forces are maintaining pressure on Eastern Ghouta with arrests, military conscriptions and restricted food supplies months after the capture of the Damascus suburb in order to assert the government’s grip over the former rebel stronghold.
The Syrian regime and its ally Russia had launched an all-out air assault on Ghouta in February to force antigovernment rebels to surrender. Hundreds of civilians were killed and the offensive drove most people to shelter underground. Rebels fired mortars on Damascus, killing and injuring dozens of people. By early April, in the wake of a suspected chemical-weapons attack, the last of the rebels surrendered and withdrew.
Now, photos of Mr. Assad are plastered on walls of Ghouta buildings and closed shops. The few open shops have painted the colors of the national flag on their storefronts. The photos and flags are the most visible signs of Mr. Assad’s rule returning here, but less-conspicuous traits of a police state—security surveillance and pervasive fear of arrest—are present once again, too.
When one woman in the Ghouta city of Douma was asked about local living conditions, she responded, unprompted: “May God protect President Bashar.”
The moves speak to the regime’s pattern of reasserting control over rebel strongholds—not through reconciliation, as the government characterizes its consolidation of power, but with an iron fist.
The latest such move came on Thursday when rebels ceded control of Daraa city in south Syria, one of the last remaining antiregime strongholds. The loss of Daraa carries symbolic weight for the opposition, because it was here that the 2011 revolt erupted.
The rebels agreed to hand over midsize and heavy weapons in return for safe passage to the north, Syrian pro-regime media reported. Meanwhile, opposition activists said the regime had allowed just 1,000 people to evacuate. After the rebels conceded, Russian military police accompanied Syrian government forces into the city.
After the Syrian regime and allied forces captured Aleppo city from the rebels in late 2016, former residents and activists said the government set up checkpoints and arrested people who took part in protests. They also detained emergency rescuers, aid workers and even nurses and doctors who treated the victims of regime and Russian airstrikes.
The complete capture of Daraa city is part of the latest step in Mr. Assad’s vow to retake every inch of Syria. In June, his forces, along with its main military allies Russia and Iran, launched an assault on one of the last opposition pockets in the country’s southwest, which includes Daraa city. In addition, they have secured surrender deals in a number of towns and an important border crossing from rebels who hope to avoid the destruction that has unfolded in Ghouta, Aleppo and elsewhere.
The Syrian government says it is planning to help rebuild Ghouta, after bombardment of the area destroyed much of the infrastructure. Damascus’s deputy governor,
said the government has allocated nearly $6 million for reconstruction, state media reported. The government said it is clearing roads and restoring services to allow people to return home.
Yet the regime is also arresting some of those who stayed behind. They include former members of local town councils who are seen as affiliated with the opposition, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The arrests run counter to guarantees Russia made when it negotiated the surrender deals.
Syrian government officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Intelligence vehicles now patrol Ghouta’s streets with surveillance equipment, said
a journalist who had reported from Ghouta and still communicates with friends and family who fear being arrested.
“I can’t speak to them about anything that relates to the situation going on there,” Mr. Abdullah said. “The country has returned to what it was seven years ago, the same state we were living in before the revolution.”
Human Rights Watch has warned of the risk of executions by the Syrian government in Eastern Ghouta and other areas that come under its control.
Meanwhile, thousands of young men have been detained and forced to join the regime’s forces after being told it was the only way they would be allowed to leave camps for internally displaced people and permitted to see their families, the observatory said.
A partial siege remains in place on Ghouta—preventing an estimated 200,000 civilians still living in the area from leaving and limiting what aid and commerce is allowed in. After years under siege, Ghouta’s adults look decades older than they are. Children, many of them still with skinny bodies and gaunt faces, play in the rubble.
In June, the United Nations Syria Commission released its report on the battle for Ghouta, calling it the “longest-running siege in modern history.” In the past three months, the U.N. along with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have carried out just two aid convoys for a total of 60,000 people, which consisted of flour and other food, blankets and medical supplies, said
a U.N. spokeswoman in Damascus.
“Needs are very high in East Ghouta,” she said.
In May, the government organized a Ghouta shopping fair with reduced prices for food and clothing items mostly, but few residents could afford what was being sold. Another fair held in Ghouta in June during the Eid holiday was met with similar response.
“What can we do with these goods if we have no money to buy anything?” one woman said.
“When can we go to Damascus?” said another woman in her 30s, a single mother of two children. “We want jobs.”
With no source of income, she had sold everything she had of value including gold jewelry and a plot of land. During the Eid festivities, she didn’t have enough money to buy the ingredients to make holiday cookies.
Her children silently stood next to her. Their faces and bodies still showed signs of malnutrition and like most children in the suburb, they looked frightened.
—A special correspondent
and Sune Engel Rasmussen in Beirut
contributed to this article.
Write to Raja Abdulrahim at email@example.com
Appeared in the July 13, 2018, print edition as ‘Ex-Rebel Havens Endure Return Of Syrian Rule.’