and began evacuating rebels from their last enclave in Homs.
“The technique followed in most battles in Syria … is consolidating areas by besieging the area, and consistently attacking it, even if slowly, because in the end the only option they have is to either surrender or die because of siege,” a Syria-based Hezbollah fighter told Syria Deeply in September.
Despite their truce status, Qaboun, Barzeh and Tishreen became targets of this strategy as the government set its sights on the Eastern Ghouta, which has been under a stifling government-imposed siege since 2013.
Rebel infighting in the Ghouta last year allowed the government to advance and take control of the suburbs’ agricultural Marj region in May 2016, costing rebels their food autonomy. Only one crossing, al-Wafideen, was allowed to bring in supplies to the Ghouta, and even then only with government approval and at exorbitant prices. Smuggling tunnels connecting the Ghouta with opposition-controlled districts in the capital gained prominence as a way to bring in supplies to rebels and residents under siege. Further paralyzing the district is a fresh round of rebel infighting that started in April, killing scores of fighters and civilians.
Russia, a key government ally, pointed to the presence of Tahrir al-Sham, the most recent incarnation of al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, in the Damascus neighborhoods, to defend the district’s exclusion from the May 4 “de-escalation” agreement, but the group also has a presence in the Eastern Ghouta and is one of the most powerful groups in rebel-held Idlib province, both of which were included in the deal.
“Taking Qaboun and Barzeh and cutting the tunnel trade means that the government will feel more comfortable about freezing the front lines in the Eastern Ghouta, since it will have maximized its economic leverage and can thus continue its campaign to retake the area by other means,” said Aron Lund, a fellow at the Century Foundation.
Faten, an aid volunteer in the Eastern Ghouta with the local organization One Hand, agrees. “The government wants to get rid of us by completely isolating us through bombardment and siege, because the tunnels stretched from here to the previous cease-fire areas,” she told Syria Deeply.
But the districts Faten called “previous cease-fire areas” can no longer be described as such. Thousands of families were displaced from the Damascus districts during the recent government offensive, including the more than 3,000 people who were evacuated from Qaboun over the weekend, a situation that Dr. Nizar, a local surgeon from the district, described as “despair beyond imagination.”
“This is not negotiations,” he told Syria Deeply. “This is implementing a pre-planned process of displacement.”
Some residents of Qaboun were transferred to the northwestern opposition-controlled province of Idlib, but others chose to move deeper into rebel-held territory in the Damascus suburbs, where the humanitarian situation is so dire it needs a “budget of nations, not grassroots organizations,” Faten said.
Nizar is among those who moved into the Eastern Ghouta, where the U.N. has recently said that nearly 400,000 people remain trapped in deteriorating conditions. Despite the tightening siege, frequent government bombardment and the fighting between rebel and extremist groups, he hopes to continue providing medical care in these hard-to-reach areas.
Fighting in the Eastern Ghouta continued after the rebel-held towns in eastern Damascus were evacuated. Residents in districts with standing truces worry the operation in Qaboun, Barzeh and Tishreen is a sign that long-term local reconciliation agreements have become nonexistent, said Ammar Essah, a field doctor and member of the political negotiation committee in Babila, a rebel-controlled town in the southern Damascus suburbs.
The town has witnessed virtually no clashes with government forces since it agreed to a truce with the government three years ago, but Essah said many residents “have no trust at all in the government … after the experiences of those around us.”
“We are like sheep watching each other be slaughtered, one after the other, waiting our turn,” Essah said.