The assault on the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta has been one of the fiercest and deadliest in Syria’s seven-year war. Pro-regime forces used practically every weapon in their arsenal in the offensive, including internationally banned ordnances such as cluster bombs, incendiary materials and even chemical weapons. But while Eastern Ghouta, until now one of the last few rebel-held pockets near Syria’s capital, is clearly of strategic importance to the regime, the extreme force employed – massively brutal even by this war’s sad standard – still cannot be easily explained. So, why? Well, because it is about more than just Ghouta; instead, it is to do with bringing all opposition against Bashar Al Assad – wherever it might be – to its knees.
One reason for mobilizing every available military resource toward Ghouta, of course, would be to allow the regime to capture it faster. There are precedents for making this calculation. For despite the harrowing atrocities of nearly a decade, Bashar Al Assad has not been made to account for any of his actions. The impunity he and his regime enjoy might have emboldened them to use everything within their reach to seize Ghouta as quickly as possible – despite any adverse media coverage this might trigger (they don’t care.) Then again, despite all that firepower, it took far longer than one would have expected for the regime to gain control. The area is just 100 square kilometers, after all. So why did the regime simply pound the area without making any attempt for so long to actually capture it? Why delay victory? The answer is that Ghouta, home to an estimated 400,000 civilians, was principally and always meant to be an exhibition of the regime’s terrifying power – and so the longer that its brutality was on international news, the better its purpose was served (this much, they cared about).
Many experts liken the Syrian regime to a “mob” family or mafia cartel. By this account, some military operations are not only carried out for tactical gains, but also to send a message. And like the mafia, the only language the regime knows is violence. Then, the brutality it metes out is calibrated against the importance of the message to the regime.
In the case of Ghouta, the message the regime was articulating – loudly and clearly – was that henceforth no pocket of resistance would be tolerated, and that the only way out for its enemies was unconditional surrender. Indeed, what it intended on making abundantly clear to the rebels – and any civilians living around them – was that there was no one to call upon to rescue them. The rebels would have to submit or perish, and along with them the civilians in their midst.
More specifically, Ghouta was meant to expedite the unconditional surrender of all the other rebel-held enclaves, namely the areas surrounding Yarmouk camp (Yalda, Babbila, Beit Sahm and Aqraba), Dumayr, Eastern Qalamoun and Homs (Al Rastan and Houla). Many rebels in these areas previously engaged in some level of negotiation with the regime or its backers to broker ceasefires or for local reconciliation agreements that allowed them to remain. Now, any agreement that does not allow the regime to regain full authority would no longer be acceptable to it. The horrors inflicted on Ghouta are aimed at convincing rebels to cease trying to negotiate, and instead to offer up their full and total submission – sooner, rather than later. Such deals would be accompanied by forced-evacuations that exile those who oppose Assad to other rebel-held areas – for now, in Idlib.
And it is starting to pay off for Assad. After almost two years of negotiations, rebel groups and influential figures in Al Qadam, also on the outskirts of Damascus, gave in and accepted a deal in early March that allowed the regime to regain full control and total dominance over the area. This is just the start.
The Ghouta atrocities, in addition, are also aimed to telegraph to dissidents that they should harbor no expectation of a political transition that precludes Assad. Thus, the regime is signaling in no uncertain terms that dissidents who choose to remain in the country either must behave or suffer the consequences of their dissent. As for the latter, the best they might expect would be imprisonment; the worst, torture and death.
The inability of the international community – or its lack of willingness – to stop Assad’s atrocities – or even to make him and his officials fear the consequences of their action – allows the regime to continue to use unconscionable, brutal tactics. These set an example for other dictators, who will be tempted by Assad’s success. This vicious circle – in every sense of the phrase – will only end when and if these monsters feel they cannot anymore kill with impunity. Sadly, the brutal, horrendous tragedy visited on the people of Eastern Ghouta do not indicate that that time is even close to being upon us.
Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.