AMMAN: Hundreds of civilians evacuated the last rebel-held city in East Ghouta on Monday as rebel commanders there denied Syrian state media reports of a deal for fighters to leave.
Approximately 450 people left Douma city on Monday in an eight-bus convoy headed for opposition-held Jarablus, in northern Syria, local activists told Syria Direct. Pro-opposition media sources reported that all of Monday’s evacuees were sick and injured civilians.
Syrian state media also reported Monday’s evacuation, but claimed that the buses were transporting fighters with Jaish al-Islam—Douma’s dominant rebel faction—and their families.
Douma is the last rebel-controlled town in East Ghouta, a collection of rural, working-class suburbs east of Damascus. A months-long pro-government assault on the opposition-held enclave, followed by back-to-back surrender and evacuation deals in several cities and towns, has largely cleared East Ghouta of rebel forces.
Today, bombardment and fighting remains largely paused in Douma as negotiations between Jaish al-Islam and the Syrian government continue.
Jaish al-Islam officials have stated on multiple occasions that the faction will not consider any agreement stipulating the evacuation of its forces from Douma, while the Syrian government threatens to renew attacks on the city if rebels do not leave.
Syrian government soldiers and journalists in East Ghouta on April 2. Photo by Louai Beshara/Getty Images.
Half a dozen Jaish al-Islam commanders, fighters and media officials told Syria Direct on Monday that the latest evacuation included only wounded civilians, denying pro-government reports that rebel fighters had departed the city.
“Any report about our departure [from Douma] is inaccurate,” a Jaish al-Islam commander told Syria Direct on Monday. He did not wish to be named in this report for political reasons.
Rival rebels, civilian authorities evacuate
While Jaish al-Islam fighters insist that they continue to refuse any evacuation deal, a separate agreement saw 1,146 civilians and fighters with Failaq a-Rahman, another East Ghouta-based rebel faction, leave Douma for rebel-held Idlib province in northwest Syria on Sunday, Syrian state news reported.
The fighters who left Douma on Sunday were the last remaining Failaq a-Rahman forces in East Ghouta. A “small number” of fighters were sent as reinforcements to Douma earlier this year, Failaq spokesman Wael Alwan told Syria Direct on Monday, and became trapped when a major government offensive severed East Ghouta’s Jaish al-Islam-controlled north from its Failaq a-Rahman-held central sector on March 11.
Failaq a-Rahman signed onto an evacuation deal with the Syrian government late last month that saw all of the faction’s fighters and their families leave East Ghouta’s central sector, alongside thousands of civilians.
Sunday’s evacuation resulted from negotiations between Failaq a-Rahman and the Syrian government, spokesman Alwan said, adding that Jaish al-Islam played “no role whatsoever” in the evacuation deal.
While Jaish al-Islam and Failaq a-Rahman previously fought together against pro-government forces, the two factions share a long history of violent infighting for control of East Ghouta.
And, while Failaq a-Rahman maintains close ties with the rebel factions that rule the Syrian northwest, including the hardline Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) coalition, Jaish al-Islam does not.
A number of civilian Douma residents, including the city’s local council, several civil defense members and local activists, were among the 1,146 people who left the city on Sunday, pro-opposition sources reported.
The departure of civilian authorities followed a Saturday morning meeting between several major civil society organizations and Jaish al-Islam leadership in Douma, in which the former requested that civilians be given the option to evacuate, pro-opposition news outlet al-Modon reported at the time.