The breaking of Ghouta was a pivotal event in the Syrian war. Its fall removed any enduring threat to the Syrian capital, freed up Syrian government military resources for other fronts, demoralized Syrians opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, both armed and unarmed, and demonstrated that his forces were confident enough with their military situation to attack a heavily fortified opposition stronghold, ostensibly protected by an internationally recognized de-escalation agreement. Capturing Ghouta rewarded the government and its allies for years of visible mass atrocities and continued to weaken the international rules-based order. This report provides an evidence base for a concerted effort to hold the perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable, helping to demonstrate that regimes may not act with impunity against their own people.
The most important geography of the Syrian war is not Aleppo, the northern provinces, or the US-held northeast but the suburbs north and east of Damascus, known as eastern Ghouta. From the outset of the war, the regime recognized that an approach from Ghouta was the most likely axis for a rebel attack on the capital. Districts of Damascus are within rocket and mortar range of Ghouta. For years such attacks undermined the regime narrative of providing security in, and shielding its capital from, the immediate effects of the war. In February 2013, the rebels in the Damascus suburbs reached the outer ring road of the capital and its Jobar district—the closest they would get to directly threatening it. Ultimately, Assad resorted to chemical weapons gas attacks in the government’s early attempts at breaking Ghouta, without success. It expended a great deal of effort at keeping insurgents confined to Ghouta itself.
The Syrian government knew that Ghouta contained some of the insurgency’s more capable and organized militant groups, including the Islamist group Jaish al-Islam based in Douma and led by the late Zahran Alloush. This militia, at home in its environment and less susceptible to the infighting that plagued so many other rebel groups, was a resilient and resourceful opponent. In May 2013, the regime opted to impose a siege on the area, which remained in place for some five years. Yet these insurgents held out against years of siege, constant bombing, and chemical warfare until pressure on the militias’ smuggling networks, aerial bombardment, and waning interest from foreign sponsors broke opposition resistance during the final assault on the enclave between February and April of this year.
Ghouta’s crucial geostrategic location partly explains its especially harsh treatment by the regime—from the longest siege since Sarajevo to the largest and most lethal chemical attack of the war in August 2013—culminating in its systematic destruction and depopulation through large-scale population transfers in 2018.
The significance of the final regime offensive on Ghouta, its military success, and the lasting effects on Syria are profound. To start, that a regime offensive took place at all spoke to the advanced stage of its war effort elsewhere in the country, the imbalance of power, and the state of geopolitical alignments. Although the regime had always recognized Ghouta’s importance, it was never able to subdue the rebels there and had opted for a siege and attrition strategy instead, not least because it lacked the manpower to capture Ghouta without pulling much-needed fighters from other active fronts.
The Ghouta offensive was a watershed moment partly because it signalled, and was made possible only by, transformations in the Syrian civil war. For it to succeed, the war had to reach a point at which the government was comfortable with its strategic situation in key areas such as Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, and the south. In a series of similar military operations across the country since August 2016, the regime has besieged, bombarded, and forcibly displaced those unwilling to surrender to it, and returned long-held pockets of resistance to its control. That success is testament to the insurgency’s waning power and the international community’s failure to prevent or reverse this trend through intervention or indirect support even as the regime’s human rights violations continued.
The fall of Ghouta also marked the end of any meaningful existential threat to the Syrian government from a once-menacing Syrian uprising. By eliminating the proximate threat to the Syrian capital and securing much of the government’s core sociopolitical base, Assad was able to restore some normalcy in Damascus and project the inevitability of a regime victory. The symbolism was potent and likely had a demoralizing effect on insurgents elsewhere, facilitating further military advances against the rebels and ending a long period of danger for the government.
The regime’s takeover of Ghouta highlights a broader issue, as it was the culmination of years of “kneel or starve” siege tactics, indiscriminate aerial bombardment, cynical manipulation of truce and ceasefire, and the likely use of chemical weapons against population zones. The significance lies less in the regime’s using these tactics—it was reasonable to expect it would do anything it could to ensure its own survival—than in the fact that it not only went unpunished for, but ultimately was rewarded by, the fall of Ghouta. Not once in six years of war in Ghouta was there a meaningful international effort to disrupt Assad’s atrocities or exact a serious price for them. That Assad got away with and ultimately profited from the siege, starving, bombing, and gassing of hundreds of thousands was a watershed moment in itself, not only for the Syrian conflict but for international relations and the prospect of a decent, rules-based international order.
The Syrian regime and its foreign backers have benefited from disarray, distraction, and self-doubt among the international community and public, rooted in the disappointment of the Iraq war, economic crisis, and a breakdown in foreign policy consensus amid domestic political polarization. This crisis was a key reason the regime was able to defeat the insurgency in Ghouta by committing mass atrocities in plain view for years. In failing to preserve the central norms of a rules-based order, including respect for basic human rights even in wartime and the principle that governments derive legitimacy from the consent of the governed rather than by killing masses of them. The international community’s failure to prevent or complicate Assad’s atrocities is undeniable.
It is not too late to hold the regime accountable for its violations, offer justice for the victims, and, perhaps most importantly, restore credibility to the promise of a rules-based international order and the threat of punishment for violating it—both of which have been ravaged in the humiliation of the Syrian civil war.
This is unlike other dark moments in history. We see the atrocities as they happen. In a world connected, we cannot turn a blind eye. The evidence is in front of us, captured by a device, distributed to the world on social media, and verified beyond refute.
This report offers a record of serial violations of these norms and a basis for holding the perpetrators accountable for their atrocities. At the very least, it can help make the victims heard, but its goal is to re-energize and restore meaning to the universal principles and norms espoused by the international community and the mechanisms through which they are enforced.
 Human Rights Watch report “Attacks on Ghouta: Analysis of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria,” September 2013, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/syria_cw0913_web_1.pdf.
 United Nations, United Nations Human Rights Council, Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, (1 February 2018), available from https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/A-HRC-37-72_EN.pdf.
 PAX report “Siege Watch: Tenth Quarterly Report Part 1 – Eastern Ghouta,” February-April 2018, https://www.paxforpeace.nl/publications/all-publications/siege-watch-10-part-1.