For much of the summer of 2017, international backers of the Syrian Government and the Opposition have been working to implement the deescalation zones that were first agreed at the Astana Peace Talks in May 2017. These efforts have had some success in cooling down Syria’s hot-spot: Idlib Province has been virtually free of airstrikes since May; Daraa Province has entered a state of relative calm after experiencing some of the heaviest fighting earlier this year; and in the besieged northern Homs Province, aid has finally entered despite sporadic violations of the ceasefire. Implementing the deescalation agreement in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, however, is proving elusive.
Located along the southwest axis of East Ghouta, the district of Ain Tarma is the focal point of the fighting between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated Faylaq al-Rahman. The district is strategically important, as it serves as the lifeline to the district of Jobar to the west, which remains the only rebel holding still within reach of Damascus’s city centre and has been partially besieged since 2013.
In a bid to cut Jobar off from the rest of Ghouta, the SAA has been attacking Ain Tarma relentlessly, shelling the district with rockets for nearly two months straight. In between the shelling the government forces launched ground offensives in order to make gains, but so far made little progress.
The constant fighting has left the district utterly devastated. Many of the buildings have been virtually destroyed and the ones that still all show signs of massive damage. The streets are strewn with rubble and virtually empty. Many of the families who lived here have left to safer areas further within East Ghouta, leaving the district a ghost town. Those who cannot leave are forced to hide in basements and shelters. Casualties among such people, many of them women and children, remain high.
The situation here is not helped by the complicated state of intra-rebel politics. East Ghouta is divided between two major rebel groups: Faylaq al-Rahman, which roughly controls the south and west; and Jaish al-Islam, which roughly controls the north and east. The two groups are bitter enemies and recently, Jaish al-Islam accused Faylaq al-Rahman of harbouring militants of Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor to al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. As the sponsors of the deescalation agreement consider HTS affiliation a red-line, they have only signed a ceasefire agreement with Jaish al-Islam. Consequently, districts of Ghouta held by Jaish al-Islam have been relatively free of shelling in what activists claim is a divide-and-conquer strategy on part of the Syrian Government.
There have been rumours of negotiations between the Astana sponsors and Faylaq al-Rahman to put an end to fighting and allow the deescalation to be implemented across the whole of East Ghouta. For now though, fighting continues unabated and it remains to be seen if the residents can return home in the near future, or if there is anything left to return to.