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After Ghouta: Will south Damascus be Syria’s next offensive?

Another video. Shell-shocked civilians flee Hamouriyeh, and amid the heavy breathing and distant thuds of airstrikes, one can hear a strangely cheerful “hamdella ’a’salameh!” — blackly comic in its delivery — from a state media reporter welcoming the latest noble, suffering refugees of the Syrian Arabic Republic. “Marhaba!” he smiles. “Tell us, what did the militants do?” Civilians who, until a few moments ago, had been besieged for the best part of five years are now being asked to regularize their status live to the camera. In the background, a child flinches and cowers at the sound of jet engines overhead. A girl spits in the face of a military officer when she is called a “daughter of Bashar al-Assad.” Somewhere, off camera, military-aged men are already being disappeared, while others are fleeing deeper into what little remains of rebel-held territory. These scenes don’t make it on to television and only appear on pro-government Facebook pages, amid laughing and smiling and cursing. In one such video, a young man — allegedly a captured rebel fighter, but possibly not — is welcomed by having his head almost smashed in with a military boot.

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Hi-res map showing current state-of-play in south Damascus since the Islamic State took over Hay al-Qadam in mid March. - Courtesy: Rabea Thawreh, south Damascus

Eastern Ghouta might be the latest chapter for the Syrian government and its fascination with destroying cities. Retaking Ghouta will ensure significant economic gains for the Syrian government, as well as the potential opportunity to raze and then “reconstruct” what has historically been one of the Syrian uprising’s most symbolic constituencies. Laws have already been drawn up to prepare for this sort of thing, laws that will ultimately prevent countless internally displaced persons and refugees from ever returning, by destroying their homes and any legal proof of ownership with them.

Ghouta is also a massive propaganda win. Much of the recent pro-government propaganda has focused on the capital — which could, again, point to a possible military offensive looming large over south Damascus. More images, more videos. Tiger Forces’ poet-warrior Suheil al-Hassan views the capital from Mount Qassioun. President Bashar al-Assad drives his Honda from Martyrs Square to the Ghouta front lines, and then assures military units that the people back in the city support their fight for liberation. Assad is clearly a man at ease with his people, or what’s left of them — the memory of springtime spent in Damascus and the languid dinners looking over Mount Qassioun, the sweet, sticky ahweh in Bab Touma … and what about some chlorine in the basateen* for afters, ya rayes?

There will be other areas and districts. After Douma, a town in Ghouta, the last area of Damascus outside the control of the Syrian government and its allies will be the southern suburbs. Historically a bloc of working class neighborhoods straddling city and countryside, the southern suburbs have absorbed many rural-urban migrants from the reef (countryside) over the years — often from Syria’s southern and Jolan regions — and were quick to turn against the Syrian government between 2011 and 2012. The first and last breath of the city, the area is also home to Yarmouk Camp, capital city of the Palestinian diaspora that was once Syria’s largest (as well as its most culturally and politically significant) Palestinian community. Yarmouk is now occupied by the Islamic State, a refuge no more, located barely 9 km from the very heart of Damascus.

Nowadays, south Damascus contains sieges within sieges, and just about every armed actor in the Syrian conflict has a presence there. A small Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) outpost in Rijeh in northern Yarmouk is besieged by the Islamic State, which controls the remainder of Yarmouk, Qadam and Hajar al-Aswad, while three rebel-held villages to their east in Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem live under partial siege imposed by pro-government forces and wait for a future that might see some kind of comprehensive reconciliation, forced evacuations or a military solution in similar fashion to Ghouta. Iranian militias and Lebanese Hezbollah forces can be found just to the south, contributing to the siege, while protecting the nearby mosque and shrine of Sayeda Zeinab.

The reality on the ground is already tense. Much has happened in south Damascus in the past fortnight, meaning that a military response from the Syrian military and its allies will probably be more forthcoming than was originally planned.

On March 12, Ajnad al-Sham (Soldiers of the Levant) rebels and civilians from the Qadam pocket in south Damascus finally accepted forced displacement to Idlib, after months of on-off negotiations. The Islamic State capitalized on the situation, seizing several positions in Qadam once evacuations were over, bringing the fight directly to Syrian military units and pro-government forces in a way that had not been seen for years — possibly since the group first took over Yarmouk in April 2015. Several hundred civilians (almost all of them Palestinian refugees) fled Yarmouk before the last humanitarian corridor in and out of the camp was closed on March 15, before Qadam fell to the Islamic State a few days later. The jihadis are thought to have inflicted heavy losses on pro-government forces during this attempt.

