Why Trump can’t reverse Syrian regime dirty win in Ghouta & why Iran is Gloating

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Trump administration and the May government in the UK seem poised to launch missile strikes on Syria in the near future. It probably won’t matter.

The Syrian regime figures it can take the punishment, which is likely to consist of another set of one-off missile strikes similar to those launched on the Shuayrat Base in spring of 2017 after a chemical weapons attack by the regime in Khan Sheykhoun. Syrian and Iranian troops are said to be quietly deserting major air force bases, temporarily relocating outside them, in anticipation of the strikes.

The Syrian regime has all but won the civil war. It has all the major cities–Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, Homs, and even Hama. It controls what the French colonialists used to call “useful Syria,” the band of fertile land stretching from Damascus to the north in the west of the country. While it has lost the ten percent of the population that is Kurds in the northeast, the Syrian Kurds are not regime enemies and likely will be forced into an alliance with Damascus over time in the face of attacks by Turkey and by fundamentalist Arab militias backed by Turkey.

ISIL has been largely defeated as a territorial force, though it holds out in some small pockets in the east.

h/t Al Jazeera

There were three remaining significant enclaves of resistance to the regime in Arab Syria. They were Idlib (a province in the northwest) and the area north of Aleppo; East Ghouta, a set of suburbs of Damascus of some 350,000 inhabitants just east of the capital; and the far south and southwest of the country (Deraa and the Golan Heights). There are a few other minor rebel outposts, for instance in the Qalamoun mountains on the Lebanese border or outside Hama. They are not militarily important and more an annoyance for the regime than anything else.

Although Russia has offered the rebels “de-escalation zones,” a sort of temporary cease-fire, these turn out to be a way to nurse regime strength while preparing for further assaults on the rebels. East Ghouta was such a zone. The government of Bashar al-Assad maintains that Damascus took regular mortar fire from the Salafi Jihadi militias that had come to control the three major districts of East Ghouta. In any case, during the past two months the Syrian Arab Army, with air support from the Russian Aerospace Forces, began a brutal battle of conquest against East Ghouta. Two the the districts and their guerrillas surrendered, agreeing to go north to Idlib. About half the population of East Ghouta appears by now to have gone with them.

The third district, Douma, was dominated by the Saudi Arabian proxy, the Army of Islam. It had a problem with going to Idlib since it is at war not only with the regime but with the other hard line Salafi guerrillas who dominate that northern province, especially the Levantine Liberation Council (HTS), the core of which is the old Nusra Front with its ties to al-Qaeda and 9/11 mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Army of Islam was inflicting substantial casualties on the elite Panther Brigade (Syrian Arab Army special operations forces) who led the invasion of Douma last week. The Army of Islam refused to surrender and said they wanted to work out a deal to remain in Douma. This was a non-starter for Bashar al-Assad, who wanted all the rebel bases near the capital completely gone. But my hypothesis is that he could not risk losing more troops from the crack Panther Brigades.

So he decided to send down a barrel bomb of mixed chlorine and sarin gas on Douma. Perhaps he just meant to kill a dozen or two dozen Army of Islam fighters. Instead, the gas killed around 70 people, including mostly civilians and some children, and the relief workers in the enclave got video and blew the whistle on the regime. Al-Assad brazenly committed a war crime, confident that the Russian Federation would protect him from its consequences.

While the focus of the Western press has been on the response from Trump, who considers chemical use a red line that requires a US military response, it has been little noted that al-Assad’s ploy worked.

The Army of Islam leaders abruptly surrendered, perhaps under severe pressure from Douma’s terrified civilian population, who did not want to be further gassed so that the Saudi-backed Salafis could go on trying to save face.

Late Wednesday, a Russian spokesman at Latakia announced that as they departed Douma, the 8,000 Army of Islam fighters surrendered four hundred pieces of military equipment, light and heavy. Some 41,000 people have left Douma this spring through Russian checkpoints, 12,000 of them in April alone. They seem to be heading not to Idlib but to Jarabulus in the Aleppo governorate near the Turkish border and there are some reports of Turkey settling them in Afrin as part of its ethnic cleansing campaign against leftist Kurds there.

