Syrian Civilians Pay the Price in Ghouta

After a third consecutive day of attacks, the Syrian government has killed over 250 people in Eastern Ghouta, a region near Damascus. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that the death toll included 58 children and 42 women, and will most likely rise as the attacks continue.

The Assad regime, backed by Russia, claims that the attacks, which include air strikes and barrel bombs, are necessary to rid Eastern Ghouta of terrorists. Eastern Ghouta is the last rebel stronghold and home to both Jaysh al-Islam, a Syrian opposition militia that routinely attacks the Assad regime, Islamic State, and selective Kurdish forces, and the al Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which aims to overthrown the Assad regime and replace it with the Islamic Emirate of Syria. Meanwhile, Turkish forces attacked a pro-Syrian government force yesterday in the Afrin district, another contested zone in northern Syria, in order to halt reinforcements to the Kurdish YPG militia.

The Syrian civil war has entered a new, more violent and dangerous phase. Who will come out on top when/if the violence ebbs? It will most likely be the Assad regime because: 1) the regime has strong sponsors in the form of Russia and Iran, and 2) the international community has no coherent practical response to the ongoing violence.

Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war early on in an attempt to protect its key naval base at the Tartus Port in Syria. Last year, Russia signed into law an agreement it made with the Syrian government that would allow nuclear-powered Russian warships to dock at the port. In order to accommodate these large ships, Russia has expanded its port activities and brought in weapons, ammunition, and other materials to secure its activities without any regulation or oversight by the Syrian government.

Iran has vested interests in the Assad regime and has provided weapons and ammunition, arms, oil transfers, lines of credit, and military advisors (and ground forces—though Iran denies this). Iran’s relationship with the Assad regime is connected to their joint sponsorship of Hezbollah, a terrorist group that now functions as a political party in Lebanon—and which Israel considers a grave threat. Iran’s alleged goals for regional primacy, therefore, are somewhat dependent on the Assad regime’s stability.

Over the course of the Syrian civil war, other stakeholders have emerged that include the Gulf states, the United States, and Turkey. While the Gulf States (mostly Saudi Arabia) are primarily concerned with what they view as Iran’s quest for regional dominance, the United States has been more concerned with the spread of ISIS. U.S. forces have been successful in preventing the further spread of ISIS into Syria with the help of Kurdish militia groups. As these groups continue to receive U.S. support, U.S.–Turkey relations are experiencing a low point as Turkey defends its campaign against the Kurds.  

This hodgepodge of strategic interests and short-term goals has paralyzed the international community. Each attack on Syrian civilians results in empty rhetoric from leaders unwilling or unable to do anything to improve their lot. On occasion, diplomacy has been used to reduce violence. For example, Eastern Ghouta is technically a part of the “de-escalation zones” that were established under a diplomatic ceasefire initiative between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. But because of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham’s presence (which is minor at best), whose affiliation with al Qaeda did not make it part of the diplomatic deal, Eastern Ghouta has become fair game for Syrian government attacks again.

The ongoing Ghouta attacks indicate that the Assad regime remains strong. The international community’s inability to halt chemical attacks, ensure availability and access to humanitarian aid to those injured on the ground, and convince the Assad regime and its allies to seek a political settlement over a pure military victory all point to how the world has failed the Syrian people. As the Syrian civil war spirals out of control, each stakeholder is more concerned with safeguarding its own strategic interests rather than finding a feasible solution to end the violence. In the meantime, Syrian civilians will continue to pay the price of this war.