This is just one of the reasons why Ghouta and then the southern suburbs now appears to be the plan of action among Syrian government officials and pro-government Palestinian militias, as the brutal campaign to root out the last rebel-held pockets in and around Damascus continues. Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime, has already intimated that south Damascus will be next. A commander from Aleppo’s pro-government Palestinian militia Liwa al-Quds (Jerusalem Brigades), which already participated in the Ghouta offensive, recently discussed what’s next for the Syrian government and its allies in and around the capital. “After the liberation of Ghouta,” he said, “God willing, we will achieve our great aim, our dream … and liberate Yarmouk Camp.” Liwa al-Quds sent fighters to Yarmouk this week. Meanwhile, the Syrian government and its allies have been dictating terms to the three villages still controlled by rebel groups, and a Russian delegation met with negotiators from local rebel factions last week. Both events point to looming “reconciliation” and forced displacements in south Damascus soon — another Russian delegation is due to visit this week — after which, it will almost certainly be the jihadis’ turn. As one government reporter commented on Thursday, “Promises of victory [in Yarmouk and south Damascus] have begun to appear on the horizon.”

A regime’s dream deferred, the liberation of south Damascus and what was once Syria’s largest Palestinian community has been spoken about for some time now — National Reconciliation Minister Ali Haidar and the Palestine Liberation Organization make promises of a liberation soon to come seemingly on a weekly basis.

Even so, what will this “liberation” mean in practice? While much has been written about conditions of return for Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) lived previously under different legal regimes, and so will face different conditions for their return — safe or otherwise — in the future. It will likely be even harder for Palestinians to reclaim lost or destroyed property because they live under different property laws to Syrian nationals, and based on the experiences of Palestinian-Syrian camps reopened to civilians since 2015 (namely Hosseiniyeh and Sbeineh), each returning family and every member of that family will have to apply for a security permit from the camp’s reconciliation committees, after which there will be checks for any alleged transgressions. This rules out large, unknown numbers of people. Meanwhile, rumors among PRS displaced outside Syria have also raised questions about whether or not PRS who fled the country will even be allowed to return to Syria at all.

Yarmouk itself is divided every which way, bombed into pieces and cracked by binaries: pro-regime and rebel, Fatah and Hamas, resistance and revolution, Islamist and jihadi. War-time rivalries have also divided civil society networks, activist groups and political constituencies, and there are competing “reconciliation” efforts. Palestinian society in Syria has been changed forever, with an estimated one-fifth now residing outside the country as twice-displaced refugees, and those remaining in Syria almost entirely reliant on UNRWA assistance (itself under threat as a result of United States President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold US funding to the UN agency).

Until now, much of the reporting on south Damascus has focused on the military machinations rather than the civilians affected — the estimated 1,110 Yarmouk households who fled into the rebel suburbs before the camp was closed off recently (and some of that number who are now sleeping rough), the young men executed by Islamic State militants in masks, the families inside Yarmouk now gleaning nutrition from house plants.

South Damascus evades narrative. How is it that the Defender of the Palestinian Cause in Damascus™ allowed for the slow starvation of some 180 Palestinian civilians 9 km from his office? And why do pro-opposition voices sometimes remind us of this, but not say a word about the fact that rebels closed-off Yarmouk again last week? South Damascus evades narrative — it never quite fits. There is the bicycle repairman from Yalda who turned out to be a jihadi of such singular brutality that he became an Islamic State emir nicknamed after a food processor; or a Palestinian security branch officer who was taking bribes to smuggle out supposed enemies of the state from the siege at the same time that the Islamic State was beheading them in the street and killing them as they silently shaved their faces in bathroom mirrors; or the longstanding rumors that Islamic State fighters have been treated in government hospitals and the confirmed smuggling of Islamic State fighters and leaders beyond besieged south Damascus.

Of course none of this is found in the pro-government propaganda that purports to be the absolute truth and the absolute version of history, and  the propagandists have already started talking about the “fact” that the Islamic State was the one who emptied Yarmouk and that the Syrian Arab Army will soon retake it. This is a lie, one that is easily debunked, because Yarmouk had seen mass displacements at least once before April 2015 (when the Islamic State arrived). But will repeating that actually help anyone?

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I used to think that there was some value in documenting what was happening in a neighborhood, writing about its history, speaking to residents, hearing stories, assessing loss. At least people would know. Wouldn’t they? At least they would know about the work that’d been done by this civil society network, or that human rights defender or that local council, or the poem written about the siege. Perhaps they’d know about that regime or rebel transgression, some anecdote or detail that challenged a particular narrative about what was happening. Wouldn’t they?

Instead we watch. Are we really supposed to just watch?

There is a photograph of an apartment building in Yarmouk and the front has been blown away, and there is a kitchen curtain just blowing in the wind.

How do you tell the story of an abandoned city in 1,000 words?

Syria stretched syntax until journalism broke away in our hands.

What to call these burning cities? When people argue over the rubble, when people argue over the bodies under the rubble, when people argue over the fact that there is even any rubble at all.

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Displacement begins soon.

Note: *Basateen (orchards) is a reference here to Ghouta, a place commonly dubbed a “breadbasket” of Damascus, and also a place where people would picnic at the weekends in the orchards there.

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