Exactly as I predicted last month on 26th February 2018, events in the Jihadi enclave of East Ghouta are following precisely the same script as they did in the Jihadi enclave of eastern Aleppo in 2016, with the important difference that this time the script is being played out in record time, as if the same film was being played in fast motion.
Just as they did during the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ of 2016, so in East Ghouta the Jihadis swore to resist the Syrian army fanatically, to the last man.
Just as they did during the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ of 2016, in practice as their military position has become untenable the Jihadis have agreed to Russian offers to evacuate them to Idlib.
The only difference is that what took months to happen in 2016 in Aleppo is this time taking place over a period of just a few weeks.
Over the last few days literally thousands of Jihadis have left in long convoys of buses whose security has been guaranteed by the Russian military.
According to the normally reliable Al-Masdar news agency, around 10,000 Jihadis and members of their families left East Ghouta in this way under escort on Sunday alone, 5,500 being Jihadis and their family members belonging to the group which calls itself Faylaq al-Rahman, and 4,900 being Jihadis and their families belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated group Ahrar al-Sham.
With up to 80% of the former Jihadi enclave of East Ghouta now under Syrian army control, negotiations are apparently underway for the evacuation of the remaining Jihadis holding out in Douma, East Ghouta’s main urban settlement. It is widely expected that they too will agree to leave shortly, at which point the whole of East Ghouta will once again be under Syrian government control, for the first time since 2012.
In the meantime, just as happened in Aleppo in 2016, so now in East Ghouta as Jihadi control crumbles so tens of thousands of civilians, who had previously been prevented by the Jihadis from accepting Russian and Syrian government offers to be evacuated from East Ghouta, are now accepting them.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a strongly pro-Jihadi source, but one which does nonetheless have genuine sources within Syria – 95,000 civilians have left East Ghouta through the ‘humanitarian corridors’ set up by the Russians and the Syrian military since Thursday 15th March 2018.
In a fierce debate about the situation in East Ghouta I had with Jim Walsh of the Security Studies Programme at MIT on Press TV on 16th March 2018 I responded to his challenge to justify my claim that my understanding of the situation of East Ghouta rather than his was the correct one by pointing out that this was precisely what would be expected to happen when following Syrian army operations the hold of the Jihadi fighters over East Ghouta would start to weaken. It was what happened in Aleppo in 2016; and it is what is happening in East Ghouta again now
The fall of the Jihadi enclave in East Ghouta, and the now certain fall of the ISIS enclave in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk near Damascus, will bring the whole of greater Damascus under the Syrian government’s control for the first time since the summer of 2012.
Moreover just as the Syrian army’s victory in the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ of 2016 freed large numbers of Syria troops, who were then able to take the fight to ISIS in central and eastern Syria, setting the scene for the Syrian army’s spectacular advance across central and northern Syria all the way to the eastern city of Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border, so the Syrian army’s pending victory in East Ghouta and Damascus will free large numbers of Syrian troops, enabling them to take the fight against the Jihadis elsewhere.
Whilst it is impossible to say for certain where the next Syrian army advance after the fall of East Ghouta will be, my guess is that it will be in northern Hama province, with the Jihadi fighters there being pushed further north into what is increasingly becoming the Turkish protectorate of Idlib province.
The Syrian army also must taken into account the resurgence of ISIS in Deir Ezzor province, where the organisation has in recent weeks taken advantage of the recent withdrawal of Kurdish fighters to fight the Turks in Afrin in order to stage a comeback.
The Syrian army also has to keep a careful eye on the situation on the Jordanian border, where the town of Daraa – the place where the uprising against President Assad’s government began – remains divided between government and Jihadi controlled areas, and where much of the countryside is under Jihadi control.
Any future Syrian army operations in Hama province, Deir Ezzor province, or in Daraa and the countryside around it, will however lack the epic quality of the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ of 2016, or of the Syrian army’s sweeping advances of 2017, or of the battle of East Ghouta.
They will instead be more like mopping up operations, clearing up Jihadi holdout areas after the main battles against the Jihadis have been won.
The conflict in Syria will not however be over since the US and Turkey both will continue to have troops stationed on Syrian territory.
Removing these troops will become the Syrian government’s and Russia’s objective. However that will have to be achieved politically rather than in a military way.