The current operation of the Syrian army on the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, launched with the full support of Russia, is being attempted to be stopped through a large media campaign because the military situation is against the armed groups which are backed by the countries engaged in a proxy war towards Syria in order for a regime shift in the country. Sustained by the claims of the al-Qaeda or Muslim Brothers-associated “activists” being taken outright as truth and the images provided by those circles, the campaign represents the story as the Syrian army’s war against civilians rather than around ten thousand militants carrying out missile and mortar attacks to the capital Damascus from Eastern Ghouta. As for the panic in the countries advocating a regime shift in Syria, led by the USA, it is connected with the fact that Eastern Ghouta is the third big milestone to designate the future of the country after the battle of al-Qusayr in the Lebanese border in Spring 2013 and the battle of Aleppo in 2016.
1) WHY IS EASTERN GHOUTA IMPORTANT?
Because of its nearness to the capital Damascus, Eastern Ghouta has been amongst the most important fronts in the proxy war against Syria, which was started in 2011. According to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, approximately ten thousand militants are estimated to be situated in Eastern Ghouta, besieged since 2013, which is a 100 square km area accommodating around 250 thousand civilians according to the UN. Connecting Damascus to Homs and Aleppo and leading to the Jordanian border in the south, the M5 highway runs through Eastern Ghouta, and it has been blocked since 2012. Eastern Ghouta is also located on the main roads linking Damascus to Deir ez-Zor via Palmyra, in other words, leading to the Iraqi border. If the Syrian army declares its victory against the militants in Eastern Ghouta, in addition to these roads being opened, the Syrian war will gain a "rural" appearance again as in early 2012, with the presence of the armed groups in Damascus being substantially eliminated.
This means Damascus and Moscow growing their hands stronger in the negotiations on the future of Syria. Besides, as the Syrian army gave the sign that it will head towards the southern border through the downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet at the beginning of February, taking back of Eastern Ghouta will both mean the security threat towards Damascus behind the front to be removed and ensure the best troops of the Syrian army which have been stuck in this front for five years to break free.
Therefore, the operation on Eastern Ghouta, which is a candidate third front of the Syrian war, has created an air of panic in the countries participating in the anti-Assad coalition, led by the USA. While the operation is attempted to be stopped through a media campaign, France, Britain and the US forces the Damascus administration to turn a blind eye to the presence of armed groups. However, how successful this scenario, which was also tried in Aleppo, will be is a complete mystery. Although the UN Security Council took a decision on Saturday to declare a 30-day ceasefire throughout Syria with the pressure of the US, France, and Britain, it is significant that the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), was excluded from the scope of the agreement. The known presence of this group in Eastern Ghouta’s neighbourhoods facing the central Damascus can enable the operation to continue without violating the ceasefire decision at least technically.
2) WHO ARE THE MILITANTS IN EASTERN GHOUTA?
Groups that are predominantly supported by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are present in Eastern Ghouta.
Army of Islam: The centre of the Army of Islam, which is the largest group in the region thanks to the help of Saudi Arabia, is Douma, which is also referred to as the "capital of Eastern Ghouta." Information that were reflected in the US intelligence documents ,such as the Saudis providing this group with 120 tonnes of explosive "with the occasion of the second year of the Revolution" and the Syrian capital being bombarded with missiles and mortars that day with the Saudi instruction to "set fire to Damascus," reveals the control of the al-Saud dynasty over the group.
In July 2012, five senior officials, including the defence and interior ministers of Syria, lost their lives in the Syrian National Security Meeting, targeted by the bombing attack of the Army of Islam. Even though the group is categorised as "moderate," its leader Zahran Alloush, who was killed in an airstrike of the Syrian airforce in 2015, said that they considered democracy as blasphemy, and described their aim as "to establish an Umayyad state to crush the heads of Shias and Alevis." In 2013, the Army of Islam leaked in Adra, located opposite to Douma, to murder around 40 civilians, and then "exhibited" the people they kidnapped from here in the streets of Eastern Ghouta, putting them in cages.
