Will Syria’s Ghouta survive the long proxy war?

After an airstrike in Ghouta. Photo: syriahr.com

After an airstrike in Ghouta. Photo: syriahr.com 

Military analysis

Article by: Ian Tabaa

The Damascus suburb of Ghouta has developed into a rebel stronghold preventing the regime, Iran, and Russia from taking full control of the “Damascus belt.”

Ghouta is the last area remaining outside regime control within Damascus and its suburbs where the regime and its allies, Iran and Russia, are seeking to consolidate their power. Iran aims to establish control over an area stretching from Iraq to Lebanon’s border passing through Damascus.

Ghouta has been under siege since 2012. Anti-Assad rebels have stockpiled weapons there and have been able to produce small arms on their own. The region’s population has been reduced to 400,000 due to the siege by the regime and its allied Iranian-sponsored militias and attacks by Syrian Armed Forces and Russian Air Force, which have intensified in the latest two weeks. More than 600 were killed and many more are either injured or sick.

Back during Obama’s presidency, regime forces killed 1,500 people here in a chemical attack. Then, Russia brokered a deal to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. It failed to deliver: the regime continued to use sarin and chlorine including now its latest offensive.

Tehran prefers a full conquest of Ghouta which would be either emptied from or reduced in its inhabitants, like many villages around Damascus and Homs that surrendered after a long siege.

However, the political situation works against Iran’s ultimate form of conquest. Gulf governments, the US and the EU are seemingly pressing harder against a demographic change, where the inhabitants of Ghouta, Sunni Muslims, are displaced or replaced by Shia Muslims. Damascus and many of its suburbs is the target of Shia migration from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and even Afghanistan. Furthermore, all other powers including Israel, USA, Turkey, and even Russia do not seem to agree that Iran has control of a coastal area via Syria or Lebanon.

Conquering Ghouta by ground forces or forcing its population to surrender may take longer than what Moscow may wish, in contrast to Iran’s ability to pursue its demographic goals over longer periods. Thus, Russia’s adventure in Syria is proving more challenging than thought – requiring it to shape up as a practical power broker or risk getting sucked further into a complicated long war.

Once in battle, Moscow only knows a scorched-earth policy of attacking civilians and their infrastructure from hospitals, homes, bakeries, and even historical sites.

Moreover, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent political failures, like the failed negotiations with anti-Assad rebels in Sochi and Astana, and his inability to conclude a political agreement in Syria, coupled with a deteriorating international image will push him to heat up his war in Syria in order to reassert his power prior to elections.

But the showcasing of military might, abuse of UN vetoes, testing international red lines on chemical warfare, violating ceasefires and providing ineffective 5-hour humanitarian pauses increasingly demonstrate Russia’s lack of a solid Syria strategy.

Russia may be slipping further into the Syrian quagmire while being stretched economically and losing credibility in public eyes and under international law. Over and above, it is impossible to see how Moscow would be able to broker a stabilization and reconstruction plan for Syria.

Regardless of whether the security council and major powers are unable to or are unwilling to end Syria’s war, Russia’s long proxy war with the West there will drain Putin. Meanwhile, frontier countries like Syria or Ukraine are left to pay the bill for Russia’s attempt to make an international comeback since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Trump’s administration, for the time being, is not acting very different than the Obama administration. Syria’s airports continue to serve the Assad regime and Russians, enabling to act with impunity. The ban on critical weapons including surface-to-air missiles continues in effect since Obama’s administration. Support comes in doses that do not tip the power balance.

Amidst a complex proxy war, the population of Ghouta does not have much to lose, having witnessed the fate of their compatriots who surrendered in other besieged areas around and within Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. Their choices are limited to staying in Ghouta, surrendering with the risk of attrition including imprisonment, being added to the list of Syria’s disappeared or abandoned in the streets of Damascus without food or shelter, save perhaps for some UN-aid coordinated with regime channels. Being sent to Idlib only leaves them to be attacked again by Russia, Iran, and the regime. Otherwise, neighboring countries have closed their borders and Europe is keen on protecting its shores from boat-smuggled immigrants.

Ghouta’s civilians, left without options, have no choice but to adapt to the harsh realities of Russia’s scorched-earth policy and the proxy war that has little regard for human life. Yet, they still plea to world citizens by sharing live videos and photos of their everyday tragedy while under siege, perhaps for longer than they hoped, and under the eyes of international decision-makers.


Ian Amin Tabaa is a Canadian of Syrian origin with a background in management consultancy and international development. He is engaged in research, aid and stabilization work related to Syria’s conflict and frequently helps journalists in research and conflict analysis. He has previously carried out work in the Middle East, Russia, and Haiti.

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