After seven years of the civil war, “the Syrian knot” reveals new, deeply hidden loops, which time and again complicate its unraveling. Paradoxically, there are uncovered by some of the positive developments in the solution of the Syrian conflict.
On February 24, 2018, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2401 on the ceasefire, demanding “a durable humanitarian pause for at least thirty consecutive days throughout Syria.” By the way, the Russian initiative (quite in the spirit of Resolution 2401) to provide specific humanitarian corridors showed much greater practical orientation: on February 27, five-hour pauses began in the area of Eastern Ghouta to ensure the withdrawal of the civilian population, sick, and injured from this suburb of Damascus.
On the second day of the Russian initiative, covert, but ruthless criticism began: the UN Deputy Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs said that it was technically impossible to carry out humanitarian actions during the 5-hour moratorium on hostilities. This statement was likely made in response to the desire of the Russian side to act more decisively to help the Syrian army, which had surrounded this suburb of 400,000 people, where significant forces, including “moderate opposition,” are concentrated. It is also possible that the demand for a the US-led coalition to open access to help the population of Raqqa and all other liberated areas of Syria also played its role. In any case, the unanimity on the UN Security Council vote did not become a sign of more understanding between the US-led coalition and the Syrian army, supported by Russia and Iran.
The difference in vision of the future of Syria, perhaps, only deepens over time, acquiring other forms of expression both on the local and international levels. Given the acute problem of the ominous Turkish activity in the Afrin area, the weak control of the central government over the situation in the de-escalation zones, it can be said that official Damascus treats the removal of the threat from East Ghouta and Duma together with the elimination of the terrorist military activity hotbed in Yarmuk (from where ISIS remnants continue shelling of Damascus) as a matter that goes far beyond the image of government (the shells from these suburbs periodically explode in the central streets of the Syrian capital – more than a dozen every day). It is a pivotal matter of security.
Can such goals of the government and the army coincide with interests of any other actors in Syria? The willingness to “squeeze” militants of banned groups (Jabhat al-Nusra, etc., as well as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) out of Ghouta was allegedly expressed by members of a number of formations, including those involved in the negotiations within the framework of the Astana and Sochi platforms (Jaysh al-Islam, Failak ar-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham, etc.). The UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman announced such a message at a UN Security Council session on February 28. It seems, however, that this is not a coincidence of intermediate goals of the government and the opposition, but a tactical step aimed at preserving the existing situation which is advantageous for these groups, retaining strategic positions near the capital and, of course, a successful image move. There is simply not enough strength for the declared “squeezing out”.
But even if this happens, there are two practical questions regarding the civilian population: 1) Will the fighters, who are literally entrenched in suburban neighborhoods, release the civilian population? 2) Will they subsequently agree to leave their outposts in an organized manner in the immediate vicinity of the Syrian capital?
First: The civilians are not being let out, and this is quite explainable. The Aleppo experience gives militants a reason to believe that without a “living shield” they will be doomed, and while the army is forced to fight in urban conditions, it suffers heavy human losses (which, from their point of view, cannot add morale to the Syrian infantry).
We must not forget that for several hundred thousand inhabitants of the suburb, exit through the humanitarian corridors is not only dangerous in itself: it can also mean loss of real estate, complete uncertainty for years, replenishment of the masses of “internally displaced persons” (already 6.1 million Syrians, according to the United Nations). We can assume that the bitter knowledge of corruption of certain structures and specific officials responsible for the distribution of humanitarian aid influences the decision of many of them not to leave their homes.
Second: What awaits the armed opposition militants who will leave the enclave? The authors of the UNSC resolution, which, among other things, requires the Syrian army “to lift immediately the blockade of populated areas, including Eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Fua and Kefraya,” did refer to their combat experience. Assuming that militants of the moderate opposition will have to leave Ghouta in an organized manner, they may, after the next rebranding, be involved in the continuing confrontation in other parts of the country (under the patronage of “Friends of Syria” who are investing heavily in the re-training of the Free Syrian Army fighters). The option that they will have to surrender to the authorities can hardly be regarded as realistic.
It is another matter that serious contradictions between different warring factions can lead to certain compromises and to weaken the military activity in Syria. But this will only happen after an end to the external financing of the war, including the absolutely criminal support of the banned groups, settled in the vicinity of Damascus. Will such support continue under the guise of humanitarian convoys during the month-long war moratorium?