The Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, is set to retake Eastern Ghouta, the countryside, towns and villages adjacent to Damascus. As Eastern Ghouta is the last major stronghold of a range of takfiri fighters on the edge of the capital, the Syrian government cannot afford to allow opponents stay on there. Russia agrees.
The area was formerly the capital's vegetable garden. The armed groups that emerged in Douma, the main town, early in the Syrian war were always faith-based and deeply conservative, determined to overthrow the secular Syrian government. Their fighters have, for years, carried out attacks into the capital through tunnels, lobbed mortars into the city and blocked the main Damascus-Homs highway.
There are two local groups based in Eastern Ghouta, Saudi-sponsored Jaish Al Islam and Faylaq ar-Rahman, which has had ties to the Free Syrian Army, Turkey and Qatar. The smaller factions constitute units of the countrywide Ahrar Al Sham and Al Qaeda's Hay'at Tahrir Al Sham, the latter said to have had backing from Qatar.
According to sources in Damascus, civilians living in Eastern Ghouta have called for "reconciliation" with the government, while some elements in Jaish Al Islam have also held contacts with those involved in the "reconciliation" effort. Since this group and Faylaq ar-Rahman are based in the area, and perhaps, more responsive to desperate civilians living under heavy bombardment in recent days, they might be more prepared to do a deal than the two others. Russia has offered to create safe corridors and guarantee the safety of fighters who want to leave with their families.
However, neither fighters nor civilians want to be transported to the "dumping ground" in the north-western province of Idlib, where the Syrian army has conducted operations over the past few months and clashes are taking place between the Turkish-sponsored Syrian Liberation coalition and Al Qaeda's Tahrir Al Sham, the group which controls much of the province.
There is little doubt that Eastern Ghouta will fall, although it is not known how soon or after how many trapped civilians will be slain and wounded. The battle for Eastern Ghouta is straightforward as the area is physically isolated from proxy struggles on the edges of Syria. This is not the case of northern Syria.
The next task of the Syrian army will be to tackle the far greater problem of Idlib/Afrin, which means confronting Turkey. Turkey poses major difficulties not only for Syria's government but also for the US and Russia, which have competing agendas in Syria.
The US seeks to maintain a foothold in Syria through its ally, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which currently occupies about 25 per cent of Syrian territory in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces. Washington intends to use the presence of the SDF and 2,000 US special forces embedded with the SDF to weaken the government and provide the US with leverage in peace talks.
Turkey's offensive against the SDF in Afrin threatens US objectives. Although the US has abandoned Kurdish forces in Afrin to the Turkish army, air force and allied militiamen, 20,000 Kurdish fighters from SDF-held Manbij, a town to the west where US troops are based and areas to the east have travelled to Afrin to reinforce their brethren. This has reduced the number of SDF fighters on the front lines against Daesh remnants and forced the US to suspend offensive operations against them in eastern Deir Ezzor. US commanders have expressed concern that Daesh fighters could escape to Jordan or Turkey. From the latter they could infiltrate Europe.
A larger threat to the US looms if Turkey achieves its objective of cleansing SDF fighters from Afrin. Ankara has repeatedly stated its intention of shifting the focus of its offensive to Manbij with the aim of driving the Kurds from this town, risking clashes with US as well as Kurdish troops. Turkish officials have said Ankara intends to sweep Kurdish fighters from Turkey's entire border with Syria in order to create a Kurd-free zone and cut Syrian Kurds off from Turkey's insurgent Kurds.
Afrin became a serious challenge for Russia after the Syrian government dispatched "popular" forces to reinforce the SDF in the enclave. So far, Russia, which controls Syrian air space in the west of the country, has not attempted to halt Turkish aerial bombing although dozens of pro-government militiamen have been killed.
Russia is also facing serious difficulties over Turkey's actions in the north-western province of Idlib, located south of Afrin. Although Russia, Iran and Turkey have formed a wobbly alliance with the aim of imposing "de-confliction zones," or ceasefires, across Syria, Ankara has exploited the Idlib zone to impose Turkish control. Turkey has forged an alliance among the non-Al Qaeda factions in Idlib with the aim of wresting the province from domination of Al Qaeda's Tahrir Al Sham, regarded by the UN as a "terrorist" organisation. If and when Turkey's allies accomplish this task, Ankara would gain both military and political leverage in Syria. Having already ingested the Turkish-held Syrian towns of Jarablus and Al Bab, Turkey could permanently occupy Afrin and portions of Idlib.
Since Moscow has supported Damascus' objective of restoring its sovereignty over the whole of Syria, Turkey's actions could lead to a major rift and even clashes between Russia and Turkey.
For both the US and Russia, Turkey, the regional power located on the roof of the region, is a major problem. Since neither Washington nor Moscow wants to alienate Ankara, both are in a weak position, which Ankara is exploiting with the aim of implementing its own expansionist agenda. Furthermore, Turkey is capitalising on Europe's divisions to threaten both Greece and Cyprus, with which Turkey has longstanding maritime and territorial disputes.