East Ghouta: the Last Great Battle of the Syrian War?

Reading media reports of the fighting in east Ghouta over the last few days has triggered an eery sense of déjà vu.

It is like taking a time machine back to the autumn of 2016 and listening to all the arguments over the fighting in Aleppo all over again.

Just as in 2016 the reports concern fighting between the Syrian military and a large force of Jihadis – in both cases around 10-15,000 men – trapped in a district of one of Syria’s two main cities.

In 2016 it was eastern Aleppo; this time it is east Ghouta, which is a suburb of Syria’s capital Damascus.

Just as in 2016 the presence of these violent Jihadi terrorists is being ignored, with the fighters ‘defending’ east Ghouta more often referred to in the Western media as ‘moderate rebels’ rather than the Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliated Jihadi militants that they actually are.

Just as in 2016 the air waves and the presses are full of furious denunciations of Syrian and Russian bombing.

There is again talk of barrel bombs and of the supposedly intentional bombing of hospitals, though the military logic of deliberately bombing hospitals is never explained and entirely escapes me.

As was the case with the bombing of eastern Aleppo in 2016 much emphasis is given to the killing of children, with vivid pictures plastered all over the media of dead or injured children, to the point where at times it almost seems as if most of the people being killed in east Ghouta are children.

In 2016 there were no Western reporters in eastern Aleppo to observe and report about the bombing there.

Today in east Ghouta there are also no Western reporters present to observe and report about the bombing there.

Just as was the case in eastern Aleppo in 2016 so in east Ghouta today the presence of Western reporters is impossible because the violent Jihadi terrorists who in the autumn of 2016 were in control of eastern Aleppo, and the violent Jihadis who are in control of east Ghouta today, would kill or kidnap without hesitation any Western reporter foolish enough to go there.

The result is that just as was the case in 2016 in Aleppo, the reports of the bombing in east Ghouta come entirely from ‘local sources’ whose accuracy and objectivity (given that they are reporting from an Al-Qaeda controlled area) must be in doubt.

Moreover the same organisation – the White Helmets – is prominently involved in both places and on both occasions.

Just as in 2016 the obvious problems with the accuracy and objectivity of the reporting seems not to worry the Western media at all.

Just as was the case in 2016 in its reporting of the bombing of Aleppo, so in its reporting of the bombing of east Ghouta today, the Western media simply reproduces the reports it obtains from the ‘local sources’ and the White Helmets without providing any health warning about their objectivity or accuracy, publishing them as if they were proven and true.

This is despite the fact that – as Robert Fisk has pointed out – the propagandist nature of at least some of these reports is made obvious by the fact that they never speak of or show any Jihadi fighters in east Ghouta – just as in 2016 they never spoke of or showed any Jihadi fighters in eastern Aleppo – despite the large scale presence of Jihadi fighters there.

Just as in 2016 the United Nations Secretariat and the various humanitarian organisations lobby furiously for a ceasefire and for humanitarian corridors to rescue the civilians.

The United Nations Secretariat and the various humanitarian agencies however also give what are grossly inflated estimates of the number of civilians trapped in east Ghouta (“400,000”), just as in 2016 they gave what turned out to be grossly inflated estimates of the number of civilians trapped in eastern Aleppo (“250,000”), a fact which inevitably calls into question their objectivity, as does their failure to acknowledge the presence of Jihadi fighters there.

Moreover just as in 2016 the Syrian authorities claimed – accurately enough as it turned out – that the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo were preventing the civilians from leaving and were using the civilians as human shields, so the Syrian authorities are now claiming that the Jihadis in east Ghouta are preventing the civilians from leaving and are using them as human shields.

Just as in 2016 the Russians are busy brokering agreements for ceasefires, bombing pauses and humanitarian corridors to ease the plight of the civilians, despite the ill-concealed annoyance this causes to the Syrian authorities, whose military operations are thereby being obstructed. Just as was the case in 2016 the Russians however get absolutely no credit in the West for doing this.

On the contrary the Western media is filled with atrocity stories which are blamed on Russia and on President Putin in particular, with this overblown editorial in the Guardian a typical example.

