The battle for East Ghouta appears to be coming at an end. What is the future for the rebel fighters and families who have agreed to be evacuated to Idlib and Jarablus?
The battle for the East Ghouta suburb of Damascus appears to have reached its conclusion. Over the past weeks, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) took control of the Harasta District from Ahrar al-Sham, subsequently taking control of the districts of Jobar, Arbeen, Ain Tarma and Zamalka from Faylaq al-Rahman. Now, it would appear that the final rebel holdout of Douma has also surrendered, with the rebel group Jaish al-Islam being bussed out of East Ghouta since Monday. What will become of these fighters and their families who left East Ghouta?
The evacuation agreements in Syria have followed a standard pattern since becoming the norm of dealing with rebel holdouts during the siege of Homs City in 2014. Besieged rebels are given the option to either surrender or leave. Those who surrender are asked to sign a reconciliation document that promises not to take arms. Sometimes, they may serve shorter sentences or a short time in the army (as part of conscription). For understandable reasons, few rebel fighters pick this option.
Those who choose to evacuate are allowed to travel to another rebel holdout with their families, but are often not allowed to take heavy weapons with them. Since the SAA lost Idlib in 2015, the province has become the most frequent destination for rebel fighters. For the rebels, the journey to Idlib represents an opportunity to fight another day.
Both Faylaq al-Rahman and Ahrar al-Sham, who travelled to Idlib, will likely end up getting embroiled in intra-rebel politics, particularly the clashes between Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (JTS). The existing rivalries carried over from East Ghouta will almost certainly factor in the side they pick.
For instance, the Ahrar al-Sham franchise from East Ghouta will almost certainly join the JTS which was made of the merger of the main Ahrar al-Sham branch and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki.
Faylaq al-Rahman, in turn, may join with the HTS. Although a Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction and thus nominally against the HTS, the group had a pragmatic alliance with the HTS in East Ghouta. This partnership, however, earned it many enemies and may compel Faylaq al-Rahman to continue siding with the HTS. On the other hand, some Faylaq al-Rahman fighters have also shown an interest in joining the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA).
The interest in joining with the SNA may bring the group in renewed conflict with its sworn rival from East Ghouta, Jaish al-Islam. Unlike the other East Ghouta rebels, Jaish al-Islam specifically asked to be taken to the SNA-controlled city of Jarablus in northern Aleppo. The group reasoned that it had few friends and many enemies in Idlib, expressing fear that it could be exterminated.
The situation in Idlib itself is precarious. Earlier this year, the SAA halved the rebel-held land when it took Abu al-Duhur Airbase, once again gaining a foothold in the province after losing it in 2015. Furthermore, although under de-escalation agreement, the province continues to witness heavy airstrikes.
By agreeing to evacuate, the rebels from East Ghouta have saved themselves from a siege. But for many, life in Idlib will come with its own hardships.