As one of the last rebel strongholds – right on the doorstep of Damascus – Eastern Ghouta has long been a thorn in the eyes of the Syrian army. Is Assad's strategy of capturing Eastern Ghouta and displacing its inhabitants paying off?
Kristin Helberg: What's happening in Eastern Ghouta is something we've seen in other locations in recent years. The Syrian regime is trying to recapture by military means all those areas controlled by the opposition – the original centres of the peaceful rebellion, which were subsequently captured by various rebel groups.
Today, the de-escalation zones should actually be called escalation zones because President Assad wants to bring them all back under his control. The methods are always the same: areas are sealed off; people are starved out and subjected to incessant bombing, as a way of depriving them of their livelihoods and forcing them to surrender. It's about subjugating people or driving them away. It's not a battle against terrorists, but the collective punishment of civilians who rebelled against Assad's rule, or who did nothing to counter the rebels in their home towns.
Turkey's actually supposed to be protecting the de-escalation zone around the rebel stronghold of Idlib, but it appears to be giving the Syrian regime a free hand – so that it can attack the Kurds in Afrin.
Helberg: All guarantors who should actually be enforcing de-escalation zones – namely Russia, Iran and Turkey – are failing in this role, because at the same time they are intervention powers, pursuing their own military interests in Syria.
In the case of Idlib in northwestern Syria – in the largest area held by Islamist rebels and jihadists – Turkey is actually responsible for de-escalation. But Turkey has other priorities: it wants to destroy or at least weaken the YPG, the People's Protection Units, militarily. To achieve this, President Erdogan is willing to make concessions elsewhere, for example, by leaving the province of Idlib to the Assad regime with its supporters Russia and Iran.
A ground offensive is already underway there. More than 200,000 people have been displaced, some for the second or third time. This is because many Syrians were "evacuated" – or displaced – to Idlib from other rebel-held areas – the province serves as a catchment area for all those who have in some way opposed the regime.