Just as was the case in 2016 during the fighting in Aleppo the air waves and presses today are full of talk of war crimes, with demands that war crimes prosecutions be brought against the Russians, the Syrians and the Iranians, who are supposedly responsible for the killing of the civilians in east Ghouta and for the bombing.

This is despite the fact that a British parliamentary committee which reported last year on the state of relations between Britain and Russia admitted that the claims that Russia had committed war crimes in 2016 in Aleppo were unverified.

Nor is the fact mentioned – just as it was not mentioned during the fighting in Aleppo in 2016 – that the Jihadis in east Ghouta are known to have engaged in the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, even though the extent of their shelling obviously cannot compare to the scale of the bombing carried out by the Russians and by the Syrian air force.

Just as was the case with the crisis in Aleppo in 2016, the crisis in east Ghouta today is the subject of much handwringing in the Western media.

There are also – just as there were in 2016 – pleas to President Putin to “show mercy”.

In 2016 these pleas came mainly from British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson. This time they are coming from German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron.

Meanwhile – as in 2016 – there is grandstanding against Russia at the UN Security Council by the US’s UN ambassador. In 2016 it was Samantha Power; this time it is Nikki Haley.

Just as in 2016 we are now seeing overheated and hysterical demands for ‘military action’ to ‘bring the killing to a stop’, with all concerns about what that might lead to brushed aside.

To complete the truly extraordinary parallels, there has even been a US bombing raid on Syrian forces far away in eastern Syria in Deir Ezzor province, just as there was during the fighting in Aleppo in 2016.

Moreover the Russian response to the US threats and to the US bombing raid appears to be the same as it was in 2016: the deployment of further powerful additional military forces to Syria and to Khmeimim air base.

In 2016 it was S-300VM Antey 2500 anti aircraft missiles; today it is additional S-400 anti aircraft missiles and (reportedly) SU-57 fighters.

As to what is really behind the furious campaign to stop the attack on east Ghouta, it is the same as was the case with the furious campaign to stop the attack on eastern Aleppo in 2016: to prevent a Jihadi enclave which threatens one of Syria’s two great cities – Aleppo in 2016, Damascus today – from being destroyed.

As to what would actually happen if – or rather when – that Jihadi enclave is finally destroyed, I can do no better than quote Marcus Papadopoulos

Once East Ghouta is liberated from Al-Qaeda, the world will see the same response from its inhabitants as the world saw once East Aleppo was liberated: jubilation. And, like with East Aleppo, East Ghouta will serve as another testimony about the facade that is the White Helmets.

Why all these frantic attempts to save an Al-Qaeda controlled Jihadi enclave from being destroyed near Damascus?

The short answer is that just as the destruction in 2016 of the Jihadi enclave in eastern Aleppo showed to the Western ‘democracy promotion’ lobby that their regime change war in Syria could not be won, so the destruction of the Jihadi enclave in east Ghouta near Damascus today would show to the Western ‘democracy promotion’ lobby that their regime change war in Syria is irretrievably lost.

The remaining Jihadi controlled territories in Syria would be reduced to a few fringe areas in remote and impoverished regions of Syria: places like Idlib province in Syria’s northwest, the ISIS holdout areas east of the Euphrates, and the small belt of territory near the increasingly lonely US base close to the Jordanian border at Al-Tanf.

Though fighting would not immediately end, and the massive problem of what to do with Turkey and the Kurds in northern Syria would remain unresolved, it would be increasingly difficult to sustain the fiction that a genuine civil war likely to end in a “rebel” victory was underway.

Over time that would be bound to increase the pressure to withdraw the uninvited foreign troops – US, Turkish and Israeli – currently present on Syrian territory.

At that point the fighting against the Jihadis would be reduced to mopping up operations, and the charade of the ‘peace talks’ in Geneva, Astana and Sochi would end.

However if there are striking similarities between the uproar over the fighting in Aleppo in 2016 and the fighting in east Ghouta today, there is also one very important difference.

This is that this time the uproar lacks conviction.

Following the Syrian army’s victory in Aleppo in 2016, and following the establishment of permanent Russian bases in Syria, there is now no longer any possibility of President Assad being ousted by force.

That means that regime change in Syria is no longer practicable, which begs the question of why the war is being continued at all.

