There is a mystery in this map of Damascus that requires explanation. It shows clearly the Eastern Ghouta rebel suburb where all the current focus in the media is concentrated. But just as clear is the area of Hajar al-Aswad in Damascus’s southern suburbs, marked as under the control of the Islamic State group (ISIS). So why are the ISIS rebels in Hajar al-Aswad allowed to stay, while the rebels in the Ghouta are forced out?
Al-Ghouta means ‘the basin’ in Arabic, the fertile area of land fed by the River Barada which supplied Damascus with its agricultural produce like milk, cheese and yogurt, chicken, eggs, fruit and nuts. Historically it is one of the locations claimed as the Garden of Eden. Since mid-February 2018 it has become instead Hell on Earth.
Today the final pocket of Douma, largest town in the Ghouta, awaits what many expect will be the final massive bombardment that will force its inevitable surrender to the Syrian regime. Other parts of the Ghouta – Harasta, Arbin and Zamalka – have all surrendered, worn down by years of siege, rounded off by the recent burst of apocalyptic Russian bombing. Douma, headquarters of the rebel group Jaysh Al-Islam, has been a thorn in Assad’s side since 2012, yet was considered moderate enough by the international community to participate in the Geneva peace talks, even heading the opposition delegation.
So why has Assad allowed ISIS to sit on his doorstep unmolested for years, despite them being closer to the presidential palace than rebels in the Ghouta and despite ISIS being unquestionably far more extreme in its ideology than any of the Ghouta rebels? The answer is that it suits him to do so, because they fight each other, not him, and over the last five years the ISIS fighters have weakened and depleted the FSA groups in Babila, Yalda and Beit Sahem. Neither Al-Nusra nor ISIS are present in the Ghouta, yet the Russians and the Syrian regime have continued to bombard the area with impunity, in violation both of their own agreed ‘de-escalation zones’ and of the UN ceasefire resolution unanimously passed in February 2018.
The Assad regime has shown itself to be calculated and astute in its strategic management of the war. Early on in the uprising that erupted in March 2011 the regime branded everyone who protested against them as a ‘terrorist’, and labelled the uprising a ‘foreign conspiracy’. Through its violent crushing of the early peaceful protests, along with wholesale and widely documented rape of women from the rebel neighbourhoods, often in their own homes in front of their male family members, it systematically goaded the local populations to take up arms. Whilst people passing through checkpoints were carefully scrutinised, lorry-loads of weaponry were allowed easily through – the regime wanted demonstrators to weaponize and become fighters. Then it could call them all ‘terrorists’ and kill them indiscriminately.
The leader of Jaysh al-Islam, Zahran Alloush, was killed on Christmas Day 2015 by a targeted airstrike with the help of Russian intelligence, less than three months after Russia entered the Syrian war arena to help its ailing ally Bashar al-Assad stay in power. Zahran’s brother, Muhammad, was sent in his place to represent the group in UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva, but the talks stalled like all the others, and he resigned soon after in May 2016.
Every time the Ghouta enclaves have been subjected to heavy regime bombardment, the rebels have retaliated with sporadic mortar fire sent into the heart of Damascus. Innocent residents of the city have been killed this way, it is true, just as in the western regime-held side of Aleppo when the east Aleppo rebels fired retaliatory mortars. But mortar shells can hardly be said to equate to the massive aerial bombardment inflicted by the Syrian regime and the Russians, whose response has by any measure been totally disproportionate. No matter, the text is in place and the Assad regime has succeeded in provoking the violent reaction from the rebels which it has been seeking all along. Now it is on familiar territory – violence is its default setting for problem-solving, as it showed in Hama in 1982.
The biggest threat to the Assad regime, as both Assad and Putin well know, has never come from ISIS rebels, many of whom are foreign and have little to do with the Syrian people. It has come from the more moderate opposition rebels, most of whom are Syrian and who have long wanted his overthrow. That is why Assad forces have rarely fought ISIS, and why he leaves them sitting on his doorstep – for now. They fit his narrative perfectly, that he is fighting ‘terrorists’.