The Syrian War: The Fall of Afrin & Eastern Ghouta

Image via Rojava Defense Units/Twitter : "Joint statement of Autonomous Afrin Canton’s Administration regarding the invading forces’ attacks and resistance in  # Afrin  : “The heroic resistance of Afrin against the Turkish army and their partners, remnants of Daesh and al-Nusra, has entered its 58th day.” 

Image via Rojava Defense Units/Twitter: "Joint statement of Autonomous Afrin Canton’s Administration regarding the invading forces’ attacks and resistance in #Afrin: “The heroic resistance of Afrin against the Turkish army and their partners, remnants of Daesh and al-Nusra, has entered its 58th day.” 

The fall of Afrin and the recapturing of Eastern Ghouta in the Syrian War has ignited a new wave of fierce fighting across the country. As the country marked its seventh year of bitter fighting on 15 March, two significant events occurred simultaneously. Firstly, the Turkish military and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA) stormed the town of Afrin in northern Syria driving their enemies, the YPG (People's Protection Units) from the city. Secondly, the collapse of the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta is at hand as President Bashar Al-Asad's army, led by Brigadier General Ali Mahmoud and Colonel Ghayath Galla, and supported by Alexander Zhuravlyov's Russian contingent stationed in Syria look to snuff out the coalition of rebels and jihadists fighting there. 

Conflicting statistics, videos and images paint different narratives online, a whole new battleground of competing narratives. Pro-Turkish and pro-Kurdish social media outlets are in a virtual war online and similar parallels have existed between pro-regime loyalists and anti-regime which sprung into life once more as the world's eyes became fixed on the bloody assault on Eastern Ghouta. Some welcome the Turkish military and proxies as 'liberators', others regard them as committing 'massacre', 'genocide' and 'ethnic cleansing' as they sweep into Afrin and celebrate their victory over the YPG. In Eastern Ghouta, where the Syrian Arab Army has reportedly recaptured 70-80% of the enclave, regime loyalists laud President Al-Asad touring the Damascus suburb and condemn mainstream media conspiring to bring down the authoritarian ruler while humanitarian organisations and human rights activists decry the state-sponsored terror committed by the regime against its civilians. The black and white narratives are difficult to untangle and analyse in real-time, however several elements of the fighting can paint a picture of what happens next in Syria's war as it enters a deadly new phase. 


The twin assaults of the Syrian Arab Army and the Turkish Armed Forces, NATO's second largest army,  have created renewed humanitarian crises, more internally displaced persons and driven more refugees from the country as, quite symbolically, the raw images of men, women and children streaming from the the two stricken areas created headlines across the world. According to IRIN News, '150,000 people are in flight following Turkey's capture of the northern city of Afrin.' More disturbingly, 'it remains unclear if or when they will be able to go back home,' a statement which could indicate, once investigations have been conducted, as to whether ethnic cleansing has taken place inside Afrin's canton. Widespread looting in Afrin has been documented, and despite some Arab civilians welcoming the conquerors, others are in flight as the city is sacked by TFSA paramilitary forces. 

In Eastern Ghouta, the rise in intensity of the violence, spearheaded by the units of General Mahmoud and Colonel Galla (who now hold 70-80% of the district) exacerbated an already serious situation. The suburb has been in a dire situation for several years. Under siege since 2013, malnutrition rates for children under five hit record highs in the besieged suburb in November, 2017 with 11.9 percent rate reported. Wedded to the hunger and starvation is a severe mental health crisis which will have a multi-generational impact if left unaddressed. 

Periodic shelling by the regime became routine, and massacres were conducted with relative impunity by the loyalists. In Douma, one airstrike alone killed at least 112 civilians, one of deadliest attacks in the conflict in August 2015. The attacks on Eastern Ghouta reached a devastating peak with a chemical attack in August, 2013. The disastrous deployment of chemical weapons killed between 281 and 1,429 civilians and drew international condemnation. To this day, chemical weapons are still being used in limited amounts in Eastern Ghouta which has become a symbol of Syria's tragedy.  The latest surge in violence, much like the final stages of the siege of Aleppo, have compounded the horrors faced by the Syrian civilians trapped there, and now many of them face displacement and IDP camps. 


 TURKEY'S VICTORY AND The West's Betrayal of the Kurds 

“These attacks have taken place with silence from the international powers, the Coalition, the European Union, and the United Nations Security COuncil. Afrin is being exposed to forced displacement.”
— @RojavaDefense

The capture and sack of Afrin has dealt a another bad blow to the sub-state of Rojava. In less than six months, miscalculations such as the Kurdistan Regional Government's referendum in Iraq, the end of the war on Daesh (so-called Islamic State) and the shift in the dynamics of the conflict between Al-Asad's regime and the Sunni and Salafi rebels have left the YPG's gains in the Syrian conflict in peril. In Iraq, the botched referendum - an act denounced the vote as unconstitutional by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi - resulted in Iraqi forces seizing control of Kirkuk and disputed surrounding region from Kurdish fighters with relative ease.