Al-Rahman Corps: The second largest group of Eastern Ghouta is known for its affinity to Qatar. Frequently engaging in combat with the Army of Islam due to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, al-Rahman Corps demolished the Marj Al-Sultan Radar Base, the eye of Damascus monitoring Israel, in November 2012. Two months after this incident, Israel organised its first air attack on Syria, and Abdul al-Nasr Shamir, the leader of al-Rahman Corps, admitted that that received three million dollars from Qatar to destroy the radar base.
Ahrar al-Sham: Founded by Abu Khalid al-Suri, the Damascus representative of the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, the organisation controls the Harasta region of Eastern Ghouta, facing the central Damascus. Also called the "favourite of Turkey," Ahrar al-Sham carried out an attack on the Armoured Vehicle Base in Harasta in November to stop the army operations in the Idlib front. The ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta ended with this attack.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham: Having become the largest armed around Syria after the defeat of the ISIS, the HTS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, has a lower profile in Eastern Ghouta. This is because the vast majority of the militants in the rural Damascus obeyed the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the ISIS-al-Nusra collision took place in 2013. Leaking from Eastern Ghouta, the HTS militants performed bombing attacks in the central Damascus many times before. As a result of last two major attacks in July and October, which were allegedly organised by the HTS, 37 civilians lost their lives.
3) HOW DID IT COME DOWN TO TODAY?
Eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus, is amongst the places in Syria where the armed groups are strongest. The main reason for this is that Eastern Ghouta was one of the biggest victims of Syria’s adventure of neo-liberalisation. Having obtained a relatively modern watering opportunity with the technical support of the Soviet Union, Eastern Gouta was the food store of the capital Damascus. However, the neoliberal policies implemented with Bashar al-Assad taking the office in 2000 dealt a big blow to the agriculture of Eastern Ghouta.
Besides, Eastern Ghouta, which hosted leather and shoe workshops before the war, was a worker basin for Damascus at the same time. These workshops went bankrupt because of failing to compete with the Turkish products crowding into Syria owing to the rapprochement in the bilateral relations with Turkey, which continued until 2011. The region where unemployment skyrocketed was also volatile before 2011. What complicated the situation were the activities of the Islamist groups in Eastern Ghouta, which was in the grip of unemployment and poverty. Organising aid campaigns with the donations from the Gulf countries, these groups have reached a wide social segment in Eastern Ghouta by 2011. Thus, Douma, or the "capital" of Eastern Ghouta, was one of the first cities to join in the demonstrations started in 2011 in Syria.
Between 2012 and 2013, thousands of militants in Eastern Ghouta attempted an offensive towards the central Damascus with the weapons transported via Jordan but they failed. In the meantime, the conflicts were making the news in the western media with the humane tragedy they caused being completely disguised, and were disclosed with headlines such as "Rebels advancing towards Assad's heart" or "Conflicts can be heard from Assad’s palace on Mount Qasioun." However, around 600 thousand people in Damascus became refugees, abandoning their homes as a result of the conflicts. After the Syrian army took back the strategic Otaybah village in the east of Eastern Ghouta in 2013, the region’s connection to Jordan was cut, and the armed groups there were besieged. Today, however, the militants can still transport the arms aid provided by Jordan to Eastern Ghouta through smugglers and tunnel networks.
4) HOW DID THE SAUDI-QATAR RIVALRY HIT EASTERN GHOUTA?
While the Syrian army turned the tables on itself in the field, the armed groups in Eastern Ghoutah lost blood in bloody internal conflicts. The bloodiest of these conflicts occurred in Spring 2017 between the Army of Islam and al-Rahman Corps, which took support from Ahrar al-Sham and the HTS. More than 400 people, predominantly militant, incidentally civilian, died during the one-month conflicts.
