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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

After the fall of Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian civil war has graduated to a new phase

Victory will prompt Assad to be even more brutal

It would be a grave mistake to regard the deal Al Assad struck with the rebels and residents to allow them to passage out of Eastern Ghouta as the beginning of the end of his aggression. Reuters
It would be a grave mistake to regard the deal Al Assad struck with the rebels and residents to allow them to passage out of Eastern Ghouta as the beginning of the end of his aggression. Reuters

The fall of Eastern Ghouta, the cluster of rebel-held suburbs a short distance from the Syrian capital of Damascus, is a major triumph for Bashar Al Assad. The plight of the people trapped in the towns and villages there reflected the pattern of the conflict that is now in its eighth year. A people’s movement against a tyrannical regime struggled to keep up its resistance as the world largely abandoned it, even as evidence of repeated use of chemical weapons by Mr Al Assad’s forces against civilians accumulated. Some 1,600 men, women and children were killed in Mr Al Assad’s month-long assault; a group of 37 people, hiding in an underground shelter, were blown up by the regime’s bombs on Thursday night. The international community made noises, but no action was forthcoming as Syrian forces punched into Eastern Ghouta and cut the region into three pockets.

Resistance, under such circumstances, was futile. The truce struck by the government and opposition groups has resulted in an exodus from Eastern Ghouta into regime-held areas and the rebel-dominated Idlib province. Douma, the largest town in Eastern Ghouta, is now the last remaining rebel stronghold. The plight that awaits its people at the hands of a regime that has just tasted success is chilling to contemplate. The collapse of Eastern Ghouta solidifies Mr Al Assad’s rule: at no point in the civil war has he looked more powerful than he does today. This is why it would be a mistake to regard the deal he struck with the rebels to allow them passage to Idlib as the beginning of the end of his aggression. In reality, it is a canny move.

Mr Al Assad has crushed opposition around Damascus and herded his adversaries into one area. An all-out regime assault on Idlib, which is already a site of intense fighting, is not far off. It will follow the same template — isolation, starvation, bombardment — as Eastern Ghouta. The humanitarian disaster the world witnessed outside Damascus is a preview of the humanitarian catastrophe that is about to unfold in Idlib. The implications of the Syrian civil war for the wider world are on display in Idlib. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has vowed to advance to Idlib after his forces took control of Afrin. The tragic lesson of Syria is that military successes do not result in peace but rather prompt the victors to wage yet more war. The horror of the Syrian civil war, far from being over, has just graduated to a new phase of fighting whose implications will not be limited to Syria alone.