As with Iraq, the scenario of two armies funded and trained by the United States fighting each other in Iraq has been replicated in Syria as its now fights with a NATO member in Syria; Turkey. The U.S coalition has been supporting the YPG fighting force in the fight against Daesh for several years which culminated in several stunning victories over the terror group in Kobani and Raqqa, as the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces crushed the sub-state established by the jihadists in Syria. After Afrin, Operation Olive Branch will set the stage for further Turkish attacks against Kurdish-held territory further east. 

This will bring the Turks into a potentially alarming confrontation with Washington which the Trump administration will have to negotiate. The choices are difficult as the U.S may be forced to sacrifice the Kurds aspirations to stay on side with Erdogan's Turkey. If not Turkey may drift closer to the sphere of Iran and Russia and drift at the expense of the West. On the other side, if they side with Turkey, they face betraying the Kurds - an act which will not be forgotten for decades if the Turkish military and its proxies the TFSA and Turkomen's clear the Afrin canton and other regions controlled by the YPG and SDF of ethnic Kurds and other minorities. 

after eastern ghouta, President al-asad turns to idlib 

Idlib could be one of the last major sieges of the Syrian War. Idlib is home to a coalition of rebel factions, including jihadist soldiers, foreign fighters and remnants of the Free Syrian Army, and it is under sustained attack by the Syrian Arab Army. The city is in the grip of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) who are closely tied to Al-Qa'ida and Jabat Fatah al-Sham. HTS have been involved in numerous clashes with other extremist rebel cells including Nour al-Din al Zenki and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya for control of Idlib and the surrounding area. 

In crushing what remains of civil society in Eastern Ghouta, pockets which remain in Idlib and the rest of Syria while slaughtering his own people, the Syrian president has created a future generation of rebels, insurgents and jihadists who will target the regime, abroad and at home. It may not be enough to bring the House of Al-Asad down, but it means perpetual instability in Syria for generations. The brutalisation of the Syria will, sadly, deter protest and activism. As in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who killed hundreds of thousands of Shi'as and Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s, Bashar Al-Asad's shadow state can survive, so long as it has the support of the Russian Federation and the Islamic regime in Tehran. Unlike Saddam, the Al-Asad regime has been careful not to alienate key allies at the precise point the foreign policy order established by Western powers in 1990s, to quote political scientist Mark Leonard, has "been exhausted by Kosovo and Iraq." This collapse of the West's status quo and liberal interventionism has not just been seen in the Middle East, but in Myanmar's genocide of the Rohingya Muslims, the war in Eastern Ukraine, the South Sudanese Civil War, Somalia's unending turmoil and the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  

 The Hama uprising, which was brutalised by Hafez Al-Asad in 1982, a miniature of the many, many battles across the Syrian War, was a wound which never fully healed and repression of actvists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, left the secret police and Syrian Arab Army sitting on a boiling pan which - alongside other factors - eventually produced the current Syrian revolt. As with the Lebanese Civil War and the Iraq War, the affects of the Syrian War will be felt across the country for years, and produces a new set of conflicts, some predictable and some unforeseeable. 

a collapsed state

Bashar Al-Asad's victory against the insurgents and revolutionaries  is a Pyrrhic victory.  What started as a protest in response to the torture of young boys daubing anti-regime graffiti in Dara'a has left the breadbasket of the Middle East broken by years of war, and estimates that it could carry on for four more years spell further suffering for the exhausted country. Even if the conflict were to end this year, the problems facing the regime - only concerned with survival up to 2017  - will be innumerable. 

Sanctions, poverty (85% of Syrians now live in poverty), hunger, poor sanitation, malnutrition, a destroyed health care system buckling under the millions of wounded men, women and children, a traumatised population, a million orphans, challenges of demilitarisation, terrorism, geo-political inteference by regional powers, demining towns and cities  and re-homing 6.3 million IDPs and 5 million refugees await the regime. Reestablishing order in rural areas will be a complex challenge in a landscape whose demographics have been radically changed by ethnic cleansing, extreme violence and massacres.  Rebuilding Syria will cost $250 billion, supporting refugees $3.3 billion. Over half a million are dead. 

President Al-Asad's regime will rule as a pariah state and it will take years for reconciliation to take place (if it ever occurs). Nor is President Al-Asad's own position necessarily secure as he faces dominance by allies in Russia and Iran who have played the crucial role in stabilising and securing the regime while the Al-Asad clique is sure to endure internal power struggles between warlords, foreign fighters, paramilitary forces and militias who President Al-Asad outsourced his fighting to as the strength of his army dwindled during the peak of the war. The short-term impact of the war in Syria is being felt across the world. The consequences for future generations in the region are grave. 

Matthew C.K Williams