Syria continues to mass its armed forces around the east Ghouta enclave of Damascus, including army units commanded by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher and by Colonel Soheil Hassan, the “Tiger” whose military victories across the country have made him legendary among Assad’s supporters.
Instead of moving by night - the traditional tactic adopted by the army in the war - vast quantities of Syrian armour have been humming along the highways to the capital in broad daylight from Aleppo and Homs in the north, from Deraa in the south, and from the countryside of Damascus itself. The Syrian authorities want them to be seen, to show the Islamist rebels of Ghouta know how their battle will end.
Despite Russia’s veto at the UN on Thursday night, however, negotiations have continued between three rebel groups and the Syrian army - under the direct mediation of the Russians - to establish “humanitarian corridors” and “escape routes” for the tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Ghouta, the vast area of suburban slums and farmland held by Islamist and other rebel groups since 2013. Almost identical talks took place between Islamists and the government over eastern Aleppo before its fall in December 2016. Bloodshed and negotiations have long been a feature of the Syrian war.
But despite all the West’s rhetoric - and the UN’s constant refrain that the civilians of eastern Ghouta are experiencing “hell on earth” - the massive Syrian and Russian bombardment is going to continue. The Islamist Nusrah faction, the “child” of al-Qaeda of 9/11 infamy, appears to be more reluctant to surrender to the Syrians - even if allowed to leave with its light weapons - than Saudi Arabia’s favourite militia, the Jaish al-Islam, or Qatar’s proxy “Rahman Legion”. There are even suggestions that the Saudi and Qatari supported factions are arguing with each other - even now, inside Ghouta - about the Gulf dispute between the Saudis and Qataris.
There appears to be no such disunity among their enemies. The Presidential Guard is on the edge of Ghouta, and the Syrians have brought their 14th Division (Special Forces) to the suburbs. Maher Assad’s 4th Armoured Division, based in Damascus, is positioned on the perimeter, as is the military’s 7th Division, and troops belonging to units commanded by Colonel “Tiger” Soheil Hassan.
Given the multitude of army regiments around Ghouta, Hassan cannot be the overall commander, a post which remains diplomatically undefined. But the convoys of tanks, armoured vehicles, field guns and trucks pouring in daylight towards Damascus – and enthusiastically captured on film by government photographers – is meant to be seen.
Ghouta will fall. That is the message. From within the Syrian military, there are attempts to explain the ruthlessness of the assault. Thousands of soldiers have been killed in the battles around Ghouta since 2013; vast military “resources” – the word the army uses – have been poured into this battle over the years. Most of the car bomb attacks in Damascus and the constant shelling across the centre of the capital for the past four years have come from Islamist forces in Ghouta, especially from the Douma district. Of course, there are the usual explanations from artillery officers: of “surgical” strikes, of rebels hiding in hospitals and using civilians as “human shields”; but these are words the world has heard before – from the Americans about Mosul and Afghanistan, from the Israelis about Gaza, and the Russians about Chechnya.
And pictures, as usual, speak louder than words. While the footage from eastern Ghouta pointedly fails to show the armed Islamists who are fighting in the enclave, there is no reason to doubt the suffering of the civilians. And some of these civilians, it should be remembered, will inevitably be relatives of the very Syrian soldiers who are planning to storm Ghouta; there were many Syrian military personnel who captured eastern Aleppo in 2016 whose own families also lived there.
But Ghouta is experiencing a different sort of siege, one that has no precedent in size during this war. “Shock and awe” – or shock and terror – is what Syria’s enemies are supposed to experience. The Russian and Syrian air attacks are proof of that. Even if maps look simple on television screens, wars are infinitely more chaotic. Think of the effect of a brick hitting the windscreen of a car, of the dozens of fractures across the glass; that is what Syrian military maps look like.
It is now being said that if the first Syrian advance into Ghouta moves against areas controlled by al-Nusrah, it means that the al-Qaeda fighters are being more stubborn in the negotiations than the other two major groups. They will suffer first, along with the civilians of course. This is the inevitable lesson of this terrifying war. The Syrians, along with Iraqi militias and Hezbollah, do indeed have plans for the overrunning of rebel-held Ghouta. And after this demonstration of firepower, how could the Syrians and Russians stop now? If they did, who would believe the message of the next siege? In northwestern Idlib, for example. Or in the towns around it.
And so, when Ghouta falls, Idlib must surely be next. And then the Syrians must decide how to break the US-Kurdish hold on Raqqa – perhaps that is one reason why pro-Syrian forces have now gone to the rescue of the Kurds in the northern province of Afrin, to drive a further wedge between the Turks and the Americans, and force Washington to abandon its Kurdish allies on the Euphrates.
It is painful to remember how these huge landscapes of river and desert and mountainside lived in peace for a century – their societies straitjacketed, of course, and without justice – before the bloodbath. Ghouta receives the waters of five rivers, and the 1912 French edition of Baedeker’s travel handbook to “Syria and Palestine” describes how the tributaries flowing into the sands to the east conferred upon Ghouta the name of “Lakes of the Prairies”. But that was the old Syria.