Syrian girls sit in front of shops in the rebel-held Douma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria, on July 23, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Bassam Khabieh

“Al-Ghouta is the heart and apex of the revolution” wrote Syrian opposition leader Mohammad Alloush at the weekend, minutes after Russian officers and members of the Syrian armed opposition finalized a “de-conflict” zone agreement in al-Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus.

The agreement basically ends the fighting in the war-torn countryside of the Syrian capital, lifts a four-year siege and pardons the rebels, but it also keeps the entire territory firmly in the hands of Damascus. All rebel hopes of marching on the city and toppling the regime have now been dashed. Al-Ghouta was the last standing stronghold of the Syrian opposition in the country’s south.

Signed off in Cairo over the weekend, the de-conflict zone contains the strategic town of Douma, 10 kilometers northeast of Damascus, which has been held by Alloush’s men and besieged by Syrian troops since 2012. “After four years and four months, it is time for this siege to be lifted,” tweeted Alloush on July 22.

Al-Ghouta was among the earliest territories to rise against Damascus back in March 2011 and has been held by Alloush’s Islamic Army ever since. Often his troops rained the Syrian capital with mortars, promising to lead a ground invasion of it — but they were never able to break out of their enclave, certainly not after the Russian Army intervened three years ago, exercising its grip on al-Ghouta and killing Alloush’s cousin Zahran, the founder of the Islamic Army, in December 2015.

Ultimately the US and Russia hope that the two camps in the Syrian conflict will join efforts to fight radical jihadi groups such as Jabnhat al-Nusra and ISIS in al-Ghouta and elsewhere

When the UN-mandated Geneva peace talks started in early 2016, the then-US Secretary of State, John Kerry, insisted on bringing Mohammad Alloush on board, describing him as a member of the “moderate opposition.” The Russians at first refused to deal with him, writing him off as a “terrorist” but they were soon convinced that no deal would pass if not co-signed by the armed opposition, especially the Islamic Army – which is among the largest and best organized in the Syrian theater.

Now not only has Alloush facilitated the de-conflict zone, he has also suggested inviting Egyptian peacekeepers to patrol the area, similar to the 600 Russian military police deployed in Aleppo and more recently the 400 stationed in the countryside of Daraa in southern Syria. The Cairo agreement allows Alloush’s fighters to keep their light arms but surrender all heavy weaponry to the Russian Army, after dismantling all mines and checkpoints. The parameters of the de-conflict zone are similar to those set out in agreements reached in May for a northern enclave of Homs and for Idlib, in the Syrian northwest.

Another zone was agreed upon in Hamburg, on July 7, between presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, encompassing the strategic southern cities of Daraa and al-Quneitra. All-in-all, approximately 2.5 million people live in these four de-conflict zones. Damascus will be prevented from sending soldiers, tanks, or military warplanes to al-Ghouta, but it is entitled to re-open schools and police stations, and to raise the Syrian Flag. It will also guarantee that humanitarian aid is allowed to pass freely into al-Ghouta and facilitate the safe exodus of the sick, wounded, and elderly. Ultimately the US and Russia hope that the two camps in the Syrian conflict will join efforts to fight radical jihadi groups such as Jabnhat al-Nusra and ISIS in al-Ghouta and elsewhere.

Times have changed

Mohammad Alloush realized that making a deal with the Russians was better and less costly than continuing in an uphill battle against them. The US administration is no longer interested in regime change in Damascus but seems more focused on combating ISIS, expelling Hezbollah, and empowering Syrian Kurds. Earlier this summer it issued an ultimatum to the Syrian rebels, saying that they would lose access to US arms if they did not unite into one group — an impossible request given the huge polarization and colossal differences in the anti-regime camp. Last week, the White House terminated the CIA’s covert program to equip and arm the Syrian rebels, in a warm-up gesture to the Kremlin.

Last week, the White House terminated the CIA’s covert program to equip and arm the Syrian rebels, in a warm-up gesture to the Kremlin

This all means that only one rebel group in Syria is now on the payroll of the United States – the powerful all-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They are presently engaged in the fight for al-Raqqa and are receiving regular supplies of guns, ammunition and surface-to-air missiles from the Pentagon, in addition to the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), with its 300-km range missile, which it used back in 2016 in the battle for al-Bab, west of the Euphrates River.

Fundamentally, the armed opposition has finally realized that times have changed since they first emerged in 2012, scoring victory after victory in al-Ghouta. Back then, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were both on its side, providing a steady stream of funds and resources. Those two countries are at daggers drawn today and Saudi Arabia is busy with its war on Yemen. Additionally, there is very little the Saudis can do in terms of providing Alloush’s troops with arms, after the Russians enforced the siege of al-Ghouta in 2015.

The Trump Administration is not interested in their plight and nor is the new French President Emmanuel Macron, who has even hinted at collaborating with Damascus. But in exchange for the al-Ghouta deal —which has the fingerprints of Turkey all over it — the Russians will have to reciprocate, first by assuring the compliance of their allies in Damascus but also by giving concessions elsewhere in Syria. Concessions not with the Syrians on democracy and change, perhaps, but with the US, on spheres or pockets of influence and the distribution of power in the Syrian patchwork.

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