Although the conflicts were generally over the control of the checkpoints opening to Damascus, which were transformed into an important income channel, they were, in fact, a reflection of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in Eastern Ghouta, which is one of the most important fronts in Syria, in the background. The biggest victim of these conflicts of the armed groups is civilians. Today, Eastern Ghouta is divided into two between the Army of Islam and al-Rahman Corps, and both groups are being accused of kidnapping, torturing, and even killing civilians from the cities under the control of the counterparty.
5) HOW DID THE MILITANTS IN EASTERN GHOUTA BECOME ISOLATED?
When it came to Damascus, the Syrian army deployed its best-equipped troops in there. And it surpassed the militants, which are devoid of coordination, over time with strategic steps such as the taking back of Otaybah. However, the negotiations conducted by the "national dialogue committee" in the Aleppo front, which near the end today with Eastern Ghouta, was also effective in the today's scene to develop. For instance, the militants in Yalda and Qaboun, which link Eastern and Western Ghoutas to each other, preferred a ceasefire with the Damascus administration, handing over their heavy weapons to the army. As for Darayya, which is the most important front of Western Ghouta, militants accepted to be sent to Idlib by busses.
When it came to 2017, the armed groups in the Damascus front became quite isolated in Eastern Ghouta. The Syrian army fairly shrank the Eastern Ghouta pocket by taking back critical villages such as Marj Al-Sultan, al-Malihah, and Deir al-Asafir. This also dealt a big blow to the weapon shipment of militants in tunnels. However, paying attention to Aleppo first and then the ISIS, the army preferred a ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta. The last of these ceasefires ended in last November with the attack of armed groups towards the Armoured Vehicle Base in Harasta.
6) CAN THE MILITANTS IN EASTERN GHOUTA BE IGNORED?
The only topic that the militant troops in Eastern Ghouta converge on is the missile and mortar attacks towards Damascus targeting civilian settlements. According to Syria’s claim, the number of the civilians who died in militant attacks in five years reaches to ten thousand. A total of 25 civilians died in attacks on Damascus in the last three days only. Amongst the places shot by militants are schools and hospitals, along with the Russian Embassy and a point where the Russian army disperses humanitarian aid. Militants also rejected Russia’s offer of a "secure passage to Idlib or Daraa." The only group to accept the secure evacuation was the HTS. Conditioning that their militants which were taken prisoner by the Army of Islam during their conflicts with this group will be released, the HTS stayed in Eastern Ghouta following the Army of Islam’s unfavourable reply.
On the other hand, the biggest assurance of militants is a total population of 250 thousand civilians in Eastern Ghouta. Even though the maps of the secure exit points in the Eastern Ghouta region are being airdropped by Syrian planes, no large civilian exists have occurred to date. A report by the UN-affiliated REACH states that militants prevent civilians from leaving Ghouta by force. In a period when the Syrian army is planning to head to the Israeli border, it is no longer possible for the Damascus administration to ignore the militants in Eastern Ghouta, which pose a threat to the capital and create a big security risk. Again according to the claims, at the first stage, the Syrian army aims at the region where al-Rahman Corps is located and which is Eastern Ghouta’s border to the central Damascus. As for Douma, held by the Army of Islam, to be brought under control through negotiation, it is stated that Russia’s process to persuade Saudi Arabia continues.
7) WHO ARE THESE ACTIVISTS?
Sources of the news in the western media on Eastern Ghouta are generally the "activists" who move in concert with militants in the field. Western media take the claims of these anonymous activists as truth outright, and uses the images again provided by them. Other sources than "anonymous activists" are the White Helmets and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). White Helmets is a "humanitarian aid foundation" that receives 90 billion dollars of help from Britain and the USA ], which push for a regime shift in Syria. Frequently made the news with its "close relations" with jihadist groups, the White Helmets argued these claims to be a "smear campaign of the Assad regime;" however, they saw no harm in accepting the award given by the HTS. In an uploaded video of the prize ceremony, the HTS leader at the time, Abu Jaber, thanks to the White Helmets, which he dubs as "the hidden soldiers of our revolution."
