By Haid Haid
The public attention (both in the region and the west) – as a result of the Syrian army’s ongoing attack on the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta – has been gradually shifting away from blaming the government for launching a war of extermination against its citizens. Instead, many have started wondering, and even blaming, rebel groups for fighting back.
The argument goes something like this: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his backers, are determined to do whatever it takes to capture the 100 square-kilometre region even at the cost of killing all 400,000 people living there.
No place safe
Thus, it’s the responsibility of rebel groups to submit, sooner rather than later, to their inevitable fate and spare civilian lives.
Although such an argument might be motivated by good intentions, it fails to capture the complexity of the Syrian conflict. There is no safe place inside Syria for those who dare to oppose Assad.
Over the past couple of days, I spoke to dozens of Ghouta residents. Both civilians and rebel groups living in Ghouta know this fact very well.
While obviously we should not assume that everyone in Eastern Ghouta opposes the government as there is no way to verify it, the collective punishment used by the Syrian governement against civilians there indicate that at least the regime sees them that way.
Leaving the country is not an option for the majority of Syrians, due to the closure of the borders surrounding Syria. Relocating to another area in Syria might decrease the level of violence but will not make people safe from the continuous government attacks on rebel-held areas across the county.
The risks imposed by the Syrian government’s aggression have significantly increased recently due to the obvious failure of the de-escalation agreements. The dreadful present, and future, facing the people of eastern Aleppo who were forcibly displaced to Idlib in December 2015 is a clear example.
After weeks of heavy bombardment on that part of the city, in a situation similar to what is happening in Ghouta now, a deal was brokered forcing those who oppose Assad to leave the city.
Less than a year later, pro-government forces supported by Iran-backed militia and Russian air cover launched an ongoing offensive to capture new territories in Idlib, in direct violation of the de-escalation zone memorandum signed by the sponsoring states of the Astana talks.
The fighting has had a catastrophic impact on civilians living there. Nearly 300 civilians were killed in a matter of weeks and over 300,000 others were internally displaced again.
“A convenient exile”
Unlike in the case of eastern Aleppo, where the default backfall destination was its western countryside and Idlib, Eastern Ghouta’s people have no recognisable choice. People in Aleppo were evacuated to areas close by, in the countryside or Idlib, where most of them own properties or have relatives living there.
Many displaced rebel groups had sub-military bases in those regions as well. These reasons, and the lack of any other option, eased to a certain extent people’s decision to leave their homes.
As for Ghouta, there is no “convenient” exile for its inhabitants. Idlib is too far. Additionally, there are different ongoing wars taking place there (regime-rebels, inter-rebel conflicts, Turkey-Kurds).
Idlib has also expressed, on many occasions, its unwillingness to receive more internally displaced people due to its inability to accommodate newcomers.
The second potential destination is Daraa. It is closer to Ghouta but the situation there is even more delicate due to the existing fragile de-escalation zone. The influential regional actors, Jordan and Israel, and international actors (US) wish to maintain the local dynamics in Daraa as they are in order to keep things under control.
But bringing a large number of rebels and civilians into Daraa will undoubtedly destabilise the situation.
The new military model
The third destination is the cities of Jarablus and al-Bab in north-eastern Syria held by the Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield force. These areas are heavily managed by Turkey, which has been trying to present its intervention there as a success.
Thus, moving there will likely come with many strings attached, the least of which is to fit in with the new military model that Ankara has been trying to implement there, which many rebel groups might not agree with.
Moreover, the experience of other displaced people who were forced to be evacuated to that region, namely from Homs, has been of public complaints about the bad conditions they had to live under there.
Consequently some of them decided to go back to their homes under the control of the Syrian government despite the risks involved.
More importantly, Ghouta rebels do not have military bases or strong alliances in any of those areas which will make it harder for them to maintain the influence and authority they are used to enjoying.
Likewise, the deal will likely force them to give up all their heavy weaponry and resources, to say the least, which will prevent them from being able to re-establish themselves in their new exile.
The last option is for people to stay in their homes and accept the government’s authority. It’s safe to say that a seizable percentage of the inhabitants consciously decided to stay in Ghouta under the government’s siege and constant bombardment over living in government controlled areas, despite the risks.
Many others are scared of what the government might do despite their political views ( whether they are actively opposing Assad or not). Their assumption is based on the way the government behaved elsewhere.
The majority of civilians in Ghouta feel that they will face punitive measures. Their profound concerns are based on the violations committed by the government against the civilians who, in similar cases, decided to stay in areas retaken by state forces.
In eastern Aleppo, it was reported that the Syrian government detained many civilians, exploited others, and forced young males to fight for it.
It seems, as a result, that rebel groups think that their only option, despite the odds, is to survive long enough until things change. In other words, for them, it is better to fight and die today instead of living to fight another day.
As for the civilians living there, they have no power over anything including when or how to die.
Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and research fellow at ICSR, Chatham House and Atlantic Council. His research topics include security policy, conflict resolution, Kurds and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22.u