Layal Abou Rahal & Rim Haddad –
The capture of Eastern Ghouta is a significant milestone for Syria’s regime and paves the way for government troops to shift south to where the seven-year uprising first began: Daraa.
After securing the capital from rockets that once rained in from its suburbs, President Bashar al Assad now has forces ready to redeploy elsewhere in the country.
The extremists that hold the northwest province of Idlib remain a threat, but analysts say Assad’s priority will likely be the southern province of Daraa, where protests against his rule first broke out in 2011.
After losing swathes of territory to rebels, Syria’s army has regained control of more than 55 per cent of the country with crucial help from its ally Russia, according to analyst Fabrice Balanche.
Its most recent victory is in Ghouta: the onetime rebel bastion that has now been neutralised after a blistering air and ground assault and the Russia-brokered evacuation of thousands of rebels and civilians.
“The liberation of Eastern Ghouta means lifting the security and military threat posed to Damascus,” said Bassam Abou Abdallah, who heads the Damascus Centre for Strategic Studies.
“After Ghouta, it’s likely the Syrian government will head south — the current situation in Daraa must be finished off,” he said.
The regime said it had retaken Eastern Ghouta on Saturday after a nearly two-month assault.
With Ghouta now taken care of, the only risk posed to Damascus stems from a few southern districts still held by the IS group.
Al Watan newspaper, which is close to the government, said the army will seek to “finish off” those districts, but analysts believe the regime’s real interest lies elsewhere.
“Maintaining some IS pockets serves the regime’s narrative in order to reconquer the rest of Syrian territory,” said Julien Theron, a professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
He said the regime could redeploy troops to reinforce other fronts against rebels, including Daraa which he described as a “real problem”.
The vast Daraa province lies south of Damascus and also shares borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Non-extremist rebels, backed by the United States and Jordan, hold nearly three-quarters of it and parts of the provincial capital, also called Daraa.
“The regime has been focusing on Daraa province for a long time, trying to break through rebel territory to reach the city,” said Theron.
But analysts also say Assad’s regime will have to avoid any escalation with Israel.
“The areas in the south of Syria are particularly sensitive because they are located between Damascus on the one hand, and the Jordanian and Israeli borders on the other,” analyst Sam Heller said.
“Any military action could affect the national security of the three countries,” said the researcher at the International Crisis Group.
Thomas Pierret, a Syria specialist at the University of Edinburgh, said Daraa was the obvious next step for the regime after Ghouta, over Idlib.
“Daraa is probably more urgent for economic reasons and reopening trade with Jordan.”
While Idlib is surely in his sights, analysts said the province’s complex dynamics could put it further down his priority list.
Idlib is held by an array of rebel and extremist forces.
Taking such forces head-on could prove too costly for Assad’s army, said Theron.
“Until further notice, Idlib is not one of the Damascus regime’s goals, as it is hostage to
From Damascus, Abou Abdallah said he expected the same tactic used to seize Ghouta will apply to reconquer Daraa and Idlib: “military pressure to reach a settlement, or settlement without military pressure”.
Ghouta’s “fall at that speed should be a lesson to both Idlib in the north and Daraa in the south.” — AFP