The failure of the Russian-sponsored Sochi Conference on the Syrian conflict held on 30 January was not expected by the Russians, and in response Moscow escalated the fighting in areas including Idlib, Afrin and Eastern Ghouta, where it threatened to repeat the destruction witnessed in Aleppo in late 2016.
The Syrian opposition has accused Russia of “taking revenge” for the failure of the Sochi Conference by widening the circle of death and destruction.
Russia has advised the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the Iran-backed militias supporting it to continue bombing Eastern Ghouta, lived in by some 400,000 people, in order to expand its control on the ground even at the expense of displacing hundreds of thousands of people.
Iran’s use of drones against Israeli forces on 16 February means the possibility of an Iranian-Israeli confrontation on Syrian territory has not been eliminated.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, designed to take control of the northern Syrian town of Afrin and expel the Kurdish militias from it, means further military operations by Russia’s allies.
The US is not sitting on the fence, however, and it has been working to derail Russian hopes including by bombing the Syrian Hemeim Airbase, used by Russian forces, using unidentified drones and damaging several Russian planes.
US Coalition planes also bombed the forces that attacked the Conoco gas plant in northeastern Syria, killing more than 200 mercenaries hired by the Russian Wagner Group security company.
Opposition factions also shot down a Russian fighter jet in northern Syria using anti-aircraft missiles. Russia has stepped up its military operations as a result, intending to retaliate against the opposition and its supporters.
Moscow has changed its tactics in Syria often, but it has not changed its overall strategy, and it continues to support the Syrian regime, maintain an ad hoc alliance with Iran and fight the Syrian opposition groups.
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has been besieging Eastern Ghouta for the past four years because it sees it as a threat, this opposition-held suburb of the capital Damascus being only seven kilometres away from the country’s presidential complex.
Forces based in Eastern Ghouta could threaten the seat of power if they attacked regime forces in Damascus, which is why the regime is using maximum force to take control of it irrespective of the human cost.
It has been displacing local residents, as has been the case in several areas surrounding Damascus, in order to redraw the demographic map around the capital.
It wants to surround the city with Shiite and Alawite communities believed to be sympathetic to the regime, explaining why the regime has stepped up its ongoing battles.
However, Eastern Ghouta has been difficult to defeat despite the Russian air strikes because this area outside Damascus is caught up in the tactical and strategic calculations of other countries and because the conflict in Syria is much more than a local war.
Iran continues to focus on a military resolution to the conflict, and it shares the regime’s views. It has never claimed it supports a political solution, and it has even rejected all the UN Resolutions on the conflict, including the important UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015.
Iran accepted the role of guarantor in the “de-escalation zones” in Syria in order to align itself with Russia, but it has not abided by any de-escalation agreement.
Most Iranian fighters are Arab, Afghan and Pakistani Shiites, and this means that Iran is not deterred by losses or international protestations that it is responsible for many Syrian deaths.
Tehran may feel the US is happy with its control over eastern Syria and not interested in the rest of the country, with Turkey notably occupied in fighting the Kurdish enclave on its borders. Iran is therefore forging ahead with its military solution whatever the cost, and the escalation continues.
Turkey also wants a slice of Syria, which is why it launched its assault on Afrin, under the control of Kurdish militias that Ankara views as terrorists, in January this year.
The operation was sanctioned by Russia without US objections, giving the green light to Turkey to continue its military actions.
The battle of Eastern Ghouta is Russia’s way of restoring its prestige after the political failure at Sochi, and it also wants to show Washington, which has declared areas east of the Euphrates River to be under US protection, that the western bank is Russia’s.
For the Syrian regime, the attack on Eastern Ghouta is an opportunity to protect the capital and expel the last vestiges of the opposition from near Damascus, replacing it with loyalists and Iran-backed militias from Lebanon and Afghanistan.
For Iran, it is a means of expanding its influence around Damascus, especially since this area borders the Sayeda Zeinab district, which is under Iran’s control and includes fortified military bases.
For Turkey, the attack on Afrin is an opportunity to annihilate the Kurdish militias that it says are the Syrian wing of the Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), proscribed by Ankara.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has told UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura that the US rejects the Sochi Conference and any track outside the UN-backed Geneva negotiations.
The US flexed its muscles when it killed Russian combatants earlier this year, and it has refused to compromise with Moscow.
The escalation in the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year indicates it is intensifying, meaning more fighting between the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel and others directly or through these countries’ proxies.
The fighting will have little impact on the political front, since US-Russian relations are already strained due to choosing the military rather than the political option.
It thus seems likely that the players will continue to escalate the fighting beyond Eastern Ghouta, Idlib and Afrin, striking fear into the hearts of the Syrian population.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly