The arrival of thousands of Syrians from Douma to northern Aleppo represents the end of the siege in East Ghouta that lasted since 2013.
The city of al-Bab in northern Aleppo witnessed the arrivals of dozens of buses carrying thousands of Syrians who left the city of Douma in East Ghouta. Their arrival represents the culmination of a brutal siege that lasted since 2013 and was punctuated with a final act that has now become a hallmark of Syria’s seven-year war, a chemical attack that is believed to have killed between 50 and 100 people.
The capture and evacuation of Douma by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies comes after a 53-day battle that saw the rebels gradually lose their territories as a result of ground strikes supported by intense shelling and airstrikes. The city, held by Jaish al-Islam, was the last rebel holdout after Ahrar al-Sham was evacuated from the Harasta District and Faylaq al-Rahman was evacuated from the districts of Jobar, Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Arbeen.
For some time, there were hopes that a palatable outcome could be negotiated in Douma, sparing the embattled city further destruction. Indeed, earlier last week, there were some reports of civilians and some rebel fighters being evacuated from the city, giving the impression that the battle had come to an end. However, negotiations failed and clashes resumed on Friday, only ending after the chemical attack on Saturday after which Jaish al-Islam agreed to be evacuated. It would seem that since then, the significance of the evacuation has taken a backseat against that of the rising regional and global tensions between the United States and Russia.
For those who arrived in al-Bab, however, the scars of the evacuation and the withering siege they have experienced prior remain fresh. Many of them recount horrific stories of bombardments and their aftermath, up to and including the most recent chemical attack. Many were not supporters of the rebels but simply residents of Douma or the wider East Ghouta and resent the pro-Government forces for the non-stop airstrikes and siege conditions.
Curiously, the sentiment here is one that is not only sceptical of the pro-Government forces, but of Jaish al-Islam as well. Indeed, the group has not made many friends over the year. It is telling that the Turkish authorities in al-Bab, who were willing to accommodate thousands of other evacuees, have been unwilling to take in Jaish al-Islam, doing so only after being pressured. Even then, the authorities forced the militants to give up all their weapons. Meanwhile in Idlib, a number of rebel groups have already issued arrest warrants for Jaish al-Islam leaders.
Despite their victory, supporters of President Assad have been unhappy with the outcome as well. Part of the agreement involved Jaish al-Islam releasing of “thousands” of prisoners including soldiers and pro-Government civilians, some of whom were captured from the nearby town of Adra and were infamously paraded in cages in late-2015. In the end, however, only around 200 such prisoners were found, with the families of the missing now questioning the fate of their loved ones.
The evacuation of Douma, brings the final number of Syrians evacuated to Idlib and Aleppo at around 165,123, including 20,398 rebel fighters and 38,133 members of rebel families. Some 50,000 people are believed to have remained in East Ghouta, some 44,000 are believed to be in temporary camps around East Ghouta (Mostly in Wafidain and Jaramanah) and some 39,000 are believed to have moved to other parts of the Damascus Province.