As for the SAMS, it is the main source of the news that "Assad bombs the last hospital" in Eastern Ghouta after Aleppo. Most recently, the group claimed that the 13 hospitals it runs in Eastern Ghouta had been bombed by fighter jets. However, due to the organic bonds of the SAMS with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which it doesn’t feel the need to hide, the statements of the SAMS-linked doctors are mostly being used in the western media anonymously. Indeed, making sectarian statements such as "We will turn Syria into an Alevi graveyard," the group engages in lobbying for the US to intervene in Syria.
8) HOW ARE THE NEWS DISTORTED?
The fact that "opponents" are being used as a news source for Eastern Ghouta stories has transformed the western media into a tool for the political aims of these groups. The determination so strong that shortly after the White Helmets' statement that "Eastern Ghouta is another Srebrenica," comparing Eastern Ghouta with Srebrenica has become an epidemic amongst the western newspapers and televisions, the British Guardian being the first.
The news based on the claims of the "opponents" and the images they provided make the impression that the war is fundamentally occurring between the civilians that are stuck in Eastern Ghouta and the Syrian army. Meanwhile, the presence of militants who possess tanks, rockets, mortars, and even missiles in Eastern Ghouta, right beside the central Damascus, is being concealed.
This brings about the opportunity for mortar and rocket attacks of militants to the central Damascus to be hidden or be squeezed between the lines at best. Images regarding the moments of terror during the attacks of militants in Eastern Ghouta can occasionally be released to the market as images of the Syrian army’s attack towards Eastern Ghouta.
For instance, the footage of a mortar fired from Eastern Ghouta hitting a primary school was claimed by Fox TV to be shot in a school in Eastern Ghouta during the attack of the Syrian army. As the Syrian administration accepts the civilian casualties in its operation on Eastern Ghouta, it denies the claims that it deliberately targeted civilians during the offensive. Stressing the thesis that no countries will tolerate the presence of armed groups in its capital, the Damascus administration reminds that the militants rejected the suggestions for a secured passage and the evacuation of civilians.
9) IS IT A SECOND ALEPPO?
Western media often draw an analogy between Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo. However, the unreminded truth was that only 34 thousand, including militants and their families, out of a total of 300 thousand Syrians who were reportedly living in the east of Aleppo which was under control of armed groups had chosen to go to Idlib with militants. According to the UN figures, the number of refugees who returned to Aleppo after the Syrian army taking control of the city is 400 thousand.
Aleppo also became an important experiment on to what extend the images of killed or wounded civilians represent all aspects of the war. As it can be remembered, little Omran Daqneesh, publicised as the "Aleppo boy," was made the "symbol of the Assad atrocity" following an airstrike of Syrian fighter jets; however, it was revealed then that the Omran's family was a supporter of Assad. Having rejected the interview offers of militants, worth of thousands of dollars, when Eastern Aleppo was under control of armed groups, as well as refused to leave the city with militants after their defeat, the father Daqneesh accused the rebels of exploiting his son in order to defame the Syrian government.
10) ARE THE CAMPAIGNERS CONCERNED ABOUT CIVILIANS?
Attitudes of the countries leading the Eastern Ghouta campaigns are in a striking contradiction with their stance on Yemen, which has been destroyed through the severe blockade and intense airstrikes of Saudi Arabia. Amongst the most active countries regarding Eastern Ghouta, France, Britain, and the US give military support to the Saudis. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who accuses Assad of performing a massacre in Eastern Ghouta, also offered military support to the Saudis with respect to Yemen.
However, the contradiction doesn’t only belong to these countries. For instance, the Human Rights Watch named the missile strike of Yemeni Houthis on a major Saudi airport as a "war crime." Also having launched a campaign to stop the Eastern Ghouta operation, the Amnesty International published a report alleging that the most important reason for the civilian casualties in Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, is the use of anti-craft weapons against Saudi fighter jets.
As for the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency, which leads the campaign in Turkey, it did what even the Saudi state television Al Arabiya didn’t, describing the shooting of a Saudi warship by the Houthis as a "terror attack."