De­spite West­ern ac­tion, As­sad gained

Kuwait Times - - Analysis -

Af­ter Syr­ian forces bombed the town of Douma ear­lier this month in an at­tack the United States says in­volved chlo­rine gas, Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies launched mis­sile strikes as pun­ish­ment. The ret­ri­bu­tion has changed lit­tle in the course of the seven-year civil war, but the al­leged poi­son gas at­tack did. Rebels had held the strong­hold of Douma, near the cap­i­tal Da­m­as­cus, for years de­spite re­peated of­fen­sives. Within hours of the April 7 at­tack they were in re­treat.

Under pres­sure from be­lea­guered res­i­dents and fac­ing Rus­sian threats of fur­ther such at­tacks, the rebel group Jaish al-Is­lam fi­nally agreed to sur­ren­der Douma and leave for the Turk­ish bor­der, Mo­ham­mad Al­loush, a top of­fi­cial in the move­ment, said. By the time the West struck back just under a week later, armed re­sis­tance in the ar­eas around the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s seat of power had all but col­lapsed, fur­ther strength­en­ing the hand of Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad.

Syria and Rus­sia con­demned the West­ern mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion early on Satur­day, and deny the use of chem­i­cal weapons in Douma. Moscow branded it a lie con­cocted with the help of Britain, while the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment said a sig­nif­i­cant body of in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing in­tel­li­gence, in­di­cated the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment was re­spon­si­ble. What­ever hap­pened on that day, it prompted a dra­matic shift on the ground.

Med­i­cal re­lief groups said dozens of civil­ians were killed, and one video cir­cu­lated by ac­tivists showed the bodies of around a dozen men, women and chil­dren life­less on the floor, some of them with foam at the mouth. A cou­ple of hours later, ac­cord­ing to Al­loush, me­di­a­tors from the rebel group held talks with a team led by a se­nior of­fi­cer from the Rus­sian de­fense min­istry. “The threat came: ‘You saw what hap­pened in Douma. Now you can only sign, or there will be more strikes and no­body left in the town’,” Al­loush, who is based in Is­tan­bul, told Reuters.

He blamed Rus­sia for help­ing the Syr­ian army carry out the at­tack in or­der to end the re­bel­lion. “They bombed and bombed and we weren’t de­feated by con­ven­tional weapons so they found the only way was to use chem­i­cal (weapons).” The Rus­sian de­fense min­istry did not re­spond to de­tailed ques­tions about Al­loush’s com­ments sent by Reuters. Af­ter talk­ing with the Rus­sians, Jaish al-Is­lam mem­bers then met a civil­ian coun­cil rep­re­sent­ing Douma res­i­dents: Tens of thou­sands have stayed on de­spite the fight­ing that has re­duced much of the town to rub­ble. The res­i­dents’ mes­sage to the rebels was clear: “They said ‘we can no longer hold on. If you don’t leave, we are go­ing over to the regime’,” said Al­loush. “Civil­ian morale col­lapsed with the scenes of death.” A coun­cil mem­ber who de­clined to be named told Reuters that civil­ians said they could no longer re­sist, given the threat of fur­ther at­tacks. Dozens of peo­ple had been killed under in­tense bom­bard­ment the day be­fore poi­son gas was al­legedly de­ployed, but there was a dif­fer­ence, Al­loush said. “Chem­i­cal weapons cre­ate more ter­ror.”

Es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions

Syria’s civil war has been go­ing As­sad’s way since Rus­sia in­ter­vened on his side in 2015. Af­ter the key cap­ture of eastern Aleppo in late 2016, As­sad and his al­lies have taken back one area af­ter an­other from rebels who face Rus­sian air power and lack suf­fi­cient aid from for­eign states that back them only half-heart­edly. Sig­nif­i­cant ar­eas of Syria still re­main be­yond the pres­i­dent’s grasp, in­clud­ing nearly all of the north, much of the east, and a chunk of the south­west, ar­eas where for­eign in­ter­ests will com­pli­cate fur­ther gains.

But in the re­gion around the cap­i­tal he has made big gains. Eastern Ghouta fell last month, leav­ing Douma as the last ma­jor rebel bas­tion. Its fall - in­sur­gent fight­ers have been bussed to­wards the Turk­ish bor­der over the past few days marks an­other mile­stone. The Ghouta of­fen­sive was di­rected from the start by Rus­sia and waged on the ground by elite Syr­ian forces, ac­cord­ing to a com­man­der in the re­gional mil­i­tary alliance that backs As­sad.

When the as­sault got un­der­way in Fe­bru­ary, the be­sieged area was pounded from the ground and air be­fore troops thrust in. So far, the Ghouta of­fen­sive has killed more than 1,700 civil­ians, the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said. Ham­strung by ri­val­ries and weak­ened by the “scorched earth” bom­bard­ment, the hand­ful of eastern Ghouta rebel groups were steadily de­feated and forced to ac­cept safe pas­sage to op­po­si­tion-held ter­ri­tory at the Turk­ish bor­der. Jaish al-Is­lam, how­ever, be­lieved it could avoid the same fate even as Syr­ian troops en­cir­cled Douma, say­ing it wanted to pro­tect the town and its peo­ple from forced dis­place­ment im­posed by the As­sad gov­ern­ment.

Once the big­gest rebel group in eastern Ghouta, Jaish alIs­lam claimed to have for­ti­fied Douma ex­ten­sively, mean­ing gov­ern­ment forces could face a costly bat­tle to cap­ture it. The group also said it could have held out thanks to weapons fac­to­ries it built up dur­ing the war and enough sup­plies to feed peo­ple for a year. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of res­i­dents had al­ready fled the area in the years and months pre­ced­ing April 7, but tens of thou­sands stayed. In ne­go­ti­a­tions with Rus­sian mil­i­tary per­son­nel, Jaish al-Is­lam pressed for a deal that would let in Rus­sian mil­i­tary po­lice, keep out the Syr­ian mil­i­tary and al­low its fight­ers to stay as a lo­cal se­cu­rity force. —Reuters

Pub­lic fear and threats forced Douma rebels to sur­ren­der

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