So the horrendous episode in Eastern Ghouta have reached an end. After a month-long brutal assault that killed 1600 civilians and devastated the enclave, rebels were evacuated with their families to Northern Syria. Dozens of governmental green buses carried fighters and civilians to exile in Idlib as part of an evacuation deal sponsored by Russia which allows fighters to depart with light weapons in return for giving up their territory. Such a deal is not new, it has taken place several times during the war; in Homs, Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus as well. They came after months of siege, hunger then heavy shelling and bombardment finally forcing rebels to surrender.
Although some of these rebels are not Islamsit themselves, almost all of them fight under the umbrella of Islamist groups, which pleases the regime and Russia as they aim to gather fighters in a particular area and promote them to be an eligible target for the Coalition Forces. This strategy has transformed Idlib into a Syrian Qandahar. As a result of the evacuation policy in the past years, myriad Islamsit groups (Salafist and Jihadist whose logic vary from moderate to radical) have embarked on an intra-struggle for power and on a daily process of radicalisation.
Indeed, short-term implications for the evacuation rhetoric might be gainful since it successfully promotes the regime as a secular alternative to the world powers and to some Syrians. Further, it divides the already divided opposition; the political and the military ones. Hitherto the long term-implications would be fatal for all actors involved.
This inflammatory approach redraws the Syrian map while emphasising the line between different identity groups and stirs up animosity among sectarian, ethnic and socioeconomic identities as it puts thousands of Arab fighters just a few kilometers away from their longstanding foe; the Kurds. And, also a few Kilometers to the east of the Alawite Coastal areas. In addition, those evacuated fighters belong to rural areas (e.g. Ghouta and mouadamiya in the suburbs of Damascus, bab Amr in the suburbs Homs, bustan al qasr in the suburbs of Aleppo). Prior to 2011-uprising these areas suffered due to the neo-liberal economic project by Assad junior directed toward the benefit of the big cities whilst neglecting the countryside. Unsurprisingly, rural areas were the first to join protests against the regime. And they have paid the heaviest price.
In essence, since the outset of the conflict, the Syrian regime has believed in ‘al-hassem al-askari’ or the ‘military solution’, and has trusted its power in eliminating all opponents. However, this could never be accomplished. The pre-2011 Syria will never come back. Russians know that, and hence they should act accordingly. The evacuation policy would not only work to prolong the conflict; it would trigger a new dimension of this war; a lethal one that would tremble world stability more than what Qandahar did decades ago.
Advisors to Western governments should conceive this while writing their reports. Pictures of weeping parents digging to get their children out from the rubble has not provoked the so called liberal West to take action, yet pictures of bearded militants waving black flags might definitely change the equation. There are no morals in politics, that is for sure.
*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.