Syria regime prepares evacuation, eyes Ghouta reconquest

A member of Syrian regime forces walks amid the destruction in Jobar in Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on April 2, 2018
AFP

Wafideen Checkpoint (Syria) (AFP) – Buses entered the last rebel holdout of Syria’s Eastern Ghouta on Tuesday in preparation for a possible second day of evacuations as the regime eyed the total reconquest of the enclave.

Evacuations of Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families from the former bastion’s main town of Douma started Monday under a Russia-brokered deal.

Jaish al-Islam has not yet confirmed the accord, amid reports hardliners within the group were refusing to leave their positions.

The reported deal is the latest in a string of agreements that have seen tens of thousands of people — rebels and civilians — leave the onetime stronghold outside Damascus for the north of the country.

Russia-backed regime forces have retaken control of 95 percent of Eastern Ghouta since February 18 through a combination of a deadly air and ground assault and evacuation deals.

The reconquest of Eastern Ghouta would mark a major milestone in President Bashar al-Assad’s efforts to regain control of territory seized by rebels during Syria’s seven-year civil war.

Buses entered the enclave on Tuesday to prepare for a second day of evacuations, a military source and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

But there were no reports of any having exited at the start of the afternoon.

“The operation could continue today or not. There are divisions among the Jaish al-Islam group on their leaving but we are continuing preparations,” the military source told AFP.

– ‘Will not leave’ –

In a first wave of the evacuations from Douma under the deal, more than 1,100 people — Jaish al-Islam fighters and family members — set off late Monday to the rebel-held town of Jarabulus in northern Syria, state news agency SANA said.

In the morning, an AFP reporter saw dozens of empty buses waiting by the side of the highway and near a government-held checkpoint used by the buses to enter and exit Eastern Ghouta.

The Observatory, which relies on sources on the ground, said the evacuations were set to continue on Tuesday but that divisions continued within the group.

“There is still a hardline wing in Jaish al-Islam that refuses the deal,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Jaish al-Islam has around 10,000 fighters in its ranks, the Observatory says.

In video footage published by the group online on Sunday, leader Essam al-Buidani told men in a mosque: “We will stay in this town and will not leave.”

But “those who want to leave should leave”, he said.

Monday’s evacuation came after more than 46,000 people — including fighters from other areas of Eastern Ghouta — left on buses to the northwestern province of Idlib, the last in Syria to remain largely outside regime control.

Backed by Russia, Assad’s forces have scored a series of victories over rebel forces in recent years, often through campaigns of siege, aerial bombardment and ground offensives that have drawn widespread international condemnation.

– ‘Spider’s web’ –

Before February 18, some 400,000 people in Eastern Ghouta had lived under regime siege for five years, facing severe food and medicine shortages.

The regime assault on Eastern Ghouta since mid-February has killed more than 1,600 civilians and caused tens of thousands to flee into regime-held territory.

Aid workers have criticised the living conditions in the temporary camps in government-controlled territory receiving the displaced.

On Tuesday, SANA quoted a military source as saying more than 40,000 people have returned to their homes in areas of the former rebel enclave.

Syria’s war has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Eastern Ghouta lies within mortar range of the capital, and last month the deadliest rebel rocket attack on the capital in months killed 44 civilians.

Rebels have left behind a labyrinth of tunnels under Eastern Ghouta, fitted with hospitals and military headquarters, and some of them wide enough to drive a car through. 

A Syrian army official who escorted journalists on a visit Monday described them as “a real spider’s web”.

SANA said the military also found two underground field hospitals, equipped with medical equipment and medicine.     

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