The recent advances by the R+6 in Ghouta, Yarmouk, Qalamun and beyond have laid bare the true strategy of the de-escalation zones established by the Astana Accords. They certainly were not meant to establish a new status quo of rebel safe areas guaranteed to torment Damascus for years to come. They are, I contend, a blueprint for ending the armed resistance to Damascus and reestablishing the territorial integrity of Syria west of the Euphrates. The eventual Turkish-Syrian border will remain a question for future resolution, one way or another.
The reduction of the Ghouta pocket, or de-escalation zone 3 as it was referred to at Astana, was a perfect example of the de-escalation strategy, a strategy to limit the death, destruction and suffering to a minimum while still attaining R+6 objectives. It is a strategy carefully planned and executed to avoid attrition warfare. It begins with an offer/ultimatum to the rebels. You can reconcile with Damascus or be bussed to the Idlib area. If you choose Idlib you will leave all heavy weapons and vehicles to the SAA. If you refuse this offer, the R+6 will unleash a massive punch of artillery and air power followed by a violent strike by elite SAA units. This cycle is repeated until the targeted rebels surrender, reconcile or fall in defeat. This strategy saves civilian lives and infrastructure and preserves SAA combat forces.
This is how the Ghouta pocket was reduced, piece by piece. As that battle wound down, pressure was kept on the Yarmouk pocket while the Tiger Force moved to Qalamun. That battle just ended with another victory for the R+6. It appears the SAA captured a battalion worth of older but serviceable main battle tanks (or more) along with much other equipment and ammunition. Damascus has also gained additional forces for their NDF units from reconciled rebels.
With the Qalamun pocket eliminated, the Tiger Force now is reported to be moving to Yarmouk to assist in the reduction of that pocket. Some of the rebels and even some Daesh elements already took the offer for bus tickets to Jarabulus after a savage artillery and air strike followed by a quick, savage advance by the SAA 4th Mechanized Division and the Liwa al-Quds Brigade. It’s just a matter of time that the last of the Daesh holdouts are no more.
Further to the south, the Russian Reconciliation Center is negotiating with rebels around Daraa, the southernmost de-escalation zone. The Daraa rebels have largely maintained the ceasefire since the Astana accords established the de-escalation zones. For that reason, the R+6 is confident that many of the fighters can be peeled away from the rebels by reconciliation or offers of bus tickets to Idlib. However, here the rebels still have resupply lines to Jordan and Israel. They are making moves to start an offensive to take Daraa. The jihadis are also attacking the non-Daesh jihadis near Daraa. These variables definitely affect the calculus of the R+6 carrot-stick strategy so effective at Ghouta and Qalamun. I think the R+6 will keep talking at Darra while keeping “kinetic” pressure on the rebels to whittle down what they can while the isolated rebel pocket between Homs and Hama will be the next to be eliminated.
The SAA has already started an offensive at Hama. In the last few days the SAA 4th and 11th Divisions (NDF?) struck the northeast corner of this pocket, capturing six towns and inflicting serious casualties on the rebels. The SAA kicked off this offensive after the rebels refused an SAA demand to surrender that area. No elite SAA units are yet involved in the Hama fighting.
The Idlib de-escalation area has not been forgotten. The Russian Aerospace Forces continue to hit the Jisr al-Shugour area. There were rumors that the Tiger Force was moving north after Qalamun to prepare for the eventual offensive to take that area. Perhaps they’ll head there after Yarmouk is cleared. A period of rest and refitting is in order while other SAA forces reduce the Hama pocket. The SAA is not afraid to hit other sectors of the Idlib de-escalation zone. Rebels in al-Latamenah north of Hama broke the ceasefire by attacking nearby SAA positions. In response, the SAA have unleashed daily artillery rocket attacks against these rebels only eight kilometers from a Turkish observation post at Morek (in full accordance with the Astana Accords). What happens to these observation posts once the R+6 starts addressing the Idlib pocket in earnest? Will they willingly withdraw to Afrin? Time will tell.