During the past few weeks, the Ghouta region in Syria has been presenting scenes from hell on earth. Despite repeated appeals from the UN Security Council, air strikes continued. The death toll in the rebel-held area has surpassed thousands. To initiate relief work the UN has been demanding a 30-day reprieve in the war but the warring factions are paying no heed. America and Russia are blaming each other saying all sides should obey the ceasefire because if one side stops another starts attacks. In addition to America and Russia, the official forces of President Bashar al-Assad are also pounding their own country.
The Syrian forces are claiming to attack only the rebels but thousands of civilians, including children and women, have been targeted. Within a month, hundreds lay killed and thousands wounded. Let’s take a look at what Ghouta is and how its crisis developed.
Looking at the map of Syria, you will find Ghouta near the Syrian capital, Damascus. This region was initially an oasis on the banks of the Barada River; and Damascus developed nearby. Damascus and Ghouta are located in the south-western part of Syria, whereas Ghouta is to the east of Damascus. In a way, Ghouta is in the suburbs of the Capital. Ghouta is to Damascus, as Rawalpindi is to Islamabad, both serving almost as twin cities.
The rebellion in Syria started in 2011 when demonstrations against the Assad government erupted in many cities across the country. The people of eastern parts of Ghouta also joined in, prompting the Syrian government to use force against them. After some casualties, the uprising subsided but militancy increased. The people of Ghouta became hostage to the rebels who intermittently kept attacking Damascus. In 2012, this region witnessed acute fighting and by 2013 eastern Ghouta was completely surrounded by the Syrian forces.
Initially, the rebels were hopeful to capture the capital as some peripheral areas such as Yarmouk came under rebel control but soon their hopes were dashed when Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia started helping Assad. Now, rebels were confined to Eastern Ghouta and a five-year long siege started that is now reaching its logical conclusion. For five years, the Syrian forces didn’t launch a decisive battle for fear of harming innocent civilians. During the siege, almost half a million people were trapped within a hundred square kilometres area. The civilians suffered from lack of food and medicines.
Around 2015, it seemed that an increasing rebel offensive across Syria will precipitate the downfall of Assad but from then onwards Russia got involved in a big way and the tide started turning from September 2015. From the Russian airbase in Khmeimim in the north-west Syria, the Russian fighter planes launched hundreds of sorties against dozens of rebel groups including ISIS, Al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda. By 2017, just 15 km and half an hour’s drive away from Damascus, the rebels in Eastern Ghouta were fighting amongst themselves. One group was called Hayatut Tahrir al-Sham.
In Arabic, one meaning of Hayat is organisation; Tahrir comes from Hyrriyat meaning liberation; so it meant Syrian Liberation Organization, commonly known as Tahrir al-Sham i.e. closely linked with al-Qaeda in Syria. Tahrir al-Sham was formed in January 2017, when Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as Al-Nusra Front joined with Ansar al-Din and Jaysh al-Sunna. Then Liwa al-Haqq and Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement also joined followed by Faylaq al-Rahman which was initially with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
It is interesting to note that the FSA consisted of soldiers who had deserted the official Syrian army to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. That’s how Tahrir and Faylaq formed an enormous militant alliance and started fighting against another outfit called Jaysh al-Islam. Now, what is this Jaysh al-Islam? It was earlier called Liwa al-Islam. In Arabic, Liwa is a brigade, so Liwa al-Haq meant the Brigade of Haq; the other Brigade of Islam — and both fought against each other.
Jaysh al-Islam was more active in the areas surrounding Damascus with a central base in Doma, another peripheral town near the capital. It is just 10 km away in the north east of Damascus that was now threatened by both Doma and Ghouta. Jaysh al-Islam and Tahrir are the two biggest groups supported by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). For the past one year or so Tahrir and Faylaq have joined hands against the Jaysh al-Islam. They not only fight against each other but also have been attacking Damascus.
When the government troops started gaining victories in other areas of Syria with the help from the Russian army and air force, they also started targeting the rebels around the capital. Since January 2018, thousands of people have been killed and the Security Council has been appealing for a ceasefire. In both Doma and Ghouta, the Syrian government forces first start bombardment and then send their ground troops. If they face stiff resistance, the Russian fighter planes come to their rescue. Leaflets are dropped asking people to vacate their residences; but the problem is that the locals have nowhere to go.
As long as the rebels are in control they don’t allow people to flee. By the end of March the Syrian army had occupied most areas by driving the rebels out or just killing them. Now the situation is that hundreds of thousands of people are affected by these attacks from both sides, and still some rebels are refusing to surrender. The Russian and Syrian forces are bracing for the final battle. The UN and the Muslim world are unable or unwilling to do much. Here a question may be raised about what the Muslim world could do.
The simple answer is that when the civil war started in Syria, it was ruled by a Shia minority; just as during the Saddam regime Iraq was ruled by a Sunni minority. In the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia sided with the Sunni rebels and Iran supported the Shia-dominated government. Then the KSA and USA joined hands to support the rebels whereas Russia and Iran defended the Syrian government. Now the Muslim countries need to think beyond the sectarian divide. First they should introduce democratic changes in their own countries, hold regular general elections and a majority-based democratic government should be formed.
The kingdoms in the Gulf region and the family-based governments in Iraq and Syria have done tremendous harm to this region. The Muslim countries should refuse to fight proxy wars for America and Russia; but for doing that, they should be able to stand on their own feet and that seems impossible under autocratic governments. The Muslim countries should stress upon both Iran and Saudi Arabia not to push back Syria into the pit of fire it is already in. The Muslim world should also appeal to both America and Russia to refrain from prolonging the Syrian civil war.
Why appeal? Because no Muslim country in the world is in a position to force any western country into compliance. Even a small country such as Israel does not pay much attention to any Muslim country, and this is the bitter truth of today.