The beginning of the end for Ghouta came first with a trickle. Desperate, hungry and scared, Syria’s newest displaced people walked a journey into the unknown, past Russian military police, towards loyalist soldiers who started checking names.
The same anxious ritual of the vanquished had been carried out before, in Homs, Aleppo, Qusair and most other places in the country, where seven years ago today the first spasms of open defiance began to rattle its ruthless rulers.
Those heady early years of insurrection are long gone now. Anticipation has been replaced by resignation, hope subsumed by fear.
The empowered Syrian street that had once exposed the fragility of a regime long thought omnipotent has retreated to the rubble. Splintered and battered, the anti-Assad opposition inspired by the protests can no longer win the war.
Besieged enclave of Ghouta on brink of falling to Syrian regime
The state, too, is a shadow of what it was when popular uprising gave way to insurgency. Unable to hold its ground, Syria’s leadership seconded its defence to Russia and Iran, who have clawed its military to a winning position, destroying much of the country in the process, and regularly striking deals with factions without informing their patron.
Bashar al-Assad’s claim to have restored sovereignty has left him like the emperor without a proverbial thread.
Across Syria, the clean battlelines of early on have been replaced many times over, as the war has metastasised like no other conflict in the past 50 years. A national military, a shadow army, Islamists, jihadists, proxies, regional heavyweights and global powers are all deeply embedded, trying to shape the conflict to suit their interests.
Whoever prevails in what remains of Syria will achieve a pyrrhic victory.
All the while, a civilian population has been battered, brutalised, killed and displaced, leaving an international order that was supposed to prevent the repeat of last century’s devastation looking paralysed and impotent.
More than 500,000 people have been killed as the war enters its eighth year, with no obvious end in sight. Across the country, towns and cities have been laid to ruin. Coexistence has been shredded, a generation of children have been deprived of education and at least half the population is dependant on aid.
How to put Syria back together again may be on the wishlists of its backers, but nothing tangible can be done while two thirds of the country’s population remain too scared to return home.
Belying claims that the war is losing steam is the stark figure that more than 6,500 people were newly displaced each day last year.
The fight for Syria has become an intractable tussle for regional power and influence that has led to a direct clash between Russian backed forces and the US military for the first time since the Cold War, as well as clashes between Iran and Israel, Syria and Israel, and Turkey and the Kurds.
The forces that have been unleashed are looking increasingly difficult to suppress. And each stakeholder seems reluctant to look past its own interests to see the danger ahead.
None of this matters to Syria’s 15,000 newest refugees who left their homes in Ghouta on Thursday and crossed into the unknown. Many feared retribution from a state that has remained avowedly hostile through the past five years of blockade and bombardment.
2017 was the deadliest year of Syrian war for children, says Unicef
Others feared an even worse fate: the vengeance of a regime that has grown accustomed to impunity – licensed by an international order that has done little to stop it.
Syria’s war without restraint has dashed any meaningful talk of reconciliation, for now. Grievances, among both vanquished and victors, remain deep and unaddressed.
How to put the country back together again is not a priority for those still burying their young, or pitching new tents in unfamiliar lands. And nor does it matter to those fighting new wars over an already ravaged land.
“Bashar al-Assad said in 2012 that if the war continues there would be no peace from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic,” said Mohammed Atwan, a refugee from Homs living in Idlib. “It was a threat. And it’s come true.”