Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe is far from over

Chris Doyle

HAD Dante witnessed the suffering of the people in Eastern Ghouta, he might have rewritten his “Inferno.” Pancaked, besieged, and reduced to rubble — his immortal line is perhaps apt: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Victory. Winning. Defeat. In Syria, all these terms have corrupted meanings in the apocalyptic wilderness brought about over the last seven years. The latest chapter in Ghouta’s suffering may have started in mid-February, but pick any moment since 2011 and it was one of collective suffering, not least with the use of sarin gas in 2013.
The awful tragedy is that the outcome of this denouement was as predictable as a Siberian winter. The flailing, inert international community had issued a UN Security Council Resolution that was doomed before birth. If anything, all the hollow international pressure served to falsely inflate expectations in Eastern Ghouta that somehow they would be rescued, with even rumors of US intervention emboldening some of the armed groups.
They amassed in the cities and towns of Eastern Ghouta, once the breadbasket of Damascus, but simply could not withstand the Russian-Iranian-Syrian coalition amassed against them. Once the enclave was split into varying parts, the writing on the wall was bloodily clear. After all, many other opposition-controlled areas in Syria had suffered the same fate: The dreaded green buses shipping them out to Idlib or Jarabulus in the north.
The full story of the negotiations is one that cannot yet be told. Russia played a major if not impartial brokering role, often frustrated by all sides and if anything holding the regime back from a final military campaign to take Douma. Many took huge risks to avoid the inevitable, trying to wrestle the hundreds of thousands of civilians to some form of safety. It will be a story of doctors who not only marshaled the last remaining medical facilities, even as the bombs were aimed at them, but also attempted to find a negotiated exit as part of a civic committee. Different armed groups took differing positions. Faylaq Al-Rahman, largely ensconced in the southwestern part of Eastern Ghouta, were initially the more hardline, refusing to read the runes and being in cahoots with Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham. From the outside, this obstinacy at times looked suicidal, a pointless display of defiance. The fighters of course feared reprisals, arrests, disappearances.
Civilians feared the same, as well as young men of fighting age being immediately recruited into the army for national service. Faylaq did then make an agreement at the last moment following heavy losses and extreme pressure from civilians. Jaysh Al-Islam in Douma entered talks early on but then, owing to a specific jurist, Shaikh Kahkeh, stalled on the final deal. This armed group has lost its external patrons but was still well-funded owing to the lucrative war economy in the enclave.
The 100,000 to 140,000 civilians left there are waiting their fate, many of them increasingly furious with Jaysh Al-Islam. The hopeful news at the time of writing was that an informal ceasefire appeared to exist and fighters were being evacuated, indicating serious progress in negotiations. There is a danger the public perception is that the crisis in Eastern Ghouta is over, yet thousands of those who have got out of the enclave have found themselves in encampments with next to no services.
Certain areas were given special treatment. Hamourieh was rendered uninhabitable. Teams of regime looters systematically took everything from the whole town, right down to stripping copper wires. Yet a deal for Kafr Batna seems to have saved it from the worst of the ravages. Remarkably, its hospital is still operating. Areas where civilians have been able to remain post-deal have suffered less from these parasitical looters.
But the humanitarian catastrophe will not finish. Much of the reporting has covered inside Eastern Ghouta. The danger is, as these deals are enacted, that the public perception is that the crisis in this area is over. Yet those who have got out, either in a deal or having successfully fled across lines, have found themselves in encampments with next to no services. One observer counted just eight toilets for 18,000 people. Reportedly, people are being interrogated and tortured.
Almost 41,000 rebels and civilians have also been evacuated to Idlib under deals between the government and rebel factions Ahrar Al-Sham and Faylaq Al-Rahman. This is just a transfer from one warzone to another. At some undetermined date in the future, all the opposition fighters and supporters who have been transferred to the northwest may well face the same foes once again.
Idlib is already under attack in areas, but the regime, totally determined to retain full sovereign control of all Syria, may first need to sort out northern Homs and Hama provinces, and even the south around Dara’a. Serious talks are happening over the fate of the Qalamun Mountains.
The regime will be feeling supremely confident. The end of fighting in Eastern Ghouta will eradicate the last opposition threat in the Damascus region. Yet this might be the moment of greatest danger. Under the cover of war and mortar shelling from Ghouta, the regime could ward off the massive post-mortem on this conflict that it will face with its loyalist base. Many of these loyalists will want to be satisfied with war booty, perhaps land in Ghouta stolen from those who have been forced out.
Tensions will erupt over what to do about those desiring to return to their homes in Syria. Other loyalists will demand serious change, painfully aware that the regime has been a poor protector of their interests over the last several years, mortgaging their country to Russian and Iranian interests in order to pay for this tsunami of carnage and destruction.
—Courtesy: Arab News
[Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech]

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