Syria’s Ghouta prepares for uncertain peace
Beirut- Explosions ripped through the skies of Damascus, all coming from the Ghouta countryside. State media reported the blasts resulted from “heavy missiles” landing on the neighbourhood of Jobar, approximately 2km from the Old City of Damascus, and the nearby village of Ayn Tarma.
The ceasefire that was agreed upon for Ghouta by the Russians in July in Cairo clearly states that it does not apply to the Islamic State (ISIS) or to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the former al-Qaeda branch in Syria, which the Syrian Army claims to have targeted in the raid August 7-8.
Civilians in Ghouta, the historical agricultural belt surrounding Damascus, were preparing for the ceasefire, worn out by five years of siege and daily attacks by Russians and government forces.
In 2012, the military commanders of Ghouta had promised a swift victory, telling followers that, with Saudi and Qatari assistance, they would easily march on Damascus and unseat the regime — a dream that became all the more unattainable after Russia troops joined the Syrian battlefield in September 2015.
Three months later, on Christmas day, a joint Russian-regime operation killed Zahran Alloush, the most celebrated military leader in Ghouta. He had commanded Jaysh al-Islam in Duma, a strategic rebel-held city north-east of Damascus. His death dealt a heavy blow to the fighting morale of the rebels.
A paralysing siege that prevented the influx of more arms, money and medicine into Ghouta pitched them into an uphill battle with the Russian Army. The rebels often retaliated with indiscriminate attacks on central Damascus, raining the city with mortar shells that only killed civilians, failing to even scratch the regime, let alone force it to submission.
Last July, Alloush’s cousin and successor, Mohammad Alloush, signed off on the ceasefire for Ghouta, agreeing to lay down his arms and settle for a compromise with Damascus. Government troops would lift the siege of Ghouta and, in return, his men would refrain from attacking the capital or calling for the downfall of the regime. Assad's regime would allow humanitarian aid into the towns and villages, helping evacuate the elderly and wounded to hospitals in Damascus, without arresting or harassing the militants or their families. The regime would also refrain from sending soldiers, tanks and warplanes into Ghouta, restoring government rule through a civilian authority, which broadly means police and security forces only.
Mohammad Alloush agreed to settle for a future role in co-administering Ghouta through municipal elections and local councils, which would elect their own governors and get a share of their territory’s resources. Alloush also agreed to cooperate with government troops in the fight against ISIS and al- Nusra Front, thus explaining his silence over the August 7-8 attacks.
What Alloush refused to accept was granting Iran any role in the future administration of Ghouta, drowning a suggestion to send Iranian peacekeepers to the Damascus countryside. Instead, he agreed to let the Russians do the job, facilitating the deployment of 150 Russian military police in Ghouta. They are manning checkpoints and overseeing the transfer of civilians to and from Damascus.
Soon, they will regulate the safe passage of economic life to Ghouta, which feeds off the agricultural produce that it sells to Damascus daily. The Russian force will likely be increased to 600 troops, equal to the number of military police sent to Aleppo earlier this year after the northern city was retaken by the Syrian Army in December. A similar number of forces has been deployed throughout the countryside of Daraa in southern Syria, not far from the Syrian-Jordanian border.
Alloush has requested the Egyptian government provide observers in order to give the peacekeepers an Arab identity, but Cairo remains hesitant about committing such a force, fearing for the lives of its soldiers, who are engaged in a vicious war with ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula.
Ghouta has long been a battlefield in times of social unrest and conflict. Ninety-two years ago, hundreds of residents took up arms against colonial France, joining a military uprising launched from the Druze Mountain.
In October 1925, 400 rebels from Ghouta marched on Damascus, planning to arrest the French High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail, whom they hoped to find at the historic Azm Palace, a splendid 18th-century residence of Ottoman governors. They were led into a trap, however, and French troops sealed off the entrances of the Old City, slaughtering the rebels at the palace and in the adjacent Bzurieh Market.
Much of the palace was destroyed and more than 500 Syrians were killed in 48 hours of non-stop bombardment. Entire villages in Ghouta were razed and local leaders in the Damascus countryside were rounded up and shot or hanged in public.
By 1927, the insurgency in Ghouta had come to an end, fizzling out pretty much like what is happening today. After signing off on the ceasefire agreement in Cairo last July, Mohammad Alloush tweeted what read like a quasi-obituary for his troops, saying that Ghouta had been the “heart and climax of the revolution,” adding: “After four years and four months, it is time for this siege to be lifted.”