Conflict

Dozens Of Buses Carrying Rebels And Their Families Leave East Ghouta

Syria

The rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman have agreed to be evacuated from East Ghouta to Idlib, leaving Jaish al-Islam as the only group still present.

The embattled East Ghouta suburb of Damascus has witnessed something of a calm for the first time in months. The source of the calm is a series of evacuations taking place in the districts of Harasta, Jobar, Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Arbeen after the rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman surrendered and agreed to be evacuated.

The evacuations represent a watershed moment for the future of East Ghouta, which has witnessed heavy fighting since 2012 and was placed under siege in 2013, enduring regular airstrikes and shelling amidst steadily deteriorating living conditions. Although the rebel factions were prevented from pushing further into government-held areas, the rebels, in turn, managed to prevent the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) from entering East Ghouta, resulting in a stalemate that has lasted for years. Only since the beginning of the year, and as a result of intense airstrikes and a heavy ground offensive was the SAA able to make gains in the suburb, ultimately cutting East Ghouta into three smaller pieces.

Ahrar al-Sham was the first to agree to be evacuated to Idlib, having always been the weakest faction in the region. The group cited its desire to protect the residents of Harasta from heavy fighting.

Next was Faylaq al-Rahman. Although the group, which controlled Jobar, Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Arbeen, issued defiant statements, the loss of its command centre in Ain Tarma and reports of defections and protests appear to have pushed the group towards agreeing to an evacuation deal on Friday.

Since then, approximately 13,000 rebel fighters and their families have been evacuated. Another 80,000 civilians are believed to have left the region and took shelter in the camps in government-held areas. Some 20,000 to 25,000 people chose to remain in the areas that are now under the control of the SAA. The Syrian Government, keen to restore its legitimacy in these areas that it has not controlled for half a decade, has been keen to portray itself as the source of stability and security, providing aid and working on restoring a number of services already.

The last rebel bastion left in East Ghouta is the city of Douma, under the control of Jaish al-Islam. It is unclear how many civilians remain there. The city has been quiet over the weekend, with no shelling and airstrikes as the group negotiated an evacuation agreement. Unwilling to travel to Idlib, the group has been lobbying to be taken to Daraa or the Eastern Qalamoun mountains. However, on Tuesday morning, there were reports of the negotiations failing and reports of resumed fighting.

In the event of a rebel defeat in Douma, Idlib, southern Daraa and northern Aleppo will be left as the main rebel strongholds.