Putting that aside, since the US and the rest of the regime change coalition know that a “rebel” ‘victory’ in Syria is no longer possible, their protests against the Syrian army’s ongoing offensive against the Jihadis in east Ghouta inevitably lack conviction and have none of the force that they did in 2016.

This is what explains the empty Resolution that came out of the UN Security Council on Saturday 24th February 2018. I reproduce the entire text of the Resolution below, but its key paragraphs are the following

The Security Council

………..

1. Demands that all parties cease hostilities without delay, and engage immediately to ensure full and comprehensive implementation of this demand by all parties, for a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria, to enable the safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services and medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded, in accordance with applicable international law;

“2. Affirms that the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al Qaeda and Al Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council;

The key point about paragraph 1 is that though the Resolution “demands that all parties cease hostilities without delay” it sets no date for the cessation of hostilities Ie. for the ceasefire to begin.

Instead the “parties” are to “to engage – (ie. negotiate with each other) – immediately to ensure full and comprehensive implementation of this demand”.

In other words instead of imposing a ceasefire the UN Security Council has actually merely ordered negotiations to achieve one.

Absurdly, the Resolution does not however say who the “parties” are who must negotiate this ceasefire. The rest of the Resolution makes it clear that one of the “parties” is the Syrian government. Paragraph 2 makes it clear the “parties” do not include “undertakings and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council”. However it is left completely unsaid who in that case is the “party” the Syrian government is supposed to negotiate the ceasefire with.

The reality is that since the Jihadi fighters in east Ghouta are practically by definition members of “undertakings and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL”, who are excluded from the ceasefire, there is no one in east Ghouta to negotiate a ceasefire with.

In the run up to the voting on the Resolution on Saturday the Russians made the point that the draft of the Resolution with which they were presented – officially sponsored by Kuwait and Sweden, but in reality drawn up by the Western powers – failed to identify who the Syrian government is supposed to negotiate the ceasefire with.

Accordingly they apparently successfully objected to the inclusion of a date for the start of the ceasefire.

Since it is impossible to see how negotiations to agree the terms of the ceasefire can happen when one of the parties who is supposed to agree the ceasefire has not been identified and actually does not exist, that renders the whole demand for a ceasefire vacuous.

In fact even as I write this, despite the Resolution’s demand that “hostilities cease without delay” no negotiations to agree the terms of the ceasefire are taking place and the Syrian army’s offensive against the Jihadis in east Ghouta continues unabated.

The Western powers presumably agreed to put the Resolution to the vote in this meaningless form because they intend at some future date to blame the Syrians and the Russians for the “failure” of the ceasefire “demanded” by the Resolution.

That however simply demonstrates the bankruptcy of the West’s Syrian policy.

That the Russians – who have vetoed eleven Resolutions concerning Syria in the UN Security Council since the start of the conflict in 2011 – will simply brush off any more such empty Western criticism ought by now to be obvious.

In fact what the text of the Resolution shows is the weakening of the West’s position on Syria with respect to Russia.

Back in 2016 the Western powers would have rejected the Russian amendment and would have insisted that the Resolution be presented to the UN Security Council in its original form ie. with a start date for the ceasefire.

The Resolution would then almost certainly have gained the necessary votes in the UN Security Council to pass, obliging the Russians to veto it.

That would have led to further furious denunciations and grandstanding in the UN Security Council against Russia.

The fact that the Western powers on this occasion agreed to a Russian amendment which with respect to east Ghouta deprived the Resolution of all meaning shows either that they are tiring of this game, or that they were concerned that the Russian objections were being heeded by the non permanent members of the UN Security Council, so that the Resolution would not have gained enough votes to pass if put to the vote in its original form.

The United Nations’ summary of the debate at the UN Security Council suggests that four UN Security Council members (Russia, China, Bolivia, Kazakhstan and Ethiopia) might have voted against the Resolution or abstained if it had been put to a vote in its original form, with three (Equatorial Guinea, Côte d’Ivoireand Peru) having the swing vote.

Most probably these three states wouldhave voted for the Resolution, but the statements of their ambassadors during the debate were free of rhetoric and somewhat ambiguous, making it at least possible that some or even all of them might have abstained in a vote.

