More than half a million people in rebel-held suburbs to the east of Damascus are facing imminent starvation, after the Syrian army broke through rebel lines last week, separating people from the agricultural land that was the area's breadbasket. The people of East Ghouta have survived a three-year siege thanks to produce grown in fields near their homes — and now that they have lost that territory they face a grim fate, similar to other besieged, and starving, parts of Syria.
President Bashar al-Assad's army and its allies capitalized on infighting between rebel groups in East Ghouta to break through their weakened defensive lines, on May 18. Advancing forces captured six villages and hundreds of acres of farmland in the southern sector of East Ghouta that had been the suburbs' lifeline, a local opposition official said.
The land, known for its wheat and barley harvests and fruit-bearing trees, is "East Ghouta's breadbasket" and "was the most important factor in softening the siege" that the Syrian regime has imposed on the suburbs since late 2012, a member of the local council in Marj, adjacent to the farmland, said.
If rebels prove unable to reverse the Syrian army's advance, "it will turn into a massive humanitarian disaster," added the council member, who requested anonymity for safety reasons and spoke via WhatsApp.
Rural East Ghouta, a picnic destination for Damascenes before the war, became a major center of armed opposition power in 2012. Rebel fighters control territory there uncomfortably close to the Assad government's headquarters, including the neighborhood of Jobar that abuts Damascus proper.
East Ghouta is down to 600,000 inhabitants from a pre-war population of more than 2 million. Those who remained are already familiar with scarcity, after living through years of encirclement by the regime's troops and allied militias. Soldiers stationed at checkpoints along the suburb's entrances prevent the movement of goods and people.
Regime forces use similar siege-and-starve tactics across the country to lower residents' morale and encourage rebels to surrender. The encircled town of Madaya, also near Damascus, made headlines in December 2015 when photos of emaciated residents—more than three dozen of whom have died of starvation since—circulated widely in the international media.
In East Ghouta's case, smugglers use a network of tunnels to sneak in limited quantities of food, which is then sold at inflated prices. The Syrian regime also occasionally allows UN-sponsored humanitarian convoys to enter the suburbs.
But the on-again, off-again humanitarian deliveries and limited smuggling activity do little to meet residents' needs. So East Ghoutans have fallen back on the green stretch of suburbs they inhabit, known for its agriculture long before the war, to ward off hunger.
"Here in East Ghouta, we rely on local agricultural harvests for our daily food," said Mohammed al-Abdullah, a resident of the town of Saqba. "If not for these harvests, people would have died of hunger" under the siege.
Most East Ghoutans eat two meals a day, and the less fortunate eat just one. Whatever is in season is on the table.
"During zucchini season, people eat zucchini for breakfast and lunch," said Douma resident Rawan al-Sheikh, who was speaking over a messaging app like other local people interviewed for this story.
In many cases, local produce has taken the place of traditional carbohydrates—which are scarce and expensive—as a dietary staple. Residents substituted barley and cabbage for bread when siege conditions became particularly dire in 2014, said al-Sheikh.
Recognizing agriculture's value in keeping East Ghoutans alive, opposition officials in exile have supported farming projects to provide them some measure of self-sufficiency. The Syrian National Coalition, a collection of opposition groups that claims to represent the revolution on the international stage, backed a 2014 initiative through its Support Coordination Unit that helped farmers grow eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini, pro-opposition newspaper Enab Baladi reported in 2014.
While the resulting production did not cover residents' nutritional requirements, it did "keep them alive" under siege, an official with the Support Coordination Unit was quoted by Enab Baladi as saying.
Now, East Ghoutans fear a coming famine after the Syrian army and its allies, mainly the Lebanon-based Shia militia Hezbollah, took large parts of the southern sector — an area "rich in summer crops that did a great deal to lighten the siege's intensity," Abdul Haq Hamam, a citizen journalist from Douma, said.
"If rebels don't retake the area, the encirclement is about to get much more difficult," he added.
Or, in the words of Douma city resident Rawan al-Sheikh, absent a successful rebel counter-attack "there's a humanitarian catastrophe coming, maybe in weeks and maybe months."
The armed opposition's loss of large swathes of land in southern East Ghouta last week is one of its biggest military defeats in the Damascus suburbs since 2012. And that is largely due to factional infighting that has weakened the rebels.
East Ghouta's largest opposition group is Jaish al-Islam or JAI, which espouses Salafism, a fundamentalist approach to Islam. The second largest is Feilaq al-Rahman or FAR, affiliated with the more moderate Free Syrian Army.
Together with a third, smaller group, they formed the United Command in 2013 to coordinate military and judicial activities in East Ghouta. But FAR has accused JAI of carrying out a secret assassination campaign targeting their religious and military figures, and of trying to take unilateral control over the administration of East Ghouta; JAI heads the United Command, and other rebels accuse it of eliminating rivals without consulting its nominal allies.
The rival factions engaged in low-level skirmishes and traded mutual accusations throughout April, until tensions exploded into large-scale armed confrontation on April 28, when FAR and allied Jaish al-Fustat attacked JAI's bases across the suburbs. Dozens of fighters and civilians have been killed since then.
Each side says its rival is trying to "partition" East Ghouta by capturing new land and consolidating areas it controls with trenches, land mines, and other fortifications.
From the time the infighting began in April until the Syrian army's successful campaign last week, popular protests demanding reconciliation, and high-level mediation efforts by local notables, repeatedly failed. The brigades escalated their violence and rhetoric even as they put forward two short-lived truce initiatives.
The result was that rivals JAI and FAR pulled hundreds of soldiers away from the front lines and sent them instead to fight in their internal squabble, leaving civilians to fend for themselves as Assad's army attacked, an unnamed rebel commander was quoted by pro-opposition Orient News as saying. His account was consistent with what civilians in Ghouta said over messaging apps, and with other media reports.
"The brigades pulled out before civilians did, who picked up weapons to stop the regime's attacks," said a resident of Deir al-Asafir, south of Ghouta, who gave his name as Abu Ali.
Syrian people shout slogans during a protest calling for the unity of opposition forces, in the rebel-held city of Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, 6 May 2016. Photo by Mohammed Badra/EPA
Routed by Assad's army and faced with popular discontent, the feuding rebels announced a prisoner exchange over the weekend as a good faith de-escalation gesture. Residents took matters into their own hands last Friday and organized protests demanding that local rebels unite and turn their attention towards advancing Syrian army forces, according to Enab Baladi.
"The brigades are responsible for the loss of the latest areas," said Abu Ali. "I guarantee that if they returned to cooperative military work, they could recapture what they lost."
Follow Ammar Hamou on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou