Syrian military attacks rebels in 'deescalation zone'

The Syrian military's bombardment of a rebel-held enclave has forced Russia into a U-turn over "deescalation zones" and led to the Western powers protesting, but to little effect.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. AFP/Presidencia siria

Over 220 people have been killed in Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus.since Monday and the US has accused Assad's forces of using chlorine gas in the attacks.

France has called on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to stop the bombing of civilians and President Emmanuel Macron called the Russia's Vladimir Putin on Friday to ask him to do what he could to stop the degradation to the humanitarian situation in the rebel stronghold.

The area has been controlled by Free Syrian Army rebels since 2012 and under siege from the Syrian government since 2013.

The Assad government agreed with Russia and Turkey in the 2017 Astana peace talks that Eastern Ghouta would be a "deescalation zone", in which there would be no fighting.

But now “the regime is trying to recapture the rest of the rebel-controlled areas in rural Damascus in order to further secure the capital”, said Haid Haid, Syria specialist at Chatham House in London, in an interview with RFI.

“Although the regime has always been wanting to do that, the Russians were not on the same page. The current attacks are done with the blessing of the Russians. This is the significant change, because the Russians were trying to broker a deal where rebel forces continue to operate in the area without fighting Assad under the name 'deescalation zones'. That didn't work and Assad is now trying to take advantage of that and gain as many territories as possible.”

Europeans squeezed out

France and the US have both called on Assad to leave power since the start of the Syrian civil war.

But the US military is focused on helping Kurdish militias fight against attacks from government forces while France and other European powers are only playing a diplomatic role, according to Julien Théron, an expert on Middle East conflicts at Sciences Po here in Paris,.

“The US have a strategy regarding the Syrian Democratic Forces Kurdish-led coalition: they fight against pro-regime forces that attack them,” Théron told RFI. “But, at the same time, they do not defend them in Afrin against Turkish and Syrian Arab allied forces.

"Regarding European forces, they play at a diplomatic level because they do not have military forces on the ground and since a couple of years now they are out of the group of leading entities for negotiation on Syria.”

Two US allies attacking each other

It is notable that Théron mentions Turkey’s involvement in Afrin, a Syrian town near the Turkish border. Turkey launched a military offensive there on 20 January.

Afrin is controlled by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which is under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces and which Turkey sees as a threat because it has ties with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state for three decades.

“The problem is that we've got Turkey attacking this coalition – the Syrian Democratic Forces – specifically because 75 percent of its forces are constituted of Kurds,” says General Dominique Trinquand, zn adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron during his 2017 election campaign.

“So the Kurds are allied to the US but an enemy of the Turks, and the Turks are allied to the US within Nato but an enemy to the Kurds. The problem will be solved mainly between the US and the Turks. But are the US in a position to discuss with the Turks on this, which is a central problem for Turkey? I don't know.”

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