Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar on Thursday urged the Syrian government to halt the bombing of eastern Ghouta near Damascus as the 7th Syrian army's armoured division deployed on the edge of the city alongside the 4th division ahead of an expected ground offensive.
The Saudi foreign ministry stressed the “need for the Syrian regime’s violence to end, and to allow humanitarian aid and relief to enter Syria”. The ministry called for a political resolution of the crisis through negotiations.
The Emirati foreign ministry expressed “deep concern over the escalation of violence”, called for an immediate truce, and pressed the parties to return to UN-mediated talks in Geneva.
Although isolated and boycotted by the Saudis and Emiratis, Qatar condemned the Syrian army campaign as a “massacre”.
All three have been major sponsors of armed Syrian opposition groups, favouring jihadis, with the aim of toppling Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that at least 368 people have been killed and 1,850 wounded since Sunday in eastern Ghouta, which is home to 400,000 people.
More than 40 people, including two Palestinian children, have been killed by random mortars fired by jihadi fighters into the capital.
Saudi, Emirati and Qatari interests in eastern Ghouta are other than humanitarian. The Gulf powers seek to preserve the jihadi groups which have controlled the enclave since 2012-13.
The groups based there are Faylaq al-Rahman (Legion of Rahman), Saudi-founded Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham (Freemen of the Levant) and al-Qaeda’s Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant). Although the four often clash, they also share fighters, funds and arms and generally co-operate when confronted by the Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian allies.
The jihadis’ shared goal is the replacement of Syria’s secular government with an ultra-conservative Islamic regime.
These groups constitute key military and political assets for the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris. On the military front, the jihadis have survived the siege for nearly five years in eastern Ghouta, an area consisting of towns and countryside east of Damascus.
This large enclave and the northwestern Idlib province are the last two substantial redoubts of anti-Assad jihadi forces. Eastern Ghouta is particularly important due to its close proximity to Damascus and the continuing threat jihadi fighters, mortars and suicide bombers pose to the capital's security and tranquillity.
On the political front, representatives of Jaish al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman have participated in security talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, and in UN-brokered political negotiations in Geneva.
In 2016, Jaish al-Islam's political leader Mohamed Alloush was named chief negotiator of the Saudi-formed High Negotiations Committee. He has since been replaced by a Riyadh-appointed civilian as the fortunes of the armed groups have waned due to the capture by the Syrian army of most of the territory they once held.
Although diminished both militarily and politically and under fire in eastern Ghouta, the jihadis remain assets that the Gulf rulers are determined to defend and preserve with a truce. For, it is said, they are “beating on the doors of Damascus”.