The Syrian flag now flies over Douma. Russian military police have flooded into the enclave to establish law and order. (I can only imagine that this step was negotiated by Douma municipal leaders fearful that Syrian Arab Army troops might commit reprisals against them.) Those Army of Islam guerrillas who did not want to leave were offered a six-month amnesty if they laid down their arms, during which time they are not liable to conscription. (One way some rebels have surrendered without facing dire consequences has been to agree to switch sides and join the Syrian Arab Army.)

Adding insult to injury, Ali Akbbar Velayati, the special adviser to Iran’s clerical Leader Ali Khamenei, made a tour of east Ghouta on Wednesday!

Saudi Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman must have been doing a slow burn to see Velayeti strutting around territory that had once been a promising base for the takeover of Damascus and from which Saudi strategists had planned bombings of regime facilities in the capital.

Velayati covered himself and Khamenei in indelible shame, however, inasmuch as he implicitly gave his imprimatur to the gas attack that had sealed the regime victory. Iran suffered mustard gas attacks at the hands of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988, and had previously taken a principled stance against the use of chemical warfare.

Velayati said that the upcoming US strike on Syria would offer no hope to the defeated rebels. In that pronouncement, at least, he likely is right. And it reveals Syrian, Russian and Iranian thinking. The war aim has been achieved and the lives of Syrian special operations forces (who are limited in number) were preserved. The little kids with white foam around their mouths, eyes staring lifelessly, were collateral damage.

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Bonus video:

CGTN: “Rebels and their families flee Douma under Russia backed deal”

Posted in Featured | 21 Responses | Print |

21 Responses

  1. Thank you very much for another clear and illuminating account about the complex situation in Syria. Although as you say, this time too the attack on Syria may be limited, there are some indications that it will be more substantial, especially given the people who are now advising the president. In view of Russian threats to retaliate, the whole conflict can get out of hand and can lead to a major international confrontation. This is why I believe that we should take the threat of a much wider war or at least greater and prolonged chaos in Syria more seriously.

    Rightly or wrongly, President Putin believes that with the expansion of NATO to Russia’s neighborhood, NATO exercises in the Baltic countries, Western sanctions, etc. he is under attack from the West, and the West does not wish to give up its unipolar view of the world. Therefore, he might over-react. Diplomacy by tweets, promising nice, new, smart missiles being on the way, is not very reassuring.

    The main question to ask is what is this military attack going to achieve. If it is to express revulsion against the use of chemical weapons, the West was eerily silent when much greater use of chemical weapons was made against Iran and the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war. Even the Security Council did not condemn their use till it issued Resolution 582 on 24 February 1986, towards the end of the war, even then in general terms and without condemning Iraq.

    In 2013 when President Obama threatened to use massive force against Syria, the British Parliament opposed British involvement in it, and the United States also refrained from military action, especially as Congress also seemed to be opposed to it. I believe that the outcome was much better than a symbolic attack, because Syria agreed to get rid of her chemical weapons (at least most of them).

    I believe that Prime Minister May should be persuaded to consult the parliament again on any British involvement in the war, especially as she leads a minority government and does not have a mandate for war. In fact, according to a report in today’s edition of the Times, only 20% of the British public support the move. By doing so, she may avert another illegal war and provide time for a more lasting peaceful alternative.

    The problem is that the West lacks any strategy for Syria or the Middle East as a whole. A solution to the Syrian tragedy requires cooperation between the West and Russia with the involvement of all the regional countries that are active in Syria, including Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Let’s push for a coherent strategy regarding Syria, rather than rush to war.