Since a Resolution requires at least nine votes in the UN Security Council to pass, if only two of these states had abstained the Resolution would have failed without any Russian veto being needed, dealing a massive diplomatic defeat to the US and to the Western powers.

Those who recall the events of the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ in 2016 will remember that there were numerous ceasefires or ‘humanitarian pauses’ ordered by President Putin over Syrian objections and over objections from his own military for the purpose of providing relief supplies to the civilians.

The Russians also negotiated strenuously to try to get the Jihadis to leave eastern Aleppo under escort with their families.

All the ceasefires and all the efforts to get the Jihadis to leave eastern Aleppo however ended in failure.

The Jihadis adamantly refused to leave, only finally agreeing to do so when the territory under their control had shrunk to barely a square kilometre and their position had become militarily untenable.

I suspect that something similar will happen in east Ghouta, though with the Syrian army much stronger than it was in Aleppo in 2016, and with the Jihadis in east Ghouta much weaker than were the Jihadis fighting in eastern Aleppo in 2016, I expect the process this time to be much shorter.

Already there are reports of the Syrian army making significant territorial gains as it closes in on the Jihadis in east Ghouta.

As for the Western powers, they have neither the means nor the will to prevent what is going to happen, which is the eventual liberation of east Ghouta from the Al-Qaeda led Jihadi terrorists who control it.

Though it may take a little time I expect the whole of east Ghouta before long to be under the control of the Syrian government.

At that point the Syrian government will be able to turn its full attention to the gathering crisis in Syria’s Kurdish areas far away in Syria’s north.

There now follows the complete text of UN Security Council Resolution 2401 (2018)

The Security Council,

Recalling its resolutions 2042 (2012), 2043 (2012), 2118 (2013), 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2175 (2014), 2191 (2014), 2209 (2015), 2235 (2015), 2249 (2015), 2254 (2015), 2258 (2015), 2268 (2016), 2286 (2016), 2332 (2016), 2336 (2016) and 2393 (2017), and its Presidential Statements of 3 August 2011 (S/PRST/2011/16), 21 March 2012 (S/PRST/2012/6), 5 April 2012 (S/PRST/2012/10), 2 October 2013 (S/PRST/2013/15), 24 April 2015 (S/PRST/2015/10) and 17 August 2015 (S/PRST/2015/15),

Reaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations,

Reiterating its grave distress at the continued severity of the devastating humanitarian situation in Syria, including in Eastern Ghouta, Idlib Governorate, Northern Hama Governorate, Rukhban and Raqqa, and at the fact that urgent humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, is now required by more than 13.1 million people in Syria, of whom 6.1 million are internally displaced, 2.5 million are living in hard-to-reach areas, including Palestinian refugees, and hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped in besieged areas,

Expressing outrage at the unacceptable levels of violence escalating in several parts of the country, in particular in Idlib Governorate and Eastern Ghouta but also Damascus City, including shelling on diplomatic premises, and at attacks against civilians, civilian objects and medical facilities, further compounding suffering and displacing large numbers of people, recalling in this regard the legal obligations of all parties under international humanitarian law and international human rights law, as well as all relevant decisions of the Security Council, especially to cease all attacks against civilians and civilian objects, including those involving attacks on schools and medical facilities,

Expressing concern for those returning to areas, including those retaken from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), that are contaminated by explosive remnants of war and need resilience and stabilization support and expressing disturbance at the humanitarian situation in Raqqa,

Reiterating its deep disturbance at the lack of United Nations humanitarian access to besieged populations in recent months, expressing grave alarm at the dire situation of the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in besieged areas in the Syrian Arab Republic, especially in Eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Foua and Kefraya, and reaffirming that sieges directed against civilian populations in Syria are a violation of international humanitarian law, and calling for the immediate lifting of all sieges,

Expressing its disturbance at the humanitarian situation for the internally displaced persons in Rukhban and stressing in this regard the need to ensure humanitarian access to Rukhban from inside Syria and the need for a sustainable solution,

Noting the ongoing work on de-escalation areas to reduce violence as a step towards a comprehensive nation-wide ceasefire, emphasizing the need for all parties to respect their commitments to existing ceasefire agreements, and that humanitarian access must be granted as part of these efforts in accordance with international humanitarian law,

