Final evacuation deal reached for Syria's eastern Ghouta enclave

A rebel fighter from Syria's eastern Ghouta with a child after arriving in Qalaat al-Madiq, some 45km north-west of the central city of Hama, last Friday.
A rebel fighter from Syria's eastern Ghouta with a child after arriving in Qalaat al-Madiq, some 45km north-west of the central city of Hama, last Friday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

AMMAN • The first fighters from the last rebel bastion in Syria's eastern Ghouta left yesterday for insurgent-held territory in the country's north-west, state media said, raising hopes of an end to conflict in the enclave.

The withdrawal, the first of its kind from besieged Douma, involves fighters of Failaq al-Rahman, which evacuated most of the towns under its control inside the enclave last Saturday.

The dominant rebel group in Douma is Jaish al-Islam, which is still negotiating a deal with Russia over surrender terms giving its fighters the option of leaving the enclave or making peace with the Syrian authorities.

Negotiators reached a deal late last Saturday to evacuate wounded Jaish al-Islam civilians and fighters to Idlib in the north-west. It was not clear if that was part of a broader deal including the pullout of fighters, though state television said information indicated that an agreement had been reached.

The Syrian army command said on Saturday that it had regained most of the towns and villages in eastern Ghouta and was pressing military operations in Douma, the largest urban centre in the enclave outside Damascus.

Failaq al-Rahman reached a deal last month with the Syrian army under Russian auspices to give up a string of towns in eastern Ghouta they had controlled, in exchange for safe passage to Idlib.

Douma's fall would seal the rebels' worst defeat since 2016, driving them from their last big stronghold near the capital.

The once bustling commercial hub was the main centre of street protests in the Damascus suburbs against President Bashar al-Assad's rule that ignited the conflict seven years ago.

There was no immediate confirmation from the rebels, but pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan quoted "diplomatic sources" as saying the agreement would see fighters give up heavy weapons and leave Douma.

The retaking of eastern Ghouta would mark a major milestone in President Assad's efforts to regain control of territory seized by rebel factions during Syria's seven-year civil war. Backed by Russia, Mr Assad's forces have scored a series of victories over rebel forces in recent years, often through campaigns of siege, aerial bombardment as well as ground offensives that have drawn widespread international condemnation.

The Syrian Observatory, a Britain-based monitoring group, said yesterday's deal provides for Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families, as well as willing civilians, to be evacuated to rebel-held areas in the northern province of Aleppo. It will also see Russian military police enter the town and government institutions return to the area, the monitor said.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2018, with the headline 'Final evacuation deal reached for Syria's eastern Ghouta enclave'. Print Edition | Subscribe