  2. Good morning Juan. Was this outcome always inevitable? Also how does the West deal with Assad now?

  3. All revolutionary movements are bloody. Look at Europe through the 19th and early 20th centuries:

    1830 France
    1848 Spain
    Germany
    France
    Hungary
    1861 Italy
    1871 France
    1917 Russia
    1936 Spain
    1956 Hungary
    1968 France
    Czechoslovakia

    They were and are all part of the socio-political evolution of human national order. They move nations forward. Sure, they are bloody but so is nature. They are like a sequence of difficult births. They are not assisted by external meddling. In fact external meddling crushes the line along which they struggle, albeit often blindly. They do not always ‘succeed’, whatever that may be, but they come back again until some modus vivendi is reached and peace prevails for a period. The Arab spring was a series of such revolutions but the US and its allies meddled and turned them into directionless chaos. If Assad does manage to put Syria together again the political evolution of the Syrian people may be able to get back on the rails. I imagine that is what most of them would like. It’s an unremitting pity they are not allowed to be masters of their own fate.

    • You’re kidding, right? The Ba’athist regime – aka the Assad family business – is no “revolutionary regime.” And as Juan’s post correctly notes, the regime has exacted a terrible price in destruction and death. The only “unremitting pity” is that the people of Syria will continue to be ruled by war criminals.

      • The revolutions I was referencing were revolutions against oppressive regimes, revolutions by the people, like the Arab Spring in so many other places which were all against the existing systems. Left to itself it would hardly have got to this mess. Revolutionary movements rarely succeed first time but they come back again until they do, meanwhile they are always bloody.

  4. I am wondering if a regime dominated by Jaysh al Islam and other salifi rebels rebels allied with Saudi Arabia would be less brutal than Assad?

  5. Always great to get some clarification of this very confused area from Prof Cole. Very hard to figure out if there are any good buys in this picture as the Syrian people suffer at the hands of all sides.

    • Some perceive the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) – which controls Rojava, is Kurdish-dominated and helped eradicate ISIS in that region, but has adopted a direct democratic and federal form of government stressing equality of the sexes and of ethnic groups – as a model of governance that the Syrian people should aspire to:

      link to nytimes.com

      link to washingtoninstitute.org

      Most Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters have opposed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the military wing of the SDC – however some FSA brigades have allied themselves with the largely Kurdish units that comprise the SDF.

  6. Is Trump’s tweet a warning to his mates in Russia? As in.. We’ve had some military meetings and decided to bomb Syria. I’m letting you know ahead of time because you got me elected?

    • Seriously? Its absolutely amazing that people actually want TRUMP (F’ING TRUMP) to confront a nuclear armed power by firing missiles at them. A nuclear armed power that now claims to not only have missiles with nuclear powered engines (!), but with missiles that are hypersonic. The US has zero defense for this. Zero. People have absolutely lost ALL sense because of this president and soley BECAUSE its this president.

      And the sheep still bleet “collusion” and “hacking” with ZERO evidence to back up their claims. But of course REAL election fraud (Tim Canova in Florida, California, New York) doesnt even register. F’ing amazing. No wonder we are in this situation.

      • It’s hard to understand why Putin would boast of new weapons that are impossible to stop, because the old weapons are impossible to stop. There is no defense against Russia’s five thousand or so ballistic missile warheads already.

        Which is why military analysts didn’t exactly get worked up about his speech touting the new capabilities. Their attack capabilities are already unstoppable. So nothing much has changed, regardless of these new weapons he announced.

  7. Yay, Iran…you did it.

    Beat back against those Takfiri (i.e. Sunni Islamist extremists) and their evil regional and imperial conspiracy sponsors in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US (is Turkey and Qatar off the list now?), by siding with a so benevolent friendly Syrian dictator, with no blood of his nation’s people on his hands, and the totally just Russians. All they wanted was one corrupt guy or family gone…but no…the regime was as precious as the local holy shrines, of course!