Reaffirming that Member States must ensure that any measures taken to combat terrorism comply with all their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law,

Emphasizing that the humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate further in the absence of a political solution to the Syrian conflict in line with resolution 2254 (2015), calling upon all parties to make progress in this regard and to undertake confidence-building measures, including the early release of any arbitrarily detained persons, particularly women and children,

Expressing outrage at the insufficient implementation of its resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014), 2258 (2015), 2268 (2016), 2332 (2016) and 2393 (2017),

Determining that the devastating humanitarian situation in Syria continues to constitute a threat to peace and security in the region,

Underscoring that Member States are obligated under Article 25 of the Charter of the United Nations to accept and carry out the Council’s decisions,

“1. Demands that all parties cease hostilities without delay, and engage immediately to ensure full and comprehensive implementation of this demand by all parties, for a durable humanitarian pause for at least 30 consecutive days throughout Syria, to enable the safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services and medical evacuations of the critically sick and wounded, in accordance with applicable international law;

“2. Affirms that the cessation of hostilities shall not apply to military operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Da’esh), Al Qaeda and Al Nusra Front (ANF), and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al Qaeda or ISIL, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the Security Council;

“3. Calls upon all parties to respect and fulfil their commitments to existing ceasefire agreements, including the full implementation of resolution 2268, furthermore calls upon all Member States to use their influence with the parties to ensure implementation of the cessation of hostilities, the fulfilment of existing commitments and to support efforts to create conditions for a durable and lasting ceasefire and stresses the need for relevant guarantees from those Member States;

“4. Calls upon all relevant Member States to coordinate efforts to monitor the cessation of hostilities, building on existing arrangements;

“5. Further demands that, immediately after the start of the cessation of hostilities, all parties shall allow safe, unimpeded and sustained access each week for United Nations’ and their implementing partners’ humanitarian convoys, including medical and surgical supplies, to all requested areas and populations according to United Nations’ assessment of need in all parts of Syria, in particular to those 5.6 million people in 1,244 communities in acute need, including the 2.9 million people in hard-to-reach and besieged locations, subject to standard UN security assessment;

“6. Demands moreover that, immediately after the start of the cessation of hostilities, all parties shall allow the United Nations and its implementing partners to undertake safe, unconditional medical evacuations, based on medical need and urgency, subject to standard UN security assessment;

“7. Reiterates its demand, reminding in particular the Syrian authorities, that all parties immediately comply with their obligations under international law, including international human rights law, as applicable, and international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians as well as to ensure the respect and protection of all medical personnel and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, their means of transport and equipment, as well as hospitals and other medical facilities, and to fully and immediately implement all provisions of all relevant Security Council resolutions;

“8. Demands that all parties facilitate safe and unimpeded passage for medical personnel and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, their equipment, transport and supplies, including surgical items, to all people in need, consistent with international humanitarian law and reiterates its demand that all parties demilitarize medical facilities, schools and other civilian facilities and avoid establishing military positions in populated areas and desist from attacks directed against civilian objects;

“9. Takes note with appreciation of the five requests identified by the Emergency Relief Coordinator on 11 January 2018 during his mission to Syria, and calls upon all parties to facilitate the implementation of these five requests and others to ensure principled, sustained and improved humanitarian assistance to Syria in 2018;

“10. Calls upon all parties to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas, including in Eastern Ghouta, Yarmouk, Foua and Kefraya, and demands that all parties allow the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable to their survival, and enable the rapid, safe and unhindered evacuation of all civilians who wish to leave, and underscores the need for the parties to agree on humanitarian pauses, days of tranquillity, localized ceasefires and truces to allow humanitarian agencies safe and unhindered access to all affected areas in Syria, recalling that starvation of civilians as a method of combat is prohibited by international humanitarian law;

“11. Calls for humanitarian mine action to be accelerated as a matter of urgency throughout Syria;

“12. Requests the Secretary-General to report to the Council on the implementation of this resolution, and on compliance by all relevant parties in Syria, within 15 days of adoption of this resolution and thereafter within the framework of its reporting on resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014), 2258 (2015), 2332 (2016) and 2393 (2017);

“13. Decides to remain actively seized of the matter.”


By Alexander Mercouris
Source: The Duran

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