On Monday morning, 3,800 people were evacuated from the Rastan Pocket in northern Homs, the last enclave under the control of the Syrian Opposition factions.
On Monday morning, 82 buses carrying some 3,800 Syrians arrived at the rebel-held town of Qalaat al-Madiq in northwestern Hama countryside. Their arrival here represents the latest addition to Syria’s growing population of people who have been displaced as a result of the “reconciliation” agreements, the most recent of which took place in the northern Homs De-Escalation Zone, also known as the Rastan Pocket.
Located in northern Homs and parts of southern Hama countrysides, the Rastan Pocket, named after its largest town, is one of the largest and most strategically-important rebel holdouts in Syria. Although smaller in population to the much denser East Ghouta, the rebel enclave occupied a critical spot along the M5 Highway running from Aleppo to Damascus. Despite its importance, however, the pocket did not experience anything beyond sporadic skirmishes over the past couple years. Over the course of this time, negotiations were conducted frequently, but bore no fruit. Meanwhile, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) continued whittle down the rebel presence in Ghouta, the Yarmouk Refugee Camp and the Eastern Qalamoun Mountains. In the end, the Rastan Pocket was left as the last rebel-held enclave in Syria.
The reconciliation agreement came on the heels of these developments and the SAA exerting increasing pressure on the rebels in the Rastan Pocket. Although the rebel factions there had initially expressed a desire to resist, many of them, including those controlling the towns of Talbisah and Rastan itself agreed to surrender. Those who agreed to stay signed a reconciliation document while those who agreed to leave, numbering at about 16,500 people including those evacuated on Monday, left for the rebel-held Idlib Province.
Not every rebel faction in the Rastan Pocket have agreed to surrender and evacuate. A group of factions controlling the town of Houla and its surroundings have vowed to resist. However, their prospects for a long-term future amidst gains by the pro-Government forces across the country remains dim.
Meanwhile, an uncertain future awaits those who have been evacuated. The evacuees were initially expected to be resettled in northern Aleppo, which is controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA). However, the authorities there have refused entry to the residents of Rastan, forcing many to reroute to Idlib instead. The province, which is already facing a humanitarian crisis due to the steady growth of the population and diminishing resources, will struggle to provide for these people.
The end of the rebel control over the Rastan Pocket leaves the Syrian Opposition in control of only parts of southern Syria (mostly Daraa and Quneitra), the Greater Idlib region (most of Idlib, western Aleppo and parts of Latakia and Hama), northern Aleppo (al-Bab and Afrin) and a small chunk of land in the Tanf region of the Syrian Desert in the far reaches of the Homs Province.