    The Prophet and the Imams will be so proud…all it cost were just possibly thousands of poor ungrateful Syrian souls and scarring millions more, none of whom you could possibly have reached out to and work with for some transitioning government to safeguard the land-bridge to Lebanon. No, no. Looking forward to hearing sermons on how noble the Prophet’s family were in the face of adversity against a tyrant in Yazid while watching your supposedly rightly guided Islamic state do the opposite. How sorry I am to ever have expected better…

  8. So, Juan, what would the new, smart missiles accomplish? More pain to the Syrian people – and possibly WW3. I don’t like Assad, but there’s nothing but terrible actors on this war. IF Assad he needs to be hunted and prosecuted as a war criminal, but I’m not convinced yet. Meanwhile why is GWB still walking the streets!? And the Obamas both make nice to him! This country has no right to lecture to the world!’

    • A worthy comment, Irwin and as you say, why is Bush walking the streets and being feted by Obama. Over here in the UK we have a similar situation with Bush’s great friend and fellow war criminal, Tony Blair now strutting the streets of London saying we should go to war in Syria at once.

  9. I can’t comprehend much of the above discussion on past, present and future wars – mazes for the insane with many dead ends.

    And when I read “–but with missiles that are hypersonic. The US has zero defense for this. Zero.–“, I get concerned. Is WWW III just around the corner? Is Trump’s finger closer to the nuclear button this week? Who knows what Trump will do, is a common comment by many journalist, new reporters, etc.

    Trump appears to have a bipolar disorder, manic depression. Or is he acting??

    Look at the video with Trump hugging himself. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to see that he has lost it, that he is not capable of intelligent and wise handling of presidential duties and pressures. Any individual in a board meeting displaying such action would be relieved of his duties and/or sent on a vacation, including most people working.

    What the hell are his governmental psychiatrists and psychologists waiting for? WWIII? Too scared of losing their jobs? No excuses, period. Action, please…

    Trump must be legally declared mentally incapable of performing the duties of the US President. But would the Vice President or any in the succession line have the real heart, intelligence, wisdom and integrity to heal America?

    • it is most unfortunate, but Trump “will not be mentally incapable of performing the duties of the US President” because there is still much money to be made before they either cart him off to the loony bin, he is arrested by Mueller, or shot by some one who really doesn’t like him.

      The U.S.A. is a country in decline and it is, my opinion, doubtful it will recover. Could it? Possibly but there will have to be a whole new group in Congress and the Judiciary. Then there is still the small matter of state politics which has a seriously negative effect on life in the U.S.A.

      The best we can hope for is Mr. Mueller gets Trump. he is after all the one who prosecuted John Gotti, the Teflon Don. Perhaps he can get donni for us.

      Who knows what will happen. A couple of months ago we were concerned he might want to nuke North Korea, now its he might get the world into a war with Russia. Doubt if anyone will follow. Sending a few jets over won’t upset the French or Brits, but a full scale war, count the general population out of it.

      As to Canada, well as long as Russia doesn’t decide to take a short cut to Washington, we’ll be O.K. I’m pretty sure N. Korea knows where the 49th Par. is and they aren’t a big worry, its Trump. He’s so crazy he might invade us because our P.M. is better looking than he is and if his wife tells him so………….who knows.

  10. It’s very encouraging that the Islamist rebels left East Ghouta and Douma in buses rather than fighting to their deaths and taking many civilians and Syrian soldiers with them. Good to see some of the rebels decided to stay, taking up the offer of amnesty. After military action comes to a close, Syria needs reconciliation between ethnic, religious and political groups in order to remain a unified and sovereign country.

  11. If the Islamist rebels were Saudi proxies they had no business controlling Syrian territory. If they used Douma as a promising base for the takeover of Damascus and had Saudi strategists planning bombings of regime facilities in the capital, it’s unambiguously good news to see them leave.

  12. Violence by all sides is deplorable: be it Assad’s use of chlorine gas or the U.S.’s use of white phosphorous in Raqqa, Mosul, etc.

    By the way, I wonder about the following idea: “Chemical weapons are used by desperate regimes that are either outnumbered by the enemy or are reluctant to take casualties in their militaries.”

    The American use of white phosphorous in Raqqa/Mosul/etc., napalm in Vietnam, atomic weapons in Japan, or Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds suggests that “desperation” is not needed to explain things. Disregard for human life is a sufficient explanation.

    Behnam S.

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