On Sunday, 18 February, the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) initiated a heavy aerial bombardment of the rebel held East Ghouta pocket – the opening salvo in a campaign known as Operation Damascus Steel. The ground offensive began a week later, on 25 February. Contrary to some expectations (and wishful thinking), rebel defenses have collapsed and pro-government forces have scored victory after victory for a month. The green-eyed Syrian flag now casts its shadow on perhaps 80% of the land area of the old East Ghouta pocket; the remnants of the rebels are besieged in the urban areas and have already capitulated or are negotiating their surrender.
The Syrian government and the Russians (who are reportedly involved in the negotiations) have taken advantage of the deep divisions between the Ghouta factions and have engaged in separate negotiations with the groups. The government’s strategy of military action combined with aggressive negotiations has paid off, and the factions have fallen like dominoes. Four of the five groups – among them several thousand fighters – have surrendered after just 27 days of ground operations.
The first to go was a small, semi-independent group in Hammouriyah named Liwa Abu Musa al-Ashari (LAMA). LAMA split from Faylaq al-Rahman in October 2016 as part of Alwiyat al-Majd but was coerced into rejoining in May 2017. However, LAMA never fully integrated with Rahman, and Rahman reportedly attacked its headquarters in Hammouriyah on 11 December. It’s hardly a surprise that the group took the first chance it got to surrender to the Syrian government. When pro-government forces reached the edge of Hammouriyah on 15 March, the group immediately handed the town over. It’s fighters, numbering no more than 150, along with a small number of civilian relatives and supporters, were evacuated to Greater Idlib on the same day.
Next to capitulate was Ahrar al-Sham in Harasta. On 21 March, after a few days of on-again, off-again fighting and negotiations, the group agreed to vacate the town. The evacuation was massive, spanning two days (22 and 23 March), making use of 89 buses, and involving 4,386 individuals, 1,413 of whom were militants. Judging by these numbers, the vast majority of the Ahrar fighters chose to relocate to Greater Idlib rather than reconcile with the Syrian government. These fighters will add strength to Jahbat Tahrir Suriya (JTS), the Ahrar-led coalition which has been batting HTS for supremacy in Greater Idlib for five weeks (the fighting has died down since early March, but clashes continue to occur on a daily basis).
Two days after Ahrar’s surrender, Faylaq al-Rahman – the faction which dominates East Ghouta’s “Central Sector” (Irbin, Zamalka, and Ayn Terma) and was once regarded as an example of a well-run and resilient FSA-brand group – suffered a catastrophic collapse. In hours, Pro-Government forces captured the city of Ayn Terma in full (for comparison, pro-government forces spent weeks during a Summer 2017 offensive struggling to capture a few blocks of that city). That same day, Rahman agreed to follow in the footsteps of Ahrar and ride Syria’s signature Damascus-Idlib bus route.
The exact details of the evacuation are not yet fully clear, with Ivan Sidorenko reporting that the operation will begin at 9:00 on 24 March (today) at the al-Ghubayr mosque in Irbin. Riam Dalati, on the other hand, reports that it will begin no earlier than the 25th.
The deal includes a prisoner/hostage exchange, Russian assistance, and a provision that allows Rahman to take light weapons and other items (heavy weapons are not allowed, and Rahman has already begun destroying them; HQs and depots went up in flames on the 23rd, before the start of the evacuation).
The official Faylaq al-Rahman twitter account has remained conspicuously silent in wake of the deal.
Faylaq al-Rahman is not known to have any significant presence in Idlib; the group’s only major presence outside of Ghouta is in the East Qalamoun (Nasiriyah-Jayroud-Ruhaybah pocket). It is not clear if the group will be able to successfully reconstitute itself in Idlib. If it is not, its fighters will wither return to civilian life of join one of the plethora of groups active in Idlib. Assuming Rahman does remain intact, the question that will immediately have to be faced is what to do in regards to the ongoing infighting in Idlib.
Within the Ghouta pocket, Rahman has had better relations with HTS than with either Jaysh al-Islam or Ahrar al-Sham (Note: JaI and Ahrar are allies and the northern branch of JaI merged with Ahrar in early 2017). However, bad blood aside, Rahman is ideologically far closer to JTS than to HTS, and Rahman occasionally denounces HTS in its media releases. Furthermore, other FSA groups that were previously sympathetic to HTS sided with JTS in the latest round of infighting. Thus, a Rahman-HTS alliance is incredibly unlikely. It’s more likely that Rahman – assuming it survives as an independent group – declares support for JTS or chooses to remain neutral. Another possibility is that Rahman becomes part of Turkish-backed anti-YPG coalition sometimes known as the TFSA. This option would be complicated by the fact that the Turkish border with Greater Idlib is controlled fully by HTS. However, one pro-rebel social media source reports evacuees will have the option of going to al-Bab. If this is true, it indicates Turkey intends to recruit some of Faylaq al-Rahman to the TFSA.
Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), embedded in Faylaq al-Rahman territory, is also included in the most recent evacuation deal. The group has only a minor presence in East Ghouta; its importance has declined since taking large losses during April-May 2017 clashes. This small presence, however, has played an outsize role in propaganda, frequently being used by pro-government media to justify attacks on East Ghouta and by Jaysh al-Islam to justify attacks on Faylaq al-Rahman. Its evacuation will have little effect aside from providing a minuscule boost to HTS in Idlib.
Jaysh al-Islam (JaI), based in Douma, is the one East Ghouta group that has not yet fallen. On social media, Jaysh al-Islam supporters like to portray their group as more hawkish and confrontational toward the Syrian government than its rivals in Ghouta. However, in light of JaI’s poor performance on the Hawsh al-Dawahirah front and the fact that its stronghold of Douma will soon be completely isolated and surrounded by Syrian troops, it’s hard to imagine JaI holding out for much more than a week or two. One thing that is for certain is that JaI will soon be reunited with the groups it once clashed with in exile.
It is reported that JaI has agreed to release around 3,500 hostages (including a large number of Alawites kidnapped from Adra in 2013 – the same ones seen in an infamous November 2015 video being used by JaI as caged human shields). This agreement is likely part of a larger agreement still in negotiation that will provide for JaI’s evacuation.
A full-size version of the map, which was made using data from Google Maps, can be found here. A full-size version of the chart can be found here.