Tuesday 19 June 2018

Big win for Assad as last rebel group in Ghouta pulls out

A Syrian regime member walks amid the destruction in Jobar in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. Photo: Getty Images
A Syrian regime member walks amid the destruction in Jobar in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. Photo: Getty Images

Dahlia Nehme in Beirut

The last Syrian rebel group in eastern Ghouta near Damascus began withdrawing yesterday under an agreement with the government, state media said, though a military source said a group of insurgents was still rejecting the deal.

Jaish al-Islam, which has been defending the eastern Ghouta town of Douma against a ferocious onslaught by Russian-backed Syrian government forces, has not confirmed the agreement with the government.

If confirmed, the departure of Jaish al-Islam from Douma would mark the end of the war for eastern Ghouta, wiping out an opposition stronghold near Damascus and underlining President Bashar al-Assad's unassailable position in the war.

It will mark his biggest victory over rebels fighting to unseat him since the recovery of eastern Aleppo in 2016.

Indicating divisions in Jaish al-Islam, a Syrian military source told Reuters some of the fighters were rejecting the deal and the army would use force unless they accepted it.

"They will all have to agree to the settlement in the end," the source said.

Syrian state TV said eight buses carrying 448 people - fighters and their families - had left Douma yesterday, en route for the north. State media has said the rebels are due to go to areas near the Turkish-Syrian border that are controlled by opposition groups.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said dozens of buses had entered Douma early yesterday in readiness to evacuate the rebels and their families to the northern towns of Jarablus and al-Bab, near the Turkish border.

The towns are located in a section of the Turkish-Syrian frontier where Turkey has carved out a buffer zone controlled on the ground by its military and allied fighters from Free Syrian Army rebel groups that are hostile to Mr Assad.

Under the deal, Syrian state media said Jaish al-Islam would hand over heavy and medium-sized weapons and acknowledge the restoration of the Damascus government's control of Douma.

The government lost control of Douma, the largest urban centre in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, in the early phase of Syria's civil war, which is now in its eighth year.

Thousands of rebels, their families and other civilians have already departed other parts of eastern Ghouta for Idlib province, another insurgent-held area of northern Syria.

Tens of thousands more people have fled to shelters in government-held territory near Ghouta.

Irish Independent

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