“Siege, starve, and surrender”: inside the next phase of the Syrian civil war

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on Eastern Ghouta show how he plans to consolidate power across the country.

Airstrikes. Artillery fire. Cluster and barrel bombs.

This is what the nearly 400,000 people in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus, have faced over the past two weeks. Syrian forces have dramatically escalated their attacks on the area, which is mostly controlled by rebel forces who for five years have opposed President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Human rights observers say thousands are injured and more than 500 people — including around 120 children — have died during the uptick in fighting, marking this as one of the bloodiest stretches of the eight-year Syrian civil war.

The offensive highlights a grim reality about the current state of the war: Assad is winning and has now turned his attention to retaking parts of the country he lost. Recapturing Eastern Ghouta — an area that lies only 6 miles away from Damascus — is an important part of his push to force the rebels holding the area to surrender once and for all.

The fighting seems certain to intensify. Last Saturday, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. Two days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin — whose forces back the Assad regime and are the main reason the Syrian ruler is winning the conflict — requested a daily five-hour “humanitarian pause” in the fighting so civilians in Eastern Ghouta could escape the targeted area.

Syrian planes have continued bombing, however. The US has harshly condemned the onslaught — “The regime claims it is fighting terrorists, but is instead terrorizing hundreds of thousands of civilians,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert tweeted on Monday — but Syrian leaders say the fighting will continue.

“We practice a sovereign right of self-defense,” Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s UN ambassador, said after the ceasefire vote on Saturday.

More than anything, the attacks show how Eastern Ghouta is the next battlefield in one of the world’s worst civil wars — and just how stunningly bloody the fight will be. “The Syrian people are just going to suffer as this continues to be a huge humanitarian disaster,” Mara Karlin, who spent years on Middle East security issues at the